For many generations of Speyside residents, Craigellachie was usually known as 'The White Horse Distillery', due to the prominent blended Scotch branded logo that adorned its frontage.
This nickname was entirely appropriate, for Craigellachie was an archetypal example of the raft of sizeable distilleries that grew up on Speyside during the latter decades of the 19th Century, all dedicated to the greater good of fuelling global blends like the aforementioned White Horse. Single malt was a niche product, principally enjoyed by locals.
In the case of Craigellachie - also known as 'The Craig' - that view persisted until only a few years ago. However, the current 31 Years Old expression's achievement of being crowned World's Best Single Malt in Whisky Magazine's 2017 World Whiskies Awards, proves in decisive fashion that once consumers got the opportunity to sample the product, quality and character were there in abundance. But more of that later.
Craigellachie had all the hallmarks of a classic late Victorian Speyside distillery. It was designed by the Elgin-based doyen of distillery architects, Charles Doig, and was part-owned by Peter Mackie (of White Horse fame) and local distillery entrepreneur Alexander Edward, a landowner who went on to build Aultmore and own Benrinnes, as well as developing Benromach and Dallas Dhu distilleries on his Sanquhar Estate, near Forres.
The distillery was established during 1890/91 under the auspices of the Craigellachie Distillery Co, and two years later it was incorporated as a limited company and restructured as the Craigellachie-Glenlivet in 1898.
The legendary distillery-bagger Alfred Barnard by-passed the village of Craigellachie, close to the confluence of the Spey and Fiddich rivers, during his epic mid-1880s tour of British distilleries. The village, at that point, did not possess a distillery to bag, but he did visit a few years later as research for his pamphlet How to Blend Whisky.
During that expedition, he stayed in the Craigellachie Hotel, not long after its opening in 1893. The structure had been built on the site of the former Fife Arms, purchased by Alexander Edward the previous year, and Charles Doig was the architect of the new Craigellachie Hotel. Although it is difficult to imagine today, at that time the village was a major strategic railway hub, where four lines met, linking Speyside with the cities of Perth, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Barnard wrote of Craigellachie single malt whisky that, 'The chief characteristic of the Craigellachie brand is the pineapple flavour it develops with age. It matures also very rapidly, eighteen months' whisky having the appearance of three to four years old. It will be in its prime in about five years.' The distillery was equipped in modern fashion, and set up to produce a lighter, fruitier style of fast-maturing spirit than many existing Speyside enterprises.
In 1916, Mackie & Co (Distillers) took complete control of Craigellachie, and the firm - now renamed White Horse Distillers - went on to be acquired by the Distillers Company in 1927. Much of Doig's original distillery was demolished in 1964/65, when the present production buildings were created, with a distinctive DCL 'house-style' glass-fronted stillhouse at its heart. The number of stills was doubled to four during the reconstruction programme, and one of the few elements of the old distillery to survive was the pagoda-headed maltings.
Craigellachie continued supplying malt for various DCL/United Distillers & Vintners' blends, including White Horse, which was one of the world's best-selling blended Scotches through the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in 1998 Craigellachie was one of four distilleries sold to Dewar's parent company, Bacardi, by United Distillers & Vintners, and the prominent White Horse logo which had adorned the distillery for many years was finally removed.
Craigellachie now became a significant component of the Dewar's White Label blend, and continued to have an ultra-low-profile as a single malt until 2014, when Dewar's announced the launch of its 'Last Great Malts' initiative.
This involved releasing a range of aged expressions from each of its five Scottish distilleries. While Aberfeldy was already well-known to consumers, Aultmore, The Deveron, Royal Brackla and Craigellachie were altogether less exposed. In the case of Craigellachie, only a 14-year-old 'house' expression had been available for the previous decade, but now 13, 17, 19 and 23-year-old bottlings appeared, followed by the award-winning 31 Years Old variant, bottled at 52.2% ABV, in April 2016.
At the time of the initial launch in 2014, a Dewar's spokesperson said that, "Craigellachie has released a portfolio of single malts for the first time in history. The distillery stays true to its traditions of whisky-making, including the use of worm tubs - so called for their coiled copper tubing - to cool the spirit. A challenging Speyside whisky, it was described as 'old-fashioned' even in 1891 as it makes no concessions to modern-day trends. Single malt fans appreciate Craigellachie for its remarkable sulphuric, savoury, meaty character."
Although we may question whether the distillery was really considered 'old-fashioned' during its earliest years, the Craigellachie brand makes strong visual use of its stills and worm tubs in promotional and packaging material. It employs them to differentiate the character of Craigellachie from the majority of single malts, declaring that, 'nothing else gives a dram as much backbone'.
Until 2014 the worm tubs in question were made of cast iron, but in that year, were replaced by stainless steel vessels, in which the old worms were installed. The use of worm tubs tends to lead to a heavier and 'meatier' style of whisky compared to the more common shell and tube condensers, as there is less copper contact with the spirit.
Clearly, consumers have been impressed by the individuality of Craigellachie, culminating in the award of World's Best Single Malt for the 31-year-old variant. Georgie Bell, global malts ambassador, declares that, "Since launching, Craigellachie has built up a huge reputation in the on-trade and with whisky connoisseurs, it's sought out and admired, and the accolade is true testimony to this. It shows how far the Craigellachie brand has come in the last three years, and how from a production, maturation and blending perspective we really are second to none."
Today's Craigellachie village may have lost all vestiges of its former importance as a railway centre, but it punches well above its weight in the world of Scotch whisky, boasting two of the best whisky bars on Speyside, in the shape of The Highlander Inn and the famous Quaich Bar in the nearby Craigellachie Hotel. As if that was not enough, the renowned Speyside Cooperage with its excellent visitor facilities is to be found on the outskirts of the village.
The distillery does not admit visitors, but both local hostelries are well supplied with its produce, so it is possible to savour a distinctive dram from 'The Craig' very close to its home.