#20.3 Feast on the East

Back to a traditional experience: Cragganmore


TL;DR: The last distillery in this trip was Cragganmore, producing a malt we were not too familiar with. It was the most traditional whisky experience of the weekend, of course in a good way. We just wish they’d improve the whisky presentation and move away from the 40% and chill-filtering, to allow this good dram to fully express! 

(missed Part 1/Part 2?)

After the visit to Macallan, we were almost bamboozled by being back in the daylight. We drove to Aberlour and had a soup and a coffee at the Gather’n Cafe, officially our go-to place when we are in the area. We also sneaked in the Walker’s cookies shop a few meters down the road, another one of our must-go in the village.

These didn’t last long!

Back to the car, we drove directly to Cragganmore distillery, in Ballindalloch. Unlike Tormore, or the new Cairns (which we spotted several times just driving around Speyside), Cragganmore is quite hidden in a narrow valley…you really want to be there to see it (well, not as much as Nc’Nean!). It does make sense, however, that so many distilleries in Speyside popped up in such hidden places, given the history of distilling in the region, in particular pre-1823 (date of the Excise Act, for more info check out the dedicated episode of the Liquid Antiquarian on YouTube).

Second distillery of the day, of course we’re happy!

We didn’t know what to expect: Cragganmore is one of those many drams we came in contact with after the beginning of our whisk(e)y journey, when we were already members of the SMWS and had already visited a few distilleries. Because of this, and because of its 40% presentation (and it’s probably artificially coloured and chill-filtered) we never got into it, we had just tried it once or maybe twice in bars. Well, it’s kind of nice to discover a new whisky, isn’t it?

We arrived at the distillery 10 minutes before the tour start, so we took a look around to admire old-style buildings. The visitor centre didn’t go through much renovation (unlike other Diageo’s distilleries, like this and these two), just enough to make it pretty.

The wee visitor centre.

Albeit much smaller, it reminded us a bit of Lagavulin’s one, as it mainly consists of a shop and a very cozy tasting room, with a fireplace, sofas and chairs. The tour we had booked is “A Taste of Speyside”, and it is still the only available one (for the very reasonable price of £16, still at the time of writing). Our guide for the day was Gary, a former firefighter which instead of dully retiring, decided to work part-time at the visitor centre (something we observed a few times around distilleries). Anyway, we started the tour by gathering at the centre of the courtyard, and after the usual health and safety instructions, we moved to the production area.

The mashtun.

As usual, we started from the milling room with its red Porteus mill (and as usual, we got told the story of Porteus company running out of business because their machines were too robust and never broke… maybe at the time the evil programmed obsolescence was not a thing). We rapidly moved on to the copper-lidded mashtun and the washbacks, where the distiller on shift “fished” a sample of fermented wash for us to see and smell (not drink, fortunately).

Too scared to drink it!

Before moving to the stillroom we could spot from the window the box containing the worm-tub condenser, one of the features of the distillery. The distiller came with us to the whisky safe, where the spirit from the 4 stills goes through and gets checked. There, he gave us a very detailed explanation of the distillation process. Although it is computerised now, the lever to start collecting the second distillation heart (from 68% to 62%, much lower than Macallan!) is still manual…Interesting! We then moved outside to check the warehouse, only from the outside, unfortunately.

Partial (very partial) view of the still room.

In the tasting room, three drams were already waiting for us, poured in tiny glasses: their flagship, Cragganmore 12, the Distillers Edition (commonly across Diageo’s distillery, this is the same age of the main core release but finished in a different cask, ex-Port cask for Cragganmore), and the Distillery Edition (a more recent release quite common across all Diageo distilleries, usually a batch of few-thousand bottles non-age stated, bottled at 48% and priced between 85 and 100 quid, a bit pricey, but apparently casks are selected by the distillery personnel). The drams were quite nice, despite the watery presentations (in our opinion): a shame for such a potentially robust and rich of flavour malt. We even got something to include in a future tasting…we won’t say anything else, but stay tuned in 2023 for more!

Tasting by the fireplace.

Overall, it was a pleasant visit, and Gary was super nice as a tour guide, and of course him involving the distiller on shift was the cherry on top. Compared to the other distilleries we visited during the same trip this was the most traditional one, what probably you’d expect when thinking of Scottish single malt distilleries. It was a very interesting comparison though, with Fettercairn being still old-style at core, but with a more modern visitor centre, and Arbikie and Macallan being definitely among the most modern we visited. We believe that this is reflected in the philosophy of the whisky production, and indeed Cragganmore feels very traditional, in every sense.

