When you are a whisky lover, there are many places to visit, but one of the most magical is in the north-east of Scotland, in what is commonly called SPEYSIDE (remember the HIGHLAND'S sub-region) .
Imagine a Mickey fan going to DISNEY in Orlando! Well, SPEYSIDE's, that’s it!
This is where I will take you today to visit the mysterious CRAIGELLACHIE distillery and three of its distillates: 13 YEARS, 17 YEARS and 19 YEARS.
But before that, let’s discover this emblematic place.
Imagine, you are arriving from the north coast of Scotland. You have already felt dizzy when passing a town like ELGIN or a village like ROTHES. In less than 30 minutes, you have just seen names such as GLEN MORAY, BENRIACH, GLEN ELGIN, COLEBURN, SPEYBURN and even THE MACALLAN ESTATE.
The A941 goes back down to the SPEY river valley (SPEYSIDE in English in the text – we must be in the right place) and there is a dilemma.
Once you have crossed the bridge at the entrance to the village of CRAIGELLACHIE (just the name but I will come back to it in more detail), you pause to look at the stone towers of the Old Craigellachie Bridge and to make a crucial point.
If you continue straight the sign indicates CHARLESTON OF ABERLOUR (and you also see noted, GLENALLACHIE, ABERLOUR, GLENFARCLAS, GLENLIVET….), on your first left the direction of KEITH (STRATHMILL, STRATHISLA..) with a road which spans the Fiddich river and just a little further on a second road on the left where the direction of DUFTTOWN is indicated (THE BALVENIE, THE GLENFIDDICH, MORTLACH…).
The real advantage of this strategic point, which could be “the center of the center of the whisky world”,
is that even without a drop of alcohol, it intoxicates you!
Situated at the top of the village on a green lawn (Scottish) and against a backdrop of blue sky (spey), the building topped with a pagoda roof of the mysterious distillery which takes its name from its village: CRAIGELLACHIE. It is not for nothing that the name of the village means “rocky hill” in Gaelic.
I know that it is not open to visitors but due to a misunderstanding... So I enter the car park and park below a large building decorated with large bay windows. As I approach, once the reflection of the Speyside sun fades, I see 4 large plump stills.
On the front of the building we read, in large red letters, the name of the current owner of the premises JOHN DEWAR & SONS Ltd but on the side it is the name of CRAIGELLACHIE Distillery which is written. And it is on this side of the building that I turn in search of a door.
Walking along the building I pass under the worm tubs which make up part of the taste of its distillate and finally see a door. As it costs nothing to try your luck I knock…
To my great surprise, it’s Matthew Cordiner, an old acquaintance, who opens the door, wearing a big smile as always! I think I'm lucky! Who better than him (as Brand Ambassador of the brand) knows the distillery?
He is surprised to receive visitors because, although in the epicenter of Speyside and on one of the most traveled routes by malt lovers, the distillery is not one of the usual tours and he is not often disturbed .
He told me that I was in good luck because he was getting ready to taste the new 19 year old (released this year).
He takes me through the distillery for a little tour and suggests that I do a tasting of the 13, 17 and 19 year olds! A great bargain!
The distillery produces a lot but it is quite compact in the center of the village, surrounded by the road and the Fiddich river. It begins in the brewing room (with its stainless steel tank) which has the particularity of being neither more nor less located under the pagoda roof which formerly housed the barley drying oven.
He took the opportunity to give me a quick history of the distillery and explained to me what brought it into the fold of John Dewar & Sons (and the Bacardi group) since 1998.
Matthew explains to me that the distillery was built in 1891, at the request of two owners Sir Peter Mackie and Alexander Edward (who thus created Craigellachie-Glenlivet Distillery Company).
It is these two names that remain proudly displayed on the labels of the house's bottles (Edwards & Mackie).
In 1927, it was purchased by Distillers Company Limited (which later merged with International Distillers & Vinters to become one of the foundations of the Diageo group).
This brings us to the fact that the distillery, like many of its sisters, was part of Diageo and like many others also bore the brunt of the anti-monopoly dismantling of the group.
After passing through the company United Distillers & Vintners in 1987, it was in 1998 that the Craigellachie distillery (and Aultmore further east) was sold to John Dewar & Sons on the occasion of the latter's purchase by Bacardi .
Matthew then logically leads me to the fermentation room where I can discover the 8 large wooden vats where the yeasts quietly nibble (for more than 60 hours) their sugar.
He then took me to the still room which I could see from the road. There 4 big chubby babies transform the wash into a sweet elixir. Matthew takes the opportunity to tell me that it is since 1964 that the latter have increased from 2 to 4 and offer a forbidden spectacle to passers-by on the whisky route.
For the end of the visit, Matthew takes me to the roofs of the distillery just behind the still room to show me what makes it special!
Its 4 open-air tanks filled with recognizable brownish water (from the Speyside mountains). The famous Warm Tubs from Craigellachie! The distillery has remained faithful to its origins and has chosen to condense its vapors outside in condensers containing submerged circular tubes whose diameter reduces as they descend!
