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Craigellachie Distillery: Exploring Craigellachie 13, 17, 23 & more

Craigellachie 13 from Craigellachie Distillery

Founded in 1891, Craigellachie Distillery has long contributed whisky to renowned Scotch blends, including those of its current parent company, John Dewar & Sons.

Drinkers have only been able to experience Craigellachie’s unique distillery character since it was launched as a single malt in 2014, soon earning itself a rep as ‘the bad boy of Speyside’.

“Speyside whisky tends to be quite an approachable dram that you’d probably refer to a whisky novice to go and try,” says Andy Wren, Craigellachie Distillery’s Australian brand ambassador.

“But because of its ancient production techniques, Craigellachie Distillery – from the heart of the Speyside region – actually has this massive, robust, sulphurous style to it.

“‘The ‘bad boy of Speyside’ really refers to the fact that this is an unexpected Speyside dram, and what you’re going to get is a really big, almost muscular experience when you’re drinking it, as opposed to soft and delicate and pretty,” he says.

Sulphur is not always a desirable trait in whisky, but at Craigellachie Distillery it is naturally produced in the distilling process, rather than being an unwanted character picked up from barrels during maturation.

“We use a process called ‘worm tubs’ and that way of condensing the whisky ensures there’s loads of sulphur left in the final spirit,” explains Wren.

“The sulphur notes in the whisky, because they’re supported by big malty notes and big pineapple notes as well, it actually just adds weight and body. Without it, Craigellachie would probably be a little bit thin.”

Wren points out that the peat smoke adored by fans of Islay whiskies is not really an attractive flavour in isolation, either.

“But when it goes with fruit and the distillation flavours underneath that, it actually supports it really well and it can season the whisky brilliantly,” he says.

He estimates that no more than five of Scotland’s 110 distilleries still use worm tubs in production.

“Most distilleries, as they evolve over time, become more efficient. Their processes change and the way they make the whisky becomes a bit more streamlined,” he says.

“Modern condensers use lots of copper in the condensing tube, which removes sulphur and reduces the weight of the whisky.”

The archaic approach has certainly done Craigellachie Distillery no harm, with Craigellachie 23 winning ‘Best in Show’ at the San Francisco Spirits Awards 2015.

Then in March this year, Craigellachie 31 was named World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2017, an accolade the distillery is quite rightfully still celebrating.

If you are lucky enough to track down an extremely rare bottle of the latter, for the cool price of $3100, you can experience Craigellachie at its most enchanting.

“Beautifully balanced, smooth and rich, a swirl of smoke and sulphur accentuate the sumptuous fruits of kiwi and pineapple. The tang of old, leather bound books and tobacco emerge, with a hint of meatiness of a beef consommé,” assesses Dewar’s master blender Stephanie MacLeod.

Craigellachie 13 Years Old

At the other end of the hierarchy is Craigellachie 13 Years Old, which Andy Wren says is Craigellachie at its most confronting.

“It’s relatively young, so you’re still getting that sparkle on the tongue from the alcohol. With the robust nature of the whisky – the sulphur, with the big hit of tropical fruit – I think in the mouth it’s almost the most explosive flavour you can get,” he says.

“As the whisky gets older, I believe the fruit becomes brighter and sweeter. The softening of the alcohol in the ageing process almost heroes this fruit.”

Craigellachie 17 Years Old

Also in the range is Craigellachie 17 Years Old; the distillery further defies convention by only releasing whiskies at prime number ages.

“I think the purpose of that is to show how old fashioned and stubborn and stuck in their ways they are!” says Wren.

He says the rugged nature of Craigellachie makes it a Speyside that may appeal to fans of cask strength whiskies, as well as Islay’s more challenging output.

“If you do like an Ardbeg or a Lagavulin, I reckon something like this will be really pleasing to your palate because you just like that high intensity style of whisky that’s powerful and it makes you think,” he says.

“For fans of Islay that have toured the whole island, and they want something a little bit different, I would push them towards the Craigellachie and see how they enjoy that, versus their favourite Islays.”

According to Wren, the ‘bad boy of Speyside’ exemplifies the limitations of relying too heavily on regionality to signal the character of a Scottish single malt.

“I think regions are almost set up as a guidance piece. I tend to look at them as less holistic and each distillery has its own character,” he says.

“In Islay, where you get your smoky whiskies and your big peat monsters, there’s a distillery from there called Bruichladdich, which do a classic malt [The Classic Laddie] and it’s a light, delicate floral whisky.

“You could say Craigellachie has characteristics other Speysides do, in that there’s a nice tropical heart to it. But other than that, the characteristics are a bit more blustery and a bit more coastal,” says Wren.

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