Until the next time, Slainte!

Cragganmore: A Taste of Speyside

Price: £16.00 pp (September 2022)

Duration: 1h

Tasting: 3 drams, Cragganmore 12y (40%), Distillers Edition (40%), Distillery Exclusive (NAS, 48%)

Value for money: good (10% off on anything in the shop if you attended the tour)

Highlights: the old-style distillery atmosphere

Target: anyone

Recommended: yes

Things we did not like: samples are super tiny (10ml? Definitely no more than 15)

Distillery only expressions: Distillery Exclusive (NAS, 48%), £85

Link: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/cragganmore

#20.2 Feast on the East

The Macallan experience!


TL;DR: we had planned this trip around the visit to Macallan, which we managed to book well in advance despite the low availability of their tours. To sum up: a modern art museum inside a Teletubbies house, but the production part is cool! 

(missed Part 1?)

Something we didn’t say in the first part of the story, this trip was kind of a last-minute plan. The reason being, we planned it around a specific distillery visit which we had booked a few months before, and because of this, we were not sure we’d be able to make it. The distillery is Macallan: because they only do 6-people tours twice a day (at 10.00 and 11.00), twice or four times a week (always on Saturday and Sunday, on Thursday and Friday too in summer), it is very hard to find a spot. Back in June we somehow managed to find two places in September, so here we are. And of course, because Macallan is not exactly around the corner, when we decided to go for it, we also booked Fettercairn and Arbikie the day before, and Cragganmore for the afternoon of the same day.

Truth to be said, we aren’t huge fans of this single malt. First and foremost, the distillery expressions we tried so far (mostly their 12y) were always a bit dull, a bit better the independently bottled ones but not better than many other sherried Speyside drams. This aside, the company’s marketing towards the super-rich customers is on the edge of ridiculousness, similar to all products marketed in the same way (whether cars, watches or whatever). As we both come from working-class families, we are quite indifferent to (most) marketing BS, we can’t really figure out how someone would pay 300 quid for a 43% and probably chill-filtered 18y. This said, we were very curious to visit the distillery because of its strange and unique architecture, in particular after our “coffee experience” last year. And, at the end of the day, it is still a Scottish single malt distillery, so sooner or later a visit was due.

A wee detour before Macallan, Speyburn!

So, after a typical Scottish breakfast in the hotel’s pub (the dining room was under renovation), we drove past Rothes, where we stopped for a quick sneak peek at Speyburn distillery (closed to the public, sadly), and we reached Macallan parking lot. The distillery is something very different from any other we visited so far: dim lights and soft piano music, and a very high ceiling giving the impression of a big open space. It reminded us of a modern art museum, kind of Bilbao’s Guggenheim.

About to see what’s in the Teletubbies house.

At the check-in, our guide Colin (who later we discovered to be very knowledgeable) welcomed us very warmly. He took our jackets (bad sign, as it probably meant no visit to the warehouse) and told us that we could check out the shop in the meanwhile…oh sorry, not the shop, the “boutique”. A few minutes later, we were brought to the café where a few tables were reserved for us. Everyone got a coffee and a (quite delicious) scone, a nice touch. When the tour started, we were walked to the Macallan collection, where Colin explained to us the history of the distillery and the brand, including all the various collections that came out throughout the years. Quite interesting overall.

A bad picture of the interesting collection.

We then moved to the first floor towards the production area, separated from the bar by glass doors. Colin explained how this distillery came to be, and the underlying sustainability concept, like the vegetation on the roof (they probably should also ditch the huge and useless bottles boxes to really go green…). There we didn’t see any operators, as the production is 100% computerised. They installed a huge mashtun (17 ton mash!), probably the biggest we have ever seen, and there is an empty hole with space for a second one, in case they’ll need it in the future…or for a shark tank, maybe?

Absolutely massive mashtun…and empty space for a second one!
One of the three “isles”.

