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Cragganmore Manager’s Dram 1975

I always have people telling me I’m lucky for being able to find and drink old and rare drams whenever I visit Japan. I never really thought I was that lucky. I just put in the research and most of it falls into place. But it’s all been easier to make sense of ever since I once heard that “one has to be prepared to be lucky”. I guess it makes sense. You’re less likely to be lucky, if you can’t catch a falling bag full of money because your hands aren’t stretched out.

This is the last of the samples I brought home from Bar Calvador. I asked Takayama-san for a recommendation and he chose this. I have never had anything from the Manager’s Choice line. Partly because they’re just so expensive and because they’re so hard to get. Missing out has never really bothered me. We all know a higher price point does not guarantee better quality. This applies especially to the limited-edition releases by the big brands meant to trigger the FOMO (fear of missing out) in people.

Since all of his recommendations have been great so far, I didn’t see any reason to say no. After all, how often will I get to try a pre-Diageo Manager’s Choice bottling made in the 1970s? Diageo was only formed in the late 90s for those who don’t know. I rarely say no to dusty whisky as well.

There are those who believe that old bottles of spirits are better. I am one of them. How old you might ask? It will depend on the person and the histories of the brand and/or distillery. But the general rule for me, is anything distilled from the 2000s and earlier. This is only my opinion as to the late 90s to mid-2000s was when the multinational conglomerates started forming, or acquiring more brands and distilleries.

Scotch enthusiasts who have been around for a long time will and can also point out that the quality isn’t what it used to be. And it’s not just about the age statements going away. No one really knows why the old stuff is generally better. There have been guesses such as the barley simply being better (for flavor) and longer fermentation times being a huge factor. (I agree with these two). There’s also a theory that the spirit has spent so much time in the bottle that it has changed or mellowed out. Modern bottles of spirits don’t get the chance to mellow out as they’re opened and consumed within months of bottling. I think this was something popularized by Compass Box’s John Glaser.

There are those who argue the quality of raw materials doesn’t affect the spirit. Fermentation is just a means to get on with distillation and casks are all that matter. The most common answer I’ll get is the casks back then weren’t as good as the casks we get now.

I’ll admit there can be truth in that. I’ve heard of arguments that made sense to me. Such as with the whisky market being weak back then, the distilleries may have invested less into cask management and maintenance. The demand for bourbon was declining. So, the supply of fresh ex-bourbon casks could have been less reliable. Scotch distilleries back then may have had to use casks until they were tired.

I think there are flaws in this though. I think the old sherry cask matured spirits are really better. Why? Sherry really spent years in casks as the demand for sherry was weak. The casks were given time to absorb the sherry characteristics properly. Modern sherry casks are just casks seasoned with sherry for a few months just so the brands can use the sherry cask marketing. I’ll agree that casks today are better looked after by coopers, I think people forget to count the quality of the oak as well.

I guess that oak staves today aren’t seasoned as long as they used to be. With more demand for American whisky, staves can’t be air-dried for as long as they once were. I’ve even heard of staves being kiln dried to have barrel supplies. There are those who will continue to say this is just a form of bias: or being sentimental? An interesting analysis I heard, was good and old bottles of spirits were just kept around for so long because of their reputation. Just like an era’s classic songs are still talked about today because they’re good. While old songs rubbish songs like old crappy brands are forgotten.

Whatever the case may be, the dusties I’ve had so far have been mostly outstanding.

This 17-year-old Cragganmore was distilled and aged in 1975. It was bottled in 1992 at 62% abv. The back of the label says “Chosen in competition by the distillery managers themselves from the very best each distillery has to offer. The Manager’s Dram represents a choice single malt from a selection of more than 100 of the finest whiskies.”

Each year, a blind nosing determines the winner in each of the categories, sherry cask and refill cask, bottled for the enjoyment of those who appreciate excellence.

Cragganmore Manager’s Dram 1975 – review

Colour: Amber.

On the nose: Unsurprisingly strong ethanol notes that carry scents of chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-covered strawberries, raisins, a floral berry jam, adzuki bean paste, raspberries and plums.

In the mouth: Strong and succulent cherry jam, strawberry jam and dark chocolate. There’s a hint of waxiness and adzuki bean paste just after the chocolate. Something creamy like hot cocoa and mocha latte with roasted barley. There are glimmers of them tasting like roasted coffee beans and a light stout at times. There are hints of Green Chartreuse and absinthe at the back. A leathery and more hints of absinthe come out as I swallow the whisky.

Conclusions

This is a very tricky whisky. I haven’t had a lot from Cragganmore, so I don’t know if this is normal for their whisky. The nose made me think this would just be another typical sherried Speyside. But sipping this really surprised me. From typical sherry notes it changes to earthy then a bit green. If the nose were more complex, I’d score this 1 point higher.

The more dusty bottles I try, especially sherry influenced spirits, the more I’m convinced old spirits are just really better. Modern ways seem more appealing, but there’s usually a stinky, or corrupt essence behind it that just reeks of greed and half-assedness.

Thanks to this whisky, I’ll be more open-minded about Cragganmore. It does have a good, but low-key reputation amongst the independent market.

Score: 8/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Nik says:

    Good review John. Could you elaborate on the reference to Compass Box and not letting the juice mellow bit?

    Cheers,
    Nik

    1. John
      John says:

      Hi Nik,

      John Glacer theorizes that a bottle of spirit does not need to be opened to change over time since there are pockets of air left in all bottles. So unopened bottles of spirits from the 1970s will have had much more time to oxidize and change. While more contemporary releases don’t have that much time to change in the bottle and are more likely to get opened early because there are more whisky drinkers now.

    1. John
      John says:

      Hi James,

      Auction sites would be the easiest answer. Aside from that, it’s best to know people who have great collections or know people who know people who have them. As you can see from my reviews, most of my old whiskey reviews come from bars in Japan.

  2. Avatar
    Nik says:

    Thanks John. Do you think whisky production back then would have also tried to match demand? If so bottles would have been opened as regularly as today? Air pockets and OBE are certainly factors as the glass used back then was not inert. I’m not too convinced about JG’s theory.

    1. John
      John says:

      Hi Nik,

      It depends on when the whisky was being made. If the production were in the 80s when plenty of distilleries were closing then I guess most were just producing to survive. But globalization wasn’t much of a thing then. Even if distilleries wanted to match demand, could they? It was much harder to source materials back then.

      Plus didn’t bottling and selling single malt only become a thing in the 60s thanks to Glenfiddich? So its safe to say the single market then was just starting.

      I’m not too convinced about JG’s theory as well. The only way we can prove it is to time travel I guess. Compare an unopened Glenlivet 12 from the 90s with an unopened Glenlivet 12 from today. Despite a lot of well educated whisky geeks I know not agreeing to this, I still believe that the materials and process changed along the way. Lesser quality barley, different yeasts, shorter fermentation and different way of heating the still. I take what some geeks say with salt as they work or used to work for big brands.

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