Distillery Focus

Cragganmore: the reclusive classic

Gavin Smith coaxes this hermit crab distillery out of its shell
By Gavin D. Smith
Unlike some Speyside distilleries, Cragganmore has to be searched for. It is certainly worth the search, however, as it remains essentially a classic, whitewashed, ‘courtyard’ construction, occupying an idyllic location in a hollow at the end of a minor road which curves Spey-wards from the main A95, just to the west of Bridge of Avon.There may be something symbolic about this, as the single malt produced at Cragganmore enjoys a degree of exclusivity and near under-exposure, despite being part of United Distillers & Vintners Classic Malts line-up. While there may be fewer salmon in the Avon these days, and the course of the old Strathspey Railway is now part of the Speyside Way Long Distance Route, it is still easy to believe that everything remains much as it was when Alfred Barnard paid a visit in 1886, while researching his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom:About two miles from Cragganmore we diverged from the main road and began to descend into the valley; we passed the palatial entrance to the castle of Ballindalloch, and immediately afterwards crossed the bridge over the river Aven [sic], a fine stream, which takes rank as the third in Scotland for salmon fishing… Cragganmore is situated in the heart of a mountain district, and close by the river Spey. The beauty of the Spey valley is enhanced by the contrast it offers to the wild and rugged scenery around it. The surrounding slopes are adorned with graceful birches and the irregularities of the hills give endless variety to the scene and enhance its grandeur. At the foot of the hill we passed the Ballindalloch railway station, then crossed the bridge, rather a dangerous one, over the burn, and in ten minutes arrived at our destination.Cragganmore Distillery was established in 1869 by the literally larger-than-life figure of John Smith. Smith was born in 1833, and was a man of such bulk that his favoured mode of transport was the guard’s van of trains. His 22-stone frame simply would not fit through carriage doors.The railway played a key roll in the location of Cragganmore, as it did in so many Speyside distilleries founded during the Victorian era. It was the first distillery on Speyside to be built in close proximity to the Strathspey Railway line, boasting its own siding from Ballindalloch station. The current house label features an etching of a steam train, commemorating the first ever Whisky Special which carried 16,000 gallons of whisky out of Ballindalloch in 1887. By the time he came to establish Cragganmore, John Smith was a very experienced distiller, having learned his craft at six different Speyside distilleries during the previous two decades. He had managed Macallan, and was responsible for starting up the current Glenlivet Distillery at Minmore in 1858. Indeed, it has been suggested that Smith was an illegitimate son of Glenlivet’s founder, George Smith. After a short period at Glenlivet, John Smith spent seven years away from his native Speyside managing Clydesdale Distillery at Wishaw in Lanarkshire, before returning to take the lease on Glenfarclas in 1865. Five years later, he was granted a lease for three acres of Ballindalloch Estate land at Ayeon Farm, not far from Glenfarclas, by Sir George Macpherson-Grant, and Smith proceeded to build the first new distillery to be established in the area since the 1840s.Greenstone for use in parts of the distillery construction was quarried from Craggan More Hill, where springs form the Craggan Burn, which provides process water for the distillery below. The water is relatively hard, perhaps adding to the acknowledged complexity of the finished whisky.According to Alfred Barnard, “The Whisky is pure Highland Malt, and the annual output is 90,000 gallons, all purchased by Messrs. James Watson & Co., Scotch Whisky Merchants, Dundee, ever since the Distillery has been established. They first introduced it to the market, and to them its success is mainly owing”. Smith’s son, William, actually ran the distillery once it opened, and when John Smith died in 1886, a body of trustees operated the business, led by his brother, George, who managed Dufftown’s Parkmore Distillery at the time. In 1893, Smith’s youngest son, Gordon, assumed control of the business, and he proceeded to rebuild much of the distillery in 1901 and 1902, despite the fact that it was only some 30 years since its establishment.That the capital was available to undertake this venture at a time when the Scotch whisky industry in general had entered a severe slump says much about the desirability of Cragganmore even in such a depressed market. Gordon Smith had previously gained experience as a distiller in South Africa, and he employed the doyen of distillery architects, Charles Doig, to rebuild Cragganmore. When Gordon Smith died, the distillery was sold to the Cragganmore-Glenlivet Distillery Co Ltd, which was jointly owned by the Ballindalloch Estate and White Horse Distillers Ltd. When Peter Mackie took White Horse into the Distillers Company Ltd in 1927, Cragganmore became a partly-owned subsidiary of DCL, which acquired the remaining shares in 1965-66. Subsequently, the distillery passed by way of United Distillers to its present operator, United Distillers & Vintners.Today, Cragganmore is managed by Stuart Robertson, who works with eight production staff, and relishes the blend of ambassadorial and practical whisky-making roles his job comprises. Robertson’s distilling career began in UDV’s maltings at Roseisle, on the Moray Firth coast, north-west of Elgin. He subsequently undertook a management training course, spending three and a half years based at Linkwood and Glen Elgin Distilleries before securing his present position at Cragganmore in January 1999. When it came to choosing a Speysider for the Classic Malts range, Cragganmore faced stiff opposition from a number of United Distillers’ plants in the region, most notably, Mortlach