The rest of the production is divided into three “isles” with 7 washbacks and 8 stills in a circle. The stills are quite small and of the same shape as the “old Macallan” ones. At this point Colin made us taste a sample of newmake spirit, taken from a very narrow cut (from 72% to 68%, if we recall correctly) and then reduced to the industry standard of 63.5%. Quite nice, and less green-apples-and-pears forward than others. After this, we were shown a display of the main estate house, a nice example of Victorian architecture but at the moment not possible to visit.

We then went to a room, where we watched a video about how the Spanish wood is harvested and treated to make their barrels (no new information, but still OK to see), and then to another room for a second video about the art of blending (this one not very insightful to be honest).

A model of the “Spiritual Home”, and the real one in the back.

Finally, it was time for the tasting, which took place in a warehouse that sits underneath the bar, kind of in between a crypt and the Bat Cave. Initially this was just a display, it is now officially a maturing warehouse, with a few casks for each year since the new distillery started production. We tried two expressions: the Macallan 15y Double cask (a mix of sherry casks from American and European Oak) and the Home Edition, both at 43% and very drinkable but not outstanding (also, both 10ml, not much to taste anyway). We moved to the bar, where Colin gave us one last dram: the 2022 Classic Cut, a NAS expression bottled at 52.5%abv. This was definitely a step up in flavour and complexity, but for a price of £120 it disqualified itself as a potential purchase.

This one was good!

Overall, it was nice to get to know this distillery, and try a few expressions one after the other. It would have been great to visit one of their proper warehouses or the old distillery, which at the moment is actually mothballed (in our understanding, all the equipment is still in place). Just there in case of future needs (eg training)? It doesn’t look like there are plans to open it to visitors, but it would be really nice to be able to visit the production plant that made Macallan famous. Maybe in the future? We certainly do hope so.

The Macallan “Discovery Experience”

Price: £50.00 pp (booked in June 2022)

Duration: 2h 30min

Tasting: 3 drams, 15y Double cask (43%), Home Edition (NAS, 43%), Classic Cut (NAS, 52.5%), plus a coffee and a delicious scone

Target: whisky nerds

Value for money: a bit pricey

Highlights: the futuristic distillery layout

Recommended: only if you’re interested in modern architecture and not in “classic” distilleries

Link: https://www.themacallan.com/en

#20.1 Feast on the East

East of Scotland bonanza: Fettercairn and Arbikie


TL;DR: On our way to Speyside, we stopped by two distilleries along the way. One old, Fettercairn, and one new, Arbikie. We liked both tours: while Fettercairn was more of a classical distillery experience, we appreciated Arbikie forward-thinking and innovative spirit. Fettercairn Warehouse 2 drams were outstanding! 

Here we are again, mid-September, early Friday morning, on a bus to Lochrin Place, near Tollcross, where a car is waiting for us. We had booked it at McNicoll – following the increase in rental car prices due to the pandemic, they are now quite competitive and their service is generally much better than most of the other ones. That morning Teresa, the designated driver for the weekend (Gianluigi: “AH-AH”), drove us up north towards the Highlands, but then turned eastward on the road to Aberdeen.

Our first appointment of the day was with Fettercairn distillery, at the bottom of the Cairngorms mountains (which is the meaning of the name). This distillery is owned by White and Mackay and has a long history. Founded in 1824, it was one of the first to get a distilling license.

Here we are, ready for the tour (not so much for the wind).

Recently the brand underwent a restyling, so although the 12y and the 12y ex-PX cask (a travel retail expression) stayed at 40%, the 16y moved to a more natural presentation: from 40 to 46%, not chill-filtered and no artificial colour additions, just what we enthusiasts want! They also added the Warehouse 2 series to their portfolio, usually younger expressions at a higher abv from a vatting of casks selected by the distillery manager, each different from the previous one.

As we get to the (renewed) visitor centre, we are welcomed by our guide for the day: Kirsty. She illustrated very clearly the historical context of the late 1700s and early 1800s, around the time that Fettercairn got its license.

We then moved to the Forest Flow monument outside the visitor centre, a testimony of the distillery’s sustainability plans. For example, they planted oak trees on the Fasque Estate, an 8,500 acres land nearby. Another long-term but extremely interesting plan is a collaboration with the farmers in the area around the distillery, which will lead to single-farm expressions: exciting times!

The Forest Flow.

