Cragganmore 14yo 1989/2003 (46%, Cadenhead, Original Collection, Sherrywood, 696 bottles)

Early on in my “Whisky career” I used to be a “regular” at one of the few Cadenhead Shops that were around. Amsterdam had one of the first shops outside of Scotland. I tried quite a few Cadenhead bottlings in those days and bought maybe even more, so i still have quite a few of those older bottlings. However, almost all the Cadenhead bottlings I brought home were cask strength versions, called Authentic Collection. At the same time Cadenhead bottled part of the same cask at 46% ABV, calling it the “Original Collection”, although I suspect, sometimes the whole cask was reduced and bottled at 46%. I’m not sure if there exists a cask strength version of this Cragganmore. I .have to admit I hardly own an “Original Collection” bottling (if any). Cragganmore of course is one of the Diageo Distilleries, and is represented in the Classic Malts range. Since Diageo hugely promotes these Malts, it is always nice to compare that to one of the independent bottlings. I’ve already reviewed some of them on these pages. The 12yo, the 1988 Distillers Edition and the 29yo Special Edition. I also had a great 1993 Sherried Cragganmore, bottled by Duncan Taylor. Lets see how this 1989 Cadenheads offering will do.

Cragganmore Cadenhead 1989/2003Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Rich and sweet. Fruity. Waxy apple skin. Funky raisins and cherry water. The initial fruity acidity is quite thin so after a while you don’t small it anymore. IF you use a lid for a while the acidity gets concentrated and is noticeable again. Without this acidity, this is a dark and brooding offering. A bit goth I would say. Damp earth and slightly rotting leaves n the forest floor. Smells quite sweet and underneath there is quite some vanilla as well. Dusty and notes of dull wet wood mixed in with toffee and caramel. Quite aromatic but at the same time sweet and syrupy. A two-faced puppy this is. Put a lid on it and its more fruity and acidic, let it breathe and it becomes more brooding. Very interesting.

Taste: Almond and toffee sweetness (which dissipates quickly). Short licorice attack. Apple skins and apple aroma’s more akin to Calvados. Very nutty (Sherry) this is. Probably a Sherry that aged under flor, so not from our usual Oloroso and PX casks. No, this is more Fino or Amontillado. Wine people believe this is Sherry royalty, much better than Oloroso and PX, which are the most popular casks for ageing Whisky these days. Just check out the bottlings of Glendronach. Having said that it, obviously doesn’t automatically mean the Whisky is better off as well. Quite some wood, with a slight bitter edge, but also vegetal bitterness, like you get from biting fresh leaves. Strange? Get out of your chair then and spend some more time in nature! The finish isn’t as long as expected and the aftertaste is quite anonymous as well.

Personally, I find Fino Sherry casks can produce very nice, but different Whiskies. For me it was something I had to grow into, and I guess I’m not finished growing just yet. I really do recognize the quality of the result, but it somehow is not something that like right off the bat. It needs some work. On the other side, I believe, this profile suits a nice Cuban cigar, if you pick the right one for it.

Points: 82

Cragganmore 1988/2002 “Distillers Edition” (40%, OB, Double Matured in Ruby Port Wood, CggD-6553)

As could have been expected by reading the last review here is the Cragganmore Distillers Edition, and just like the 12yo this particular bottle, was also bottled in 2002. Cragganmore is seen by many as a top Whisky. Blenders see it that way, and especially Diageo see it that way too. Although it has been part of the original Classic Malts range from 1988, it never was the most popular of the six. I don’t have to spell them out for you don’t I? Well OK, the original six were: Lagavulin (Islay), Talisker (Skye: Islands), Oban (marketed as West-Highlands), Glenkinchie (Lowlands, which many thought it would be Rosebank, but economics decided otherwise), Dalwhinnie (Highlands) and Cragganmore (Speyside). Still some aficionado’s are very keen on Cragganmore because Cragganmore is said to be a complex malt by using hard water and have stills with flat tops. History also teaches us that Cragganmore used a lot of Sherry casks.

Cragganmore 1988/2002 "Distillers Edition" (40%, OB, Double Matured in Ruby Port Wood, CggD-6553)Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Creamy and waxy, this time with a winey note, which makes it instantaneously more interesting than the 12yo. Fresh air with licorice and black and white powder. The yellow fruits from the original 12yo have been replaced by the red (berry) fruits from the Port finish. Tiny hint of Calvados. Red apple skin. Creamy vanilla is still here though. Hints of Sinaspril (a children’s headache medicine I remember from the seventies). Fruity candy powder (synthetic).

