Cragganmore Distillery is one of the more retiring and reclusive of Speyside's distilleries, certainly of those with visitor centres, though it is easy to find. It is reached along a well signposted road that leaves the A95 a little to the west of the major kink where the A95 crosses the River Avon and meets the road coming north from Tomintoul.
The road to Cragganmore is actually the B9137, which at three quarters of a mile long in its entirety must be a contender for Scotland's shortest "B" road. As it passes the site of the long closed Ballindalloch railway station the road becomes declassified, and it then continues, increasingly pot holed, for another third of a mile past Cragganmore Ballindalloch Farm to the distillery itself and to neighbouring Cragganmore House, which offers B&B accommodation.
"Cragganmore" can be translated from the Gaelic as "big rock", and the distillery takes its name from the 475m (almost 1,600ft) mountain, Craggan More, whose summit can be found a mile and a half to the south. What you find on arrival at the distillery is a collection of buildings of considerable character, with the main elements collected around the sort of courtyard which is now often lost within more recent expansion at other distilleries. The distillery is enclosed by the steep southern side of the River Spey valley, while the river itself flows past a short distance to the north.
Contributing considerably to the charm of Cragganmore is the sense of it being very well tended. The main distillery buildings are white: and woodwork, both on the white buildings and on the stone bonded warehouses, is an attractive shade of dark green not far removed from the one used by Undiscovered Scotland. Parking is set aside for visitors, and from there you proceed into the courtyard through a wrought iron gateway which spells out the distillery name in gold lettering in a form that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a bottle of the product.
The visitor reception and shop is small but nicely presented and well stocked. You commence your tour on the far side of the courtyard, in the Cragganmore Clubroom, a beautiful and atmospheric room fitted and furnished to give visitors the sense they have become house guests in a Victorian shooting lodge on a grand estate. Here you can watch an introduction to the distillery: and you will end your visit in another nice room nearby set out for meetings or for tasting the product. At the risk of straying from the normal focus of our guides to distilleries, it is worth nothing that you might, while in the Clubroom, want to visit the neighbouring loos. These are exercises in recreated Victorian decadence, with superb fixtures, fittings and tiling. And the gents comes complete with a fox's head mounted high on the wall above you.
Your tour starts with an explanation of the milling process, and a view of the malt mill which was manufactured by Porteus. In common with most you find in Scotland's distilleries, it appears to have been made some considerable time ago, and it is perhaps no surprise that there is a story (whose truth we've never been able to establish) that Porteus ceased to be a viable independent company simply because they made products that were too good, and never needed replacing.
The mash tun at Cragganmore has an impressive copper top and comes with a stainless steel body with a wood outer face, which adds considerable character. The tun room is home to six washbacks, which some sources claim to be made of Oregon pine, while others say they are Scottish larch. Either way, once the brewing process has concluded the wash makes its way through to the still house. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The still house at Cragganmore is a fascinating place which runs along one side of the courtyard. There are four stills: two pairs each comprising a wash still and a spirit still. The upper parts of the stills sit within the ribbed roofline of the building. From a photographer's point of view this makes gaining a clear view of all of them at the same time almost impossible, but it also adds a certain intimacy to the feel of the space. At a much more practical level, it also means that the spirit stills, even though they are considerably smaller than the wash stills, have their tops chopped off flat in order to avoid impacting the roof. Rather than continuing from the stills in a smooth swan neck (as they do in the wash stills) the lyne arms stick out just below the truncated top of the spirit stills in a way that looks decidedly make-do-and-mend.
As with so much else in distilling, all is not necessarily what it seems. We suspect that the first spirit still used here had a chopped off top for reasons of expediency, but it soon became clear (or was soon assumed) that one of the reasons why the whisky produced by Cragganmore was (and is) among the most complex and highly rated produced by any Speyside distillery was because of the effect of the flat top of the spirit still on the processes taking place within it, and on the lightness of the spirit that eventually emerged. As a result, when the number of stills was increased from two to four in 1964, the new spirit still had a the same chopped off top as the original, even though it would doubtless have been possible at this point to build a roof that did not get in the way of the tops of this stills.
Another possible reason for the depth and complexity of Cragganmore's whisky is said to be the presence, out through the back wall of the still house, of worm tubs: large water tanks in which the distillate coming from the stills is passed through a coil of tube known as a worm. Worms are now a relatively rare form of condenser in Scotch whisky distilleries, but it is often said that they give a better, more refined, product than the more usual vertical stills. Those at Cragganmore can be seen from the windows in the tun room. After the still house the tour moves on to a dunnage warehouse before concluding in the tasting room.
Cragganmore Distillery was founded by John Smith in 1869. He was a man with experience in a number of Speyside's distilleries, and he chose the location at Cragganmore to take advantage of the, now long closed, railway line which passed beside the site. As a result materials could be brought in, and the product moved out, much more effectively and economically than would otherwise be possible. Today the line of the railway is followed by the Speyside Way long distance footpath. The distillery was purchased by the Glenlivet Distillery Co. Ltd. in 1923, which later became part of Distillers Company Limited and more recently Diageo. Until the 1980s much of the distillery's output went into blends, but from 1989 it was the marketed as the Speyside representative in the owner's "Classic Malts", and has not looked back since.