 Moving to production, Kirsty showed us the water recycle system they have in place to minimise water waste.We were then shown their copper lidded mashtun, their Douglas Fir washbacks, and finally, their 2 pairs of (vapour coil heated) stills with their cooling ring. This was one of the most interesting features: the ring is a circular tube spraying water on the neck of the still, cooling it and therefore increasing the reflux. In our understanding, this makes some particles drop back into the still, allowing only the lighter ones to go up. So cool(ing)!

Isn’t it cool?

We checked out the warehouse and finally went back to the visitor centre for a taste of the two 12y expressions and the 16y (we opted to pay and extra fiver for a third sample). The two 12y were tasty compared to other 40% basic drams, but the stand-out was the 16y: a nutty storm, truly delicious. Kirsty was very kind and gave us also two wee samples of the Warehouse 2 collection, batch 3 and 4 (1 and 2 were gone): the #4 is a more classical, rich and fruity dram, while the ex-rum cask influence on #3 gives it a tropical and flowery perfume, one of the most floral drams we ever tried. Both amazing.

Yummy drams!

Overall, a nice visit, which we’d repeat, particularly because Kirsty told us that they are planning to offer new tours, including warehouse tastings and some Warehouse 2 series focused, looking forward to it!

We had lunch in a café close to the famous arch in Fettercairn, and then moved to the next distillery: Arbikie. This is a quite new distillery, founded in 2013 by the Stirling brothers, originally farmers in the area. They started by producing vodka with potatoes they cultivate, and soon moved to gin and later to whisky. An interesting characteristic is that they produce whisky from 3 different grains: oat, rye and, of course, malted barley. As we parked, we were welcomed by a stunning view of the fields and the sea, truly a beautiful spot! The amazing landscape can also be enjoyed from the very nice café and restaurant.

Amazing view from Arbikie.

There were works going on to build a new semi-open conservatory to improve visitors’ experience, particularly in sunny days. It’s just the two of us on the whisky tour (they have also a gin-focused and a general tour). Our guide was Andy, very knowledgeable and whose great-grandfather worked for the Stirling family.

Lots still going on at the distillery!

Everything in the distillery is oriented towards sustainability, with heat-exchangers and other features in place to minimise energy consumption. Some peculiarities are their stainless washback silos (more similar to those in breweries) and their stills: three pot stills (one for wash and two for spirit) and the column stills. While gin and vodka are exclusively distilled in the column still, for the whisky they can play with a combination of the two. For example, we’ve been told that some of their rye newmake spirit recently underwent the second distillation in the columns, as the spirit stills (normally used for the second distillation) were under repair. Unlike most distilleries, they currently don’t have a dunnage warehouse, everything is palletized. On top of the usual ones, they have a variety of casks, including ex-Armagnac, ex-rum, and ex-red wine.

Pot and…
…column stills.

Back at the shop we tried some of their rye whiskies, the first ones officially released in Scotland in over 100 years. We had two expressions, the one that can be defined their core range (which we had already tried via Whisky-Me), and a single cask finished in ex-Armagnac casks. The second was better, but we weren’t huge fan of either: too herbal, almost a hybrid between a gin and a young rum. Very pricey too, £90 for the first and £250 for the second. It must not be easy to find your feet for something so uncommon as a Scottish rye whisky, where, unlike single malts, there is no “blueprint”. So, we are confident that their product will improve over time, in particular as more aged stock becomes available. Also, we’ll be very curious to try their single malt, once released.

The rye tasting.

Back to the car, we took the “slow” but very scenic road across Speyside to reach Fochabers, where we had our hotel booked. After a nice dinner at the Gordon Arms Hotel, we went to bed ready for the next day.

Fettercairn Tour (with extra dram)

Price: £20.00 pp (September 2022, £15 without the extra dram)

Duration: 1h 30min

Tasting: 3 drams, 12y (40%), 12y PX-finish (travel exclusive, 40%), 16y (46.4%, NC, NCF)

Target: anyone

Value for money: Very good

Highlights: the cooling ring system on the stills

Recommended: definitely!

Link: https://www.fettercairnwhisky.com/

Arbikie Whisky Tour

Price: £25.00 pp (September 2022)

Tasting: 2 drams, Arbikie rye (48%, NC, NCF), Arbikie single cask rye ex-Armagnac finish (46%, NC, NCF)

Target: anyone

Value for money: Ok

Highlights: the view and the distillery setting

Recommended: mainly to fans of all spirits

Link: https://arbikie.com/