in Dufftown. Indeed, had Mortlach enjoyed a more picturesque setting it may well have been selected for the honour.When asked why he believes that Cragganmore was chosen as the Speyside ‘Classic Malt’, Robertson simply says “it’s one of the best Speyside malts UDV has got”. This view is echoed by other leading industry figures. One rival whisky company’s Chief Executive confesses that Cragganmore, rather than any of his own single malts, is his favourite dram. Robertson’s view is that “It’s very complex, with a lot of flavour. Smoky and malty, and it lingers. It’s got a great finish.” Cragganmore has managed to blend the traditional with the innovative in a very successful manner, and earlier this year the plant underwent a major programme of automation, which comprised, according to Robertson, “everything from the malt intake through milling to the tun room sequence. This has had the effect of freeing up time, and the staff have more flexibility and greater responsibility – they can be making decisions now that the brewer used to make.” Previously, the newest development had been a state-of-the-art Lauter mash tun, introduced in 1997. “It’s very efficient”, says Robertson. “The wort runs off quickly, keeping the enzymes intact. You need to get it into the washbacks as soon as possible to achieve maximum secondary fermentation, and this tun certainly helps with that.” Keen to maintain the traditional appearance of Cragganmore, the new stainless steel vessel was duly clad in pine, and crowned with the old tun’s copper dome.The tun room is equipped with six traditional, Oregon pine washbacks which produce 12 mashes of six to eight tonnes each every week, while the still house remains a place of hand-operated valves and idiosyncrasies.Cragganmore’s pair of spirit stills (pictured below) are of an unusual design – flat-topped, and with ‘T’-shaped lye pipes rather than the more usual ‘swan-neck’ style connecting the top of the still with the worm tubs, which are still used to condense spirit.According to Stuart Robertson, “the design of the stills effectively puts a ‘choke’ in the system. With these ‘T’-topped stills only certain vapours go over into the lye pipe – most of it is redistilled time and time again, which adds to the complexity of the spirit. It really has to fight to get over the top. John Smith was an extremely knowledgeable and experienced distiller, so he probably tried various heads on the stills and found this design gave him the character he was looking for.” Today Cragganmore produces some 1.5m litres of alcohol per year, equivalent to around 330,000 gallons, with the capacity of the plant having been doubled in 1964 when a second pair of stills was installed. As late as 1951, however, a waterwheel was still being used to provide power, as National Grid supplies only became available in the area during that year.Cragganmore’s current output figures place it in the middle rank of UDV’s Speyside operations. “Dufftown is the biggest”, notes Robertson, “making 3.6m litres, while at the opposite end of the scale Lochnagar is the smallest, turning out just half a million.” “Between three and five per cent of Cragganmore is sold as single malt, and it’s very popular in Scandinavian countries and the USA. In total, we probably sell some 60,000 cases per year, but Cragganmore is also very important to a lot of our blends. It certainly goes into Old Parr, Johnnie Walker Black Label and Bell’s”. It may seem strange that one of the six heavily promoted Classic Malt distilleries has fought shy of actively encouraging visitors, but Stuart Robertson says “the marketing people like the idea of its exclusivity, I think, but for the first time this year we are going out and advertising our visitor facilities. The Friends of the Classic Malts are welcome at any time of year by appointment, and the general public between June and September, Mondays to Fridays, when we’ll run three tours a day. We never want it to become too commercial, we don’t want the public side to overtake things”. The visitor centre is comfortable and unpretentious, with the main reception room being presented in Victorian style, featuring distillery artefacts and some fascinating photographs, not to mention John Smith’s generously proportioned, specially commissioned office chair. In return for their admission fee, visitors are treated to a video presentation, a tour of the plant, and a tutored nosing and tasting session, not to mention tea and biscuits.As Barnard observed, Ballindalloch Castle is just across the river Avon from the distillery, and it has been home to the Macpherson-Grant family since 1546. Although they now have no formal involvement in the distillery, its water supply passes over Ballindalloch Estate land. “We have always enjoyed a good relationship with the castle”, notes Robertson, “and they have casks maturing on site, as they have done for many years”. Cragganmore no longer boasts its own warehouse squad to fill casks for local lairds, or anyone else for that matter. A ‘flying squad’ of company warehousemen arrives every Tuesday to transfer the week’s make into wood. As it is produced, the spirit is pumped into a 59,000 litre vat in the warehouse, where a computer controls all filling procedures. Around five per cent of the spirit is matured on site for eventual single malt bottling, while the rest is taken away for blending purposes.“We use second- or third-fill sherry casks, and the rest is ex-bourbon wood”, says Robertson, who is aware that some independent bottlings have tended to over emphasise the sherry on occasions in comparison to the house style. “We don’t want to mask the complex character of Cragganmore too much with sherry”, he stresses. “In addition to the standard 12-year-old, we now do a 1984 port wood finish version, which spends up to nine months in port wood after its main period of maturation”. Drinkers and distillery buffs who seek out the whisky or its place of production are certain to be more than happy with the result. A classic malt from a classic distillery