Taste: Seems spicier, but still a bit too light. Watered down Ice-cream. Quite sweet. Sugar water with a tiny amount of forest fruit syrup. If this would have been cask strength, the harshness you get from Ruby Port finishes probably would have been easily noticeable. Instead, the reduction and the sweetness are able to keep the Ruby Port in check. Just like the 12yo I reviewed last, this has a pretty weak again and it has a finish with some cask toast thrown in for good measure, but it helps. Up untill the body, the Whisky has quite some good aroma, and then the finish comes which has the length of a snuffed out candle. It’s alight for one moment and gone the next. This really needs to be slightly higher in strength, as well as the 12yo. If 46% ABV is too much, at least adopt 43% as a minimum strength for Single Malt Whisky. Sure in the olden days a lot of Malts were 40% and held their ground, but today’s yield driven more modern Malts seem to need a higher strength than that…

Personally I find the choice for Ruby Port always very tricky. Whereas Tawny Port is easier to use and gives usually better results, because Ruby Port finishes can be very harsh and are easily overdone. Luckily here the finish seems to be OK. The 12yo was quite simple, fruity and sweet, but for me this Distillers Edition has something more to say, especially on the nose. Concerning the taste, the Port is not always good match for the sweetness of the Cragganmore Malt. The first time I tried it, it didn’t work, the next day I liked it, but maybe that’s saying more about me than the Malt. It still is an easy peasy Malt, not all that complex. It is quite interesting and I do quite like it. I prefer it over the 12yo.

Points: 84

Cragganmore 12yo (40%, OB, Circa 2002)

A short introduction: Cragganmore was founded in 1869 by Glenfarclas’ John Smith and stays within the family untill 1923 when it is sold to the newly formed Cragganmore Distillery Co. In 1927 Cragganmore is 50% owned by DCL, one of the precursors of todays Diageo. In 1965 DCL buys the second half of Cragganmore to become 100% owner. In 1988 this Cragganmore 12yo becomes part of the Classic Malts Series, and in 1998 the Cragganmore Distillers Edition sees the light of day (more about that later), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and have a go at this 12yo that was bottled back in 2002…

Cragganmore 12yo (40%, OB, Circa 2002)Color: Gold.

Nose: Fruity and malty. Quite some hints of caramel. Chilled produce, sugared yellow fruits and some candied orange. Waxy with an air of menthol. Hints of cardboard and toasted oak. Perfumy and vegetal. Fern on a dry forest floor. Sweetish, but also some oak acidity. Give it some time and the oak turns more spicy. Otherwise it is light, with creamy vanilla, wax and candied sweet yellow fruits.

Taste: Waxy and toffeed. Quite fruity and light. Dried peach and old dried apricots. Hints of clay. Warming. Damp earth from the forest again. Maybe some mushroom? Yellow fruit sweet yoghurt. A funky acidity creeps in. Very soft warm oozing caramel. Soft distant wood. Cigar box wood. Simple, light and likeable. Tiny hint of beer and hops in the finish, which comes as a surprise, also quite sweet with a burnt wood edge too it.

In the end I still feel that it is bit anonymous really. The distillery character is somehow hidden behind fruity sweetness, caramel and wax. Nice fruitiness though. Very easily drinkable. Again an entry-level malt to get you going. Nothing wrong with it, but also nothing special. One you’ll finish quite quickly and you’ll start wondering afterwards where it has gone. If anything, it does invite you to take another sip, as I will do right now..

Points: 81

Cragganmore 29yo 1973/2003 “Special Edition” (52.5%, OB, 6000 bottles)

Cragganmore, and an old Cragganmore it is. Last year Diageo released a 25yo Special Release from 1988. That one costs a pretty penny, and is almost sold out by now. Nevertheless these days people throw themselves at anything that looks or feels like a super-duper premium bottling. However, the short row of special editions of Cragganmore was started back in 2003, by this 29yo from 1973. Yes a distillate from the seventies, and distillates from the seventies are usually even harder to come by. Nevertheless, this 1973 Cragganmore is still not very hard to get ánd even at a lower price than the aforementioned 1988 special release. What is happening here? Is the 1988 way better or has everybody simply forgotten about the 1973?

