Peeking Inside Scotch Whisky Stalwart Cragganmore

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Cragganmore distillery in Ballindalloch, Speyside.

Day five of our single malt distillery sprint dawns with a crisp, cold morning, the skies clearing after the prior evening’s rain. Most of the snow has melted and the roads are blessedly free of cars as we hurry along the two-lane A95 from Dufftown to Banffshire. It’s our first daytime experience in the rural parts of Speyside outside of Dufftown and Rothes, and the sights are everything we’d hoped for–lush green farmland rolling as far as the eye can see, bridges over sparkling streams, and rugged low mountains in the distance. Today is our “Diageo Day,” with visits to two of the Scotch whisky powerhouse’s lesser known distilleries in store. Our first stop: Cragganmore.

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The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2016

While 2016 was a year many would have gladly skipped, here in the Cocktail Wonk corner of the boozy blogosphere, it’s been gangbusters for great experiences and stories. As I wrote my 2015 roundup post a year ago, I wasn’t altogether convinced that 2016 would be able to top it. Boy, was I wrong!

Over the past twelve months, I’ve written fewer straight-up spirit reviews and cocktail recipes and more long form essays. It’s taken a while to get to that level. The opportunities for unknown stories and fresh takes on topics are there to be found, but it requires waiting for the right contacts and opportunities to fall into place, as they did this year.

What follows is my take on the most important topics I covered this year. It’s an entirely subjective ranking on my part, without regard to actual page visit statistics. Some entries represent a single post that particularly resonated with readers, while others are a collection of posts.  Hyperlinks to the original posts are interspersed in the descriptions below.

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Touring Speyside’s Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Speyside.

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Bruichladdich Distillery – Stepping Back in Time and Into the Future

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay.

While on Islay, you’d be hard-pressed to skip visiting or at least not drive through scenic Port Charlotte, home of one of the nicest hotels on the island. Heading southwest on the A847 toward town, you have to work to keep your eyes on the road rather than gawk at the roving bands of sheep and splendorous views over Loch Indall to your left, just a few dozen yards away. Passing a cluster of white painted houses perched on the right side of the road, you might think you’re on the outskirts of Port Charlotte. Except that, blink once, you’ve passed by a white, two-story stone-walled compound. This is your first encounter with Bruichladdich– an Islay distillery vastly different than Laphroaig and Lagavulin, who get the lion’s share of this small island’s attention.

Sheep near Bruichladdich
Sheep near Bruichladdich

Our arrival at Bruichladdich coincides with a slight break in Storm Gertrude, which hammered Scotland with high winds exceeding 100 miles perhour at times—thankfully not while we were crossing open water in our car ferry two evenings before. During a short lunch break between our morning Bowmore tour and Bruichladdich, we stopped at infamous Bowmore round church for a quick peek at the grounds and found ourselves—hardly wee people, we sturdy Americans–barely able to stay upright as wind gusts hurled us around. So it was with great relief that we pulled into the protected courtyard of Bruichladdich, sheltering walls on all four sides.

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Bowmore – An Inside Look at the Legendary Islay Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bowmore distillery on the island of Islay.

1966 was a pivotal year in history:  The first episodes of Star Trek and Batman aired on U.S. television, the Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick Park, and the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. The first pictures from the moon were transmitted back to earth, and a certain wonkish cocktail aficionado was born in Fort Worth, Texas. And on a tiny island in the North Atlantic, eighteen-year-old Eddie MacAffer worked his first shift at the Bowmore distillery after having no luck finding other work during a seaman’s strike.

Quite literally starting at the bottom of the ranks, performing backbreaking work such as moving 500-pound barrels in the warehouse and turning over ton after ton of wet malt with a wooden shovel, Eddie worked his way up the ranks at Bowmore. Along the way he’s performed nearly every job at the distillery, so it’s only fitting that after all those years he became the distillery manager. These days he’s claiming he’ll retire soon, so we were extra lucky to have Eddie entirely to ourselves during a two-plus hour tour of Bowmore.

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Laphroaig – An Inside Look at the Canonical Islay Whisky Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Laphroaig distillery on the island of Islay.

