Craigellachie is a Speyside distillery, in the heart of the region, which is atypical of the lighter style of whisky popularised in the 1970s to the 2000s.
Lightly peated and funky Benromach bucks this trend, as does Mortlach which is often also described as a meaty spirit. Craigellachie is known to be quite sulphurous, which adds a layer of complexity to the palate. As Craigellachie is usually presented with a heavy sherry influence, the sulphur can be quite well integrated with the sherry and add richness rather than any “off” notes typically associated with the element. It’s also a heavy spirit in that it is thick and oily even at the standard official bottling strength of 46% ABV.
The current range as we know it has only been around since roughly 2013-14, when owners Bacardi began to make the distillery more widely available as a single malt. The bold but stylish typeface and heavy premium bottle were certainly on trend at the time, and many other distilleries have followed suit since.
The standard 13 year old offers a lot of flavour for the price point, whereas there is a big jump up to the 17 year old. The 13 year old standard release was reviewed by a relative newcomer to whisky on the Dramface review site and found to be a welcome change from the standard “approachable” malts.
I think we can say that Craigellachie walks that fine line between being approachable and having sufficient depth to appeal to the more seasoned whisky drinker. Beyond these teenage-age-statements prices get a little silly; only the richest whisky budgets will stretch to these bottles. Indie casks can crop up from time to time and are worth trying as Jigs found out.
The distillery character is often attributed to the use of worm tubs. These are traditionally large wooden vessels full of water in which the whisky passes via coiled copper pipes to cool on its journey to the spirit safe. Spirit within the still will increasingly become purer as heavy compounds continue to break down due to the extended interaction with the copper. Worms are also made from copper, but the influence is less significant than the effect of rapid cooling that captures the remaining heavy compounds and adds texture. As with anything there are exceptions to the general rule. Worm tubs are complex apparatus allowing for changes to the flow of fresh water and therefore the impact of the cooling effect.
Installation of the worm at Craigellachie. Photo courtesy of Salty Breeze TW.
Other distilleries with worm tubs include Talisker, the new Rosebank, Royal Lochnagar, Dalwhinnie, Edradour, Oban, Glenkinchie, Springbank and Pultney. In Speyside itself, Balmenach, Benrinnes, Glen Elgin, Speyburn, Ballandalloch, and Cragganmore, Mortlach and of course Craigellachie all have worm tubs. Not all produce a heavy style of spirit. Dalwhinnie is typically a lighter dram and Ballandalloch runs its worm tubs quite warm resulting in a lighter fruiter style as the copper-vapour reaction continues for longer. When I think of Speyburn I never think of heavy spirit but, in reality, I’ve had very little on which to form such an opinion, and it may well be influenced by final presentation when bottled.
Craigellachie has another trick up its sleeve when it comes to the meaty rich sulphurous note: the Glenesk maltings. Maltings are an aspect rarely championed by distilleries unless they have their own in-house traditional floor maltings. They’re important to Craigellachie, though, as the distillery has exclusive use of the only oil-fired malting drum at Glenesk. I assume the other drums will have been converted to gas firing. The oil firing leaves the grain with sufficient sulphurous notes to be detectable in the matured spirit.
The latest development in the core range is a limited collection of cask finishes. For this initial release, the spirit is initially matured in refill and recharred bourbon barrels and then finished in Bas Armagnac casks from the Gascony region in France. The press release suggested that Armagnac is also distilled with the use of worm tubs and it would appear that this has been the theme for the extended series of releases. However, a more detailed review of the process demonstrates significant differences between Aramgnac wine heaters and coolers and the worm tub, but there are indeed similarities.
The spirit was launched at the Speyside Whisky Festival at the end of April and can still be found in the UK at many of the big retailers, suggestive of a large outturn of bottles. The team at Craigellachie should be applauded for releasing special bottles in large numbers, as it puts off the flippers and rewards the drinkers. Glen Scotia do the same with their Campbeltown Festival releases. as did Tomatin with their French Collection
Cognac distillation apparatus.
Bas Armagnac is a type of French Brandy from a specific appellation or region. Typically alembic stills are used, a cross between standard pot stills and column stills. For a more detailed summary head to Frank’s article.
Alembic stills are used for a number of other spirits including Calvados, which includes a water cooling system similar to a worm tub. Cognac also uses a serpentin(e) arrangement and wine heater, so it would make a safe bet as one of the next finishes in this series from Craigellachie. Rums, on the other hand, typically use double retort stills and condensers, and so are unlikely to feature.
Craigellachie 13 Year Old Bas Armagnac Finish – Review
46% ABV. £55.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Characteristically rich. with a hint of struck match sulphur. Warm rich vanilla crème patisserie, sweetness from brown sugar, then ripe apple, baked pastry, tart apple sauce, pear, perfectly ripe peach, some soft baking spices, and a touch of limestone. Hard nectarine and white grapes give a bright fruitiness.
In the mouth: Initially unexpectedly nondescript, but this dram really opened up after the bottle had been open a week or so. The sulphurous aspect is more restrained than the nose, giving body and depth rather than a stand-alone distinct note. The body is full. Once the fruits break through there is sour apple, baked toffee apple, fruity but also a bit peppery, there are quite a lot of woody spices… perhaps from the French oak? There are hints of rechar cask, and a few notes shared with Tomatin Legacy, which has a lot of rechar casks in the recipe. The finish is fairly short and dry with some more minerality, the cubic chalk from an old-fashioned puncture repair kit.
A great alternative view of Craigellachie without the sherry. The Armagnac finish brings softness and roundness to the spirit but does not at all overpower, allowing the spirit character to sing through. Rechar casks add another layer of sweet baked goods and toffee flavour without being too forceful. Quite the summer dram, widely available in the UK and just £55. Happy days!