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Cragganmore 12 Years Old and Rare By Nature

Fuller-bodied and (usually) more complex spirits such as certain rums, French brandy and Mezcal have been my preferred drinks as of late. This is due to most readily available whisk(e)y not hitting the spot for me.

I tend to not prefer wood-forward spirits anymore since I left my “termite phase.” Termite is a term I recently heard from Eric Kaye of Holmes Cay. It refers to people who like their spirits wood-forward. Complaining about bourbon being wood-forward may sound foolish, for example, but oak flavors don’t have to dominate it. Among the better-known brands who are more grain or distillate-focused, Four Roses Single Barrel is a great one. The market is also starting to get flooded with American whiskey finished or double-matured in ex-wine casks. American whiskey is starting to look like Scotch, isn’t it?

At the same time, there are times when I think that Scotch is slowly morphing into forms similar to American whiskey due to its over-reliance on wood flavor. Again, being over my termite phase, I’m prefer to taste the distillate’s character or, as some say, “distillery DNA.” There have been too many recent first-fill ex-sherry cask releases by Scotch brands. The market is flooding with overpriced half-assed sulfur bombs of ex-wine cask finished Scotch that tend to “clickbait” and disappoint consumers.

We all know the story with Japanese whisky and “Japanese” whisky. Despite being tasty, both are usually overpriced and hard to find.

Irish whisky is something I still need to explore more, but the majority of the brands are not available where I am. I already put in a lot of patience, chance and effort in getting lesser known rum and brandy, and for now, I’d rather invest in those than whisky.

As a result, I’ve been mainly focusing on ex-bourbon refill cask-aged single malt Scotch that come from distilleries with worm tub condensers. Whisky that comes from distilleries with worm tubs tends to have more character. By character, I mean it’s more full-bodied, more layered and “dirtier” compared to your clean and “smooth”-tasting supermarket brands like Glenlivet and Glenmorangie. It’s common knowledge among the well-learned whisky folks that worm tub condensed whisky have more character, mainly due to less copper contact during the distillation. The lack of copper contact means less sulfur are separated from the distillate. More sulfur in the distillate lends to more flavor and character in a spirit.

Shell and tube is now the most commonly-used type of condenser in the Scotch single malt industry. I think it’s mainly due to the cleaner spirit it produces. Clynelish is the easiest exception to this, but I’ve also heard that worm tubs can be a pain to work with since they’re inconsistent. They also take up a lot of space, which is why the ones in distilleries like Dalwhinnie, Mortlach and Old Pulteney are all outdoor. Before the creation of shell and tube, the only choice of condenser was worm tubs. Sadly, I have no idea when the Scotch industry started their shift to using more shell and tube condensers. I even asked Diageo’s Senior Global Brand Ambassador, Ewan Gunn, this question, and he doesn’t know.

The only type of condenser I know of that’s older than worm tubs are the bowls of water placed on top of the clay pot stills used by Mezcal distillers. The bowl has cool water in it. Below the bowl is a spoon or something else that catches the condensed distillate after the distillate, in steam form, touches the bowl’s bottom. I also just recently learned that clay is also good for separating sulfur from distillate. These bowls of water are still used today by Mezcaleros. They’re just not preferred for industrial scale production. I’m guessing making too large of a clay pot still would result in structural integrity issues.

Cragganmore has always been a distillery that flies under the radar. I didn’t really see it when I traveled around Asia. Its lack of variety doesn’t help with its visibility, either. Aside from the regular 12 year, there’s the Distiller’s Edition and the 25 year. It’s a single malt I’ve always liked having at bars once in a while. The last time I had any at a bar was this Cragganmore Manager’s Dram 17 year old in Kyoto.

Having the 12 year old for the first time around six years ago left a good impression. Despite being another worm tub-condensed single malt, like the Dalwhinnie 15, I didn’t find anything unpleasant about this. The sulfuric and coarse texture I didn’t like in the Dalwhinnie wasn’t present in the Cragganmore 12. I remember it tasting fuller and having more textures than the more accessible Diageo single malts, so I was pleased when this was part of the virtual tasting I had with Ewan Gunn. The tasting also made me buy a Cragganmore 12 Rare by Nature 2019. I don’t really like buying Diageo special releases due to the high pricing and usually disappointing quality, but this is a rare medium-peated Cragganmore. I just had to give it a go. The regular ones are lightly peated.

Additional Cragganmore notes from Mr. Gunn are: Fermentation time in wooden mash tuns are around 50 to 80 hours. It uses the same yeast as Dalwhinnie. Longer fermentation means more production of congeners. More congeners mean more flavors.