Near the very beginning of a visit to the Laphroaig distillery, you come across a roomful of wellies, aka rain boots, neatly arranged in cubby holes. On a nearby wall, a box hold post-it note sized flags of various countries, a veritable United Nations of whisky loving countries. This is a sight not seen on any other distillery tour you’ve ever taken–what on earth is going on here?

Wellies at Laphroaig distillery
Wellies at Laphroaig distillery
Find your plot at Laphroaig distillery
Find your plot at Laphroaig distillery

The boots and flags are reserved for members of a special club. Friends of Laphroaig members have the rights to one square foot of land on Islay–land that protects Laphroaig’s access to the water source flowing from central Islay towards the distillery on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. Members who journey to Islay and to Laphroaig have the unique opportunity to visit their assigned plot of land and mark it with the flag of their homeland. The plots lay in an often muddy field near the distillery, thus the wellies. Becoming a Friends of Laphroaig member is as simple as purchasing a bottle and entering the unique six digit code accompanying it into Laphroaig’s online registry. Marketing gimmick? Sure. But is it a great story? Absolutely!

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Lagavulin – An Inside Look

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Lagavulin distillery on the island of Islay.

You’d like to think that on the one and only occasion of your fiftieth birthday, you’d have the luxury of waking up and lolling around in bed until you’re damn well ready start the day. Alas, on the occasion of my fiftieth, I faced the incessant chiming of my iPhone, willing me to action at 7:30 AM after all too short a slumber. In any other circumstance I’d hit the proverbial snooze button. But on this day, I was instantly on full alert: Time to get up, race downstairs, enjoy a hearty traditional Scottish breakfast by the fireside at our charming wee hotel, and be off. For today is the day I’ve anticipated for years – a visit to the powerhouses of peated single malt whisky: Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig, situated in an erstwhile row along the southern shores of Islay. Lagavulin will be our first stop.

Lagavulin has been around for 200 years—let that sink in a moment. The distillery gives its starting date as 1816, just a few years prior to the Excise Act of 1823 that touched off the modern era of Scotch whisky distilleries. However, it’s quite likely that “unsanctioned distillation” was going on at the Lagavulin site prior to 1816. Today it operates as one of the flagship brands of UK-based Diageo, the world’s largest spirit company. Lagavulin’s flagship expression is their 16 year, although there’s also the recently released 8 year (200th anniversary),  a 12 year and various special releases.

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Planning your Scotch Whisky Distillery Pilgrimage

If you’re a fan of Scotch single malt whisky, and really, why wouldn’t you be, a visit to the distilleries of Scotland increases your appreciation by an order of magnitude. Having recently completed a ten day trek through Speyside in the Scottish highlands, as well as the island of Islay, Mrs. Wonk and I agree it was the trip of a lifetime. While writing my earlier Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit article, I realized I had a ton of distillery visit planning trips to share, so I wrote this post to focus on those topics. A special bonus is that Mrs. Wonk joined me in writing this. She always handles the high level logistics of our trips (planes, hotels, etc…), and she’s a top notch writer with even more experience than I. You can find her insights in the second half of this post.

When planning a Scotland journey, the time of year when you visit matters a great deal. Summer may be ideal in terms of weather, but many distilleries aren’t distilling in the summer months—so there is less activity to see. During the spring and fall seasons, the most popular time to take on distillery visits, popular locations are often overwhelmed by visitors, yielding less than optimal conditions to linger a bit, meet the still operators, or maybe get a peek at something not on the usual tour.

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Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit

In January 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I crossed the pond to spend eight days the Islay and Speyside regions of Scotland, visiting as many whisky distilleries as possible during an all-too-brief visit. We battled snow, hail, fierce winds, flooded railway tracks, comically narrow roads, and tire-killing curbs. In the end, it was the trip of a lifetime, visiting thirteen distilleries and experiencing profound moments several times per day. Over the next dozen or so posts, I’ll share the stories of each distillery through words and photos.

On Islay:

In Speyside:

We also made appearances at Ardbeg and Aberlour, but circumstances prevented a full tour.

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