A visit to Craigellachie Distillery was long overdue. Fortunately, I got a chance to see Speyside’s enigma during the region’s annual festival to learn how it makes whisky like no other.

It’s rare to get an opportunity to see Craigellachie Distillery. Despite the fact it’s located in one of the main whisky spots in Speyside, just a short walk from the famous hotel that shares the same name, it’s open for just two days a year to visitors. Even the locals that drive past its huge open stillhouse windows have to wait for the Spirit of Speyside Festival to glimpse a peek at what lies inside of what could be argued to be Bacardi’s flagship single malt Scotch whisky distillery. 

Craigellachie Distillery

Speyside is full of great whisky, but few that taste like Craigellachie

Old-fashioned since 1891

It’s certainly got the reputation. People love Craigellachie for being a contradiction in a glass. It’s the non-Speyside, Speyside whisky. Full of the tropical, fruity, floral notes you’d expect for a whisky from this region, where they’re ten a penny, but also this funky, musty, gunpowder character that’s all down to the way it treats sulphur. This is one of those distilleries that demonstrates why Scotch whisky regions are only useful to an extent. Because understanding the definition of Speyside does little to reveal the pleasures and personality of Craigellachie.

Character is one thing to have going for you. Characters are another. In Matthew Cordiner, the brand has one of the most impressive and erudite global ambassadors in the game. “We have five wonderful single malts in our group and I shouldn’t have a favourite, but I 100% do. This is home pride for me, my family still live in the village. I’ll try not to be biased, but I definitely am, and this is the best whisky ever made,” he says, starting off our tour in the right way. 

People connected to the brand say that Craigellachie has been old-fashioned since 1891, which means it was considered old school even when it was founded that year. In 1893, Alfred Barnard noted that though they’ve just built the distillery, it was reminiscent of the old Glenlivet style, which overlaps a lot with what we call Speyside today. He also talked of its chief characteristic being the pineapple flavour that “develops with age”. Being called old-fashioned isn’t usually complimentary, but Craigellachie wears it as a badge of honour. That classic funky, tropical note is still there now. “Although some of the methods have evolved, I like to think we’ve kept that character in what we do,” Cordiner explains.

There’s continuity in the workforce too. “We have young Jim, or James Arthur Nichol, who works the stills today. His dad lives next door in the old manager’s house, he used to do the same. His dad, Henry Arthur Nicol worked here, as did his brother, who was also James Arthur Nicol. Their dad did the same, and he too was James Arthur Nicol,” Cordiner explains. Since 1918, there’s been four generations of this family working the stills, and it’s not the only family connection there. Unfortunately, the youngest Nicol has two daughters who aren’t called Jim so that particular legacy may not have long left.

Craigellachie Distillery

It’s a striking sight, but not many get to go inside

Creating non-Speyside, Speyside whisky

Craigellachie, by contrast, is just hitting its stride. What you see when you drive past is not the original distillery, but a monster expansion that took place in the late sixties. It now produces four million litres of alcohol per annum. The on-site floor malting closed in ‘68, so production begins with a 28-and-a-half tonne lorry that delivers malt three times a week. Concerto has been the favourite barley variety so far,  but there’s been a lot of experiments with strains like Firefox, Diablo, Sassy, and Laureate. Right now it’s 100% Sassy, which is very fun to say. Cordiner keeps the folksy charm going by showing off a tapping hammer and all the little dents it makes in the hopper that carries the malt. “We’re Scottish, we like to get our money’s worth,” he says as he whacks the side of the hopper, which carries the malt to the mill, to imitate how workers keep grain from getting stuck. 

The distillery’s peculiar flavour is built into the malt right at the start of the process. Its malted barley is dried using an oil-fired kiln at Glenesk malting in Angus rather than the usual gas-powered ones. This special kiln imparts a smoky sulphurous taste and is used only for Craigellachie’s barley.

A Porteus Mill built in 1964 that was originally at MacDuff does the simple job breaking down the ten tonnes of barley that passes through. Upstairs, a heat exchanger sits rather lonely in what was the mash tun room until 2001, when a new hulk of a machine was moved so it could be installed. There’s an even bigger croquet-style hammer here to get every drop and avoid waste. The new mash tun is a monster, it’s almost hard to walk around it. It’s in the old kiln, sitting pretty underneath a classic Charles Doig ventilator. It’s a nod to when peat would have been used in Speyside with more regularity, and a reminder that there’s no true singular regional style. The Steinecker mash tun has no rake and plough and instead relies on size, with no deep bed it’s able to spread the mash out and cook it quicker, taking about half the time of a regular piece of kit. When you’re feeding it all in you’ll have pockets where the barley doesn’t break down, which is where the much-underrated steel masher comes into play.