And what comes out of these tubes? Well, naturally, a transparent liquid which will be colored on contact with the wood of the barrel. Sui liquid has long been used to make White Horse whiskies and is used in the various DEWAR'S blends, but which can also be deliciously discovered as a single malt!
This is how Matthew then accompanies me, into what was formerly the barrel repair workshop for certainly the best moment of a visit….the tasting.
Before embarking on the tasting, Matthew presents me with his first whisky which has a beautiful deep gold color with copper highlights hidden behind its yellow label. It reminds me if necessary that it was designed by Stéphanie Macleod like all the distillates of the Dewar's group.
He explains to me that although the distillery participates quite extensively in a good number of blends, it keeps a good part of it in its warehouse to distribute it as single malt.
The one we have in the glass has spent 13 years in barrels. First of all, partly in ex-bourbon casks and ex-sherry casks. Once assembled, half of it was distributed into a new first-fill sherry barrel and half into a new first-fill ex-bourbon barrel. A “crossed” aging of 13 years in total.
The nose of this whisky shows quite marked malty notes mixed with sweet notes of counted apple. We can feel some spices emerging but very much in the background.
In the second passage, we can note notes of almond and cinnamon and a rise in the power of spices with peppery notes. The distillate tends to cool as it passes through the glass.
On the third pass, it even seems herbaceous and even floral. We can even detect lemony notes.
The palate is voluptuous with beautiful sweet notes of apples. We then detect a nutty taste which brings the palate to more vanilla notes. Then come spices, with a touch of pepper and ginger, which awaken sleeping taste buds in this cozy atmosphere. Subsequently, it will become more velvety with a awakening of barley notes and a return of sweet and even honeyed notes on a spicy background.
When you swallow it, you will get a burst of ginger. It will have a nice length in the mouth with roasted barley and notes of nuts.
The empty glass remains frozen on the barley but shows a background of lemony notes.
The particularity of the whisky with the blue label and the color quite close to the 13 year old (with just a slightly darkened tint from the two additional years spent in barrels), is linked to the fact that it has undergone the same aging.
A first aging, partly in ex-bourbon barrels and partly in sherry barrels, before being assembled and finishing half in sherry barrels and half in bourbon barrels (but over a period of 2 years higher than that of his younger brother).
We will find (logically) similarities between this whisky and the 13 year old that we have just tasted. However, the nose of this whisky will be even more fruity than the 13 year old.
The first passage is a cornucopia of sun-drenched fruits, going from pineapple to candied melon, with in the background notes of roasted barley with a hint of acidity very present despite the already honorable age of the distillate.
On the second pass, like its little brother, it becomes a little fresher with more lemony notes and especially more dense than spicy spices.
The third passage confirm this “ambient refreshment” with herbaceous and liquorice notes.
While this whisky is 46% Abv like (any good Craigellachie should be), it enters the mouth in a more thunderous way.
It also reveals, but even more markedly, very largely fruity and sweet notes with a very slight woody hint. The roasted pineapple announced on the nose is very present. Then come spices that are actually more spicy than those announced by the nose. Keeping a little of this spicy tension, it then becomes pastry and soft with notes of vanilla and hazelnut.
When it goes down the throat, it also has an enhancement of ginger (maybe even more marked than the 13 year old). It will retain notes of sour candy over a longer period of time.
The empty glass retains slightly more pronounced sweet notes but it also shows a hint of hay.
(personal note, a real pleasure)
And as Matthew told me when I arrived, we will finish the tasting and the visit with the new 2023 addition to the distillery: the 19 year old.
He explains to me that this new reference makes it possible to measure the impact of the years on the distillate. Indeed, like the 13 year old and the 17 year old, it underwent a bourbon/sherry beginning of aging and was brought together before being distributed again half into Xeres and half into Bourbon. The objective here is to show the impact of two additional years of this second aging.
On the nose this version will be softened compared to its two predecessors, but it will also show great warmth.
The fruits are now stewed and even softer. The malty notes are as if absorbed and mixed with the sugar. Behind its residual notes we will detect a more present hint of citrus.
On the second pass, we immediately detect a soft caramel, but we quickly realize that it is full of spices. Indeed, they make a grand entrance into the nose accompanied by woody notes.
The third passage shows, like the others, menthol notes, but these are preceded by chocolate notes.
The entry into the mouth is more marked than that of the previous two. It seems to release a greater power (while its title remains the same. The sweet and malty notes are more melted and the spices are present. However, they are less marked. The distillate will move towards sweetness without being too burdened with tense notes. It becomes vanilla flan cooked over a wood fire. It finishes with a beautiful note of acacia honey.
On the way down, it releases a little less spice than the other two, but leaves for a longer finish with a fairly velvety sensation in the mouth and fresh woody, licorice notes in the throat.
The empty glass lets out a mixture of sulfur and lemony notes.
Once the tasting is over, my host suggests that I get back on the road, to go for a walk and a new tasting in a place where Speyside has the secret. I suspect he wants to go for a ride in the famous Brad Peat!
To do this, he takes a new bottle on which we can read “Bas Armagnac” finish.
I promise you a future tasting but here is a first image to tempt you!