Cragganmore 12 Years Old – Review

40% ABV. £37.95 from The Whisky Exchange. $60 locally. $70 from Total Wine.

Color: Amber.

On the nose: Initial aromas are tart, medium intense apples, grape jelly, vomit , cranberries and raspberries. Lingering at the front to the middle is a light, earthy, creamy and smoky aroma. Think of smelling a freshly-poured espresso where the crema is still untouched; the texture on the nose makes me think of that.  I assume this is due to the lightly-peated barley. The tart acidity is still present and even a bit more pronounced now. It’s starting to make me think of cherry jam with light banana jam, salted peanuts and digestive biscuits.

In the mouth: Immediately fruitier at the beginning. I get medium tastes of grape jelly and an assortment of dark berries. At the end of this layer is a light bitterness which makes me think of cloves, nutmeg, tannins, fried Chinese peanuts with the skin and fried ginger bits. Further at the end are lighter tastes of dehydrated lemon and orange peels. More sips lead to the peat being more expressed. It’s like a slightly smoked mocha.

Conclusions:

An absolutely good whisky. This doesn’t have the sharpness I get from the Dalwhinnie 15, which makes me think this is a good single malt to introduce to drinkers who haven’t had any worm tub-condensed single malt yet. Assuming it’s available where you are, that is.

There are no gaps or dull moments in this. It’s full of flavor and is pretty well-layered. I get no unpleasant notes. A good example of every 40% ABV whisky not being boring.

Score: 6/10

(if using TWE or local price)

Cragganmore 12 Rare by Nature 2019 – Review

58.4% ABV. £85 upon release. $150+ locally.

Color: White tea.

On the nose: Noticeably smokier compared to the regular 12 year. The smoke and peat also make the fruity notes seem more sour than tart. The same fruity notes are there, but they’re more pronounced due to the higher ABV. I get grape jelly, cherries, an assortment of berries and apples.

The smoke initially hides the other aromas, but after sitting in the glass for about ten minutes, the smoke dissipates. Pronounced and lasting aromas of honeysuckle, ripe mango skin and an assortment of berries come out. At the end are light aromas of tea, dried mango, peaches and nectarines.

In the mouth: Similar to the nose, the smoke hides some of the characteristics. Upon being poured from the bottle, it tasted smokier and peatier. The peat is nothing like the Islay peat that gives off a medicinal and coastal taste. This is just more smoke with an earthiness to it. The smoked mocha I got in the regular 12 year is what I tasted first, but it’s immediately followed by sour fruit notes I got on the nose. A hint of honeysuckle comes out at the end.

After sitting in the glass for ten minutes, the peat also dissipates. The sour fruits liven up and become tarter. The smoked mocha taste moves to the back but is just as intense. Actually, the tart fruit notes envelope the whole dram and become the dominant note. At the end are light tastes of honeysuckle, elderflower, slightly smoked tea, and plums.

Conclusions:

This is like a two-in-one whisky. At first, it’s very uncommon, and a peatier Cragganmore at cask strength. The peat and smoke is the dominant character. Peatheads may find the peatiness of this underwhelming, but it’s a new and different experience.

After being in the glass for about ten minutes, it’s more like a regular Cragganmore 12 that’s just bottled at cask strength. Anyone who loves the fruity and tart notes the regular Cragganmore 12 has will love this one, too.

As someone who is also weary of recent limited-edition single malt Scotch being unbalanced due to wood-heavy and even sulfuric tastes (from ex-wine casks), this limited edition is a breath of fresh air. That said, would I buy it again? No. It’s good to try something new and different, but the pour really didn’t make my heart skip. Do I regret buying the bottle? No.

Score: 7/10

(8 if bought at price upon release)

Cragganmore 12 image courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.

CategoriesSingle Malt
John

John is a cocktail and spirits enthusiast born and raised in Manila. His interest started with single malts in 2012, before he moved into rum and mezcal in search of malterntaitves – and a passion for travel then helped build his drinks collection.

  1. Tony says:

    Hey John, I have to ask…..vomit? Was that a mistake or did you really pick up that note in the nose of the 12? I’ve picked up a trace of cat urine once while nosing a bourbon and was surprisingly not put off by it, but I’m not sure I could ignore vomit! Did it just blend well with all the fruity notes? I’ll probably have to pick up a bottle now just to smell for myself….like a wreck you can’t keep from staring at. 🙂

    1. John says:

      Hi Tony, the nose has this really acidic character to it. That cocktail of acidity and fruit aromas just made me remember my pukes back in the day. Also, a certain acid produced during fermentation gives off a vomit character.

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