For fermentation, there’s eight Siberian larch washbacks, which is a tall straight tree that allows you to create a washback that’s one piece from top to bottom, and also a beautiful dark colour. They hold 48,000-litres each, and are fed with MS1 liquid yeast. It’s an old-school Diageo cultivation (which used to own this and all Barcardi’s Scotch distilleries) and used across all five of the rum giant’s sites today. Things are still very yield-based in Scotland, where time rather than yeast strain is king. After 48 hours you got all the alcohol you need for yield, so everything after is for esterification. It’s 56 hours here, not quite as long as you’d think given the vibrancy and tropical nature of the spirit. Where its signature style truly comes into play is in the stills, and then the all-important worm tubs.

Craigellachie Distillery

The worm tubs really are the star of the show

The stars of the show

On to the stillhouse, where those huge windows aren’t just for aesthetics, but for easy access to remove the stills for repair and replacement. They actually roll down, and you can thank Diageo’s precursor Distillers Company Limited for that one. In the ’80s the same architect, George Leslie Darge, created a design put in across 28 Scotch whisky distilleries, with Caol Ila being the first. There’s two wash and two spirit stills (28,185 litres each) which are relatively tall with a wide base and short, squat neck. This encourages a lot less copper contact and reflux. “Sulphur naturally comes in from the barley and fermentation, and while most distilleries are trying to get rid of it, here, we like to keep it,” Cordiner explains. It’s a very manual process, and the stills are run very hot to create even less copper interaction

It’s this approach that defines Craigellachie. It’s all about retaining sulphur, which is where the worm tubs shine. There are only 19 distilleries in Scotland that use these forms of condensers, as they’re less efficient at creating copper contact than shell and tube. Here, of course, that’s a plus, and it’s probably the most striking and informative example of them around. A viewing platform over the roof displays a serpentine network (worm being the old English word for snake) of pipes that are run so cold a layer of film forms on the inside, helping to buffer passing vapour and prevent copper from drawing out the sulphur. This distillery is proof that this game isn’t just about the equipment you have, but how you run it. It’s important to understand that, while sulphur sounds undesirable, it isn’t inherently bad. Measure it right and you get a muscular, characterful spirit and that’s what the play here.

All casks are taken to Glasgow for maturation. This means Craigellachie loses the romance of having warehouses on-site, which stopped in the ’90s, but it’s where Dewar’s has its blending house and access to stock is the priority. Particularly when you have someone as good as Stephanie Macleod as your master blender, and everything that leaves this distillery needs her final approval. “Why she wins all those awards and does so well is all down balance,” Cordiner believes. “You can see in the 13 Year Old. All that distillery character is still there, it hasn’t been drowned out by the cask type”. 

Craigellachie Distillery

My advice? Head here, grab a dram, and appreciate Sepyside’s enigma (assuming it isn’t raining)

Craigellachie Distillery: standing out in Speyside

That theory is verified when we taste the new make, which has those big tropical fruit notes, as well as that musty, cordite aroma. Like firing a shotgun through a pineapple, a tasting note Cordiner heard once and loves. The new make is absolutely present in the flagship 13 Year Old, for my money one of the most reliable and continually interesting drams around at its price point. Its original age statement and composition help it stand out in a crowded market, while the Pineapple Miso signature serve at London’s new Silverleaf bar demonstrates how versatile it is. The 17 Year Old takes the citrusy, tropical elements up a notch. Think swapping the shotgun for a grenade. Considering Craigellachie has only had this single malt range since 2014, it’s an impressive showing. 

We finished the day I visited the distillery at the brand’s Aperitivo Hour event. It’s one of SoS’ finest, a cheery, casual gathering of like-minded whisky lovers at Craigellachie Bridge who wait patiently for Cordiner and co to bring a few bottles of whisky down to enjoy river-side. Previously, the 51 Year Old caused a stir, a whisky that demonstrates both the power and personality of the distillery, as they gave it all away rather than charging big bucks. This year, there was the rightly revered 31 Year Old, as well as the festival bottling, a 13-year-old matured in a single cask first-fill ex-bourbon bottled at 60.1% ABV. If you can get your hands on it, or the new Amargnac-finished bottling that’s part of a new series celebrating the worm tubs, I’d suggest doing so.

I had the 31, because obviously, it’s one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had. Standing at that bridge enjoying it, it was hard not to think this stranger than Speyside whisky was right at home.