Cragganmore 29yo 1973/2003 Special Edition (52.5%, OB, 6000 bottles)Color: Gold.

Nose: Waxy and floral but rather closed. Quite light, delicate and vibrant. Old smoke and toast. Distant yellow fruits with a hint of tar. Nice combination. Steam age Whisky. Hints of barley and (floral) soap, but also hints of wood (old furniture) and even a tiny hint of pencil shavings. Hints of soft white pepper and some discernible sweetness. Dusty, fruity and slightly waxy, but I have to say it again, very closed.

Taste: Tropical fruits and quite sweet, like other bottlings from the seventies. Just remember Caperdonich and Tomatin. Cannabis and dish-water. Old papers and slightly cardboardy, which in this case isn’t a bad thing. Nice combination of cream and tired oak. It definitely tastes better than it smells. Don’t get me wrong, it smells good (albeit closed), but it tastes better. The finish is announced by some oaky bitterness, which fits the fruity waxiness perfectly. And old gent of a dram. Old and brittle but lots of stories to tell. You never know with old stuff like this, but to me, this seems to be exclusively from old Bourbon casks.

I am not Mr. Water. I hardly use water when tasting Malt prefer movement. Just let it move around in my glass, airing, oxidizing of you prefer, maybe warming it up in my hand a bit. That does the trick for me. However, if I encounter a closed Malt, then, and only then, water can be a nice experiment. I’m such an anorak, that I don’t even use a pipette, but I use a syringe. (Smaller droplets giving me more control). I know it’s sad, but I do have a life, so don’t worry about me. Well after some droplets and some more droplets, water didn’t open up the nose a lot. I did get more floral and toasty. It did do wonders for the taste. It got better, with more cannabis, more pencil shavings and more yellow sugared fruits. The toasty bit crept in here too. Lovely stuff, a bit brittle (apart from the body), so be carefull. So in this case, do try some water. Yes it needs some work, but it’s also quite an experience.

I haven’t tried all of the other special releases of Cragganmore but I can’t imagine them to be better than this one. Sure, age doesn’t matter (or so they say) and distillates of the seventies don’t have to be better than more recent distillates. However, this 1973 does come across as a very old Whisky, meaning it does smell and taste like something that can’t be made like this anymore. To “prove” or “un-prove” my point here is a review of a more modern Cragganmore, that did manage to fetch a higher score…

Points: 87

Cragganmore 18yo 1993/2011 (55.3%, Duncan Taylor, Sherry Cask #1385, 494 bottles)

Cragganmore is next. This one was cracked open on the last day of 2012. First of all some funny business about this one. When we opened it late at night (with artificial light) it seemed red, just like a lemonade. Second it smelled like a lemonade too, very sour. It started out as a Bourbon smell. The taste was even worse, ultimate sourness. Erik, it’s owner was already on his way to pour this one into the sink. I didn’t like it either that evening. Luckily I was able to save it and take it home with me. Today I have the chance to give this another go. First of all, I can look at this by daylight and I can’t see the red lemonade anymore. It has this orange brown color most Bourbons have.

Color: Orange Brown.

Nose: Lots of wood and some acetone. Perfumy varnished wood and spicy. Seems dry. Dark chocolate and toffee. The whole should smell like a Sherry bomb, but actually this smells like a Rye Whiskey. As much as I didn’t like this last year, it’s great now. What have I done then to ruin my palate that much? After some airing, the sherry notes trickle through, as do the vanilla and fresh, somewhat soapy notes. It’s pretty good! Wow, what an experience.

Taste: Thick, sweet Sherry and wood. Dark oaky chocolate. Its great. It’s the wood without the bitterness and it’s not overly dry. Just right. Utter balance. What nice stuff. Old fatty smoke, coal fire. Near the end, and  into the slightly bitter and woody finish, some small hints of red and black fruits, accompany the coal and maybe a hint of a well-known brown soft-drink to make this a special dram.

Well, that’s why on the last day of the year I do not bring my little black note-book with me. Strange things can happen, and now I have the proof to show it. This Cragganmore is excellent Whisky, or Whiskey, or Rhum or Bourbon…no doubt about it? Thumbs up!

Points: 90

Thanx Erik for the sample!