Craigellachie can be a stubbornly awkward whisky. Whilst well-regarded and sought after for blending because of its naturally fruity profile and weighty spirit character, I’ve repeatedly seen Craigellachie in single malt form quickly divide a room – particularly when the offering involves younger liquid. Despite writing earlier this week about the ebbs and flows of maturation which often produce not one, but several or many ‘peaks’ within whiskies – Craigellachie doesn’t always fall quite so easily into this rubric for some drinkers. And the reason for that is oft-times sulphur.
Somewhat oddly, one of the side benefits of Jim Murray’s (involuntary) retreat from the frontlines of whisky is that there’s far less bullshit being banded around about sulphur. For years Murray identified the compound as the scourge of countless whiskies the world over. And despite no one seemingly openly admitting to buying his annual book, there was a time when the discussion of sulphur candles was a near daily occurrence.
Don’t like this whisky – sulphur candles. There’s some struck match here – sulphur candles. The problem with these assersions being two-fold 1) The practice has been outlawed for quite some time now 2) There are other sources of sulphur within distilled spirits totally unrelated to either the cask or any type of candles whether they be church, birthday, ear, tealight or indeed sulphur.
Blindly rabbiting stuff that’s been read on the Internet is never a good idea – at best it leads to half-truths. And in my view that’s exactly what happened with the subject of sulphur within whiskies. Folks took Murray’s assertions about candles (which to be fair to the man and his reviews were more often than not applied to far older whiskies where the practice was still practiced when these were conceived) and they simply applied these to every single whisky which to their noses had even the slightest hint of Joe vs. the volcano. Nope.
Take Craigellachie. If you’re talking about the use of sulphur candles with this spirit, 9/10 you’re talking rubbish. You simply haven’t done your homework to understand how this whisky is made. You’re parroting that half-truth. Craigellachie can indeed oft-times be sulphurous – particularly at younger ages when it near revels in this character. However, this stems from its conception as a spirit, not in the warehouse once in cask.
Craigellachie’s barley is sourced from Glenesk maltings. This (currently concerto) malt is produced not through drying with hot air, but through the use of fuel oil in the Glenesk kiln. This is only used for the production of barley specifically for Craigellachie and it brings sulphur with it. Now, it’s important to note at this stage that all whiskies contain sulphurous compounds. It is through the production processes employed to process the barley into spirit and onto being actual whisky that these are stripped away. But in Craigellachie’s case the use of worm tubs at the distillery presents a reduced volume of copper (when compared to modern shell and tube condensers). And the employment of these deliberately retain more sulphurous compounds within the finalised spirit.
But why would this be done intentionally? Well, the profile of the spirit – often described as ‘meaty’ is exceedingly fulsome and weighted – desirous characteristics. However, similarly to other compounds being stripped away through the purifying process of maturation – so too does sulphur. And thus as Craigellachie ages, it retains it’s robust character whilst the cask interaction continually reduces the prevalence of sulphur.
Older Craigellachie is a near miraculous thing and I’d gently suggest to all of you to you seek it out at some point on your whisky journey. But the problem here is that whilst younger Craigellachie can still be quite delicious, it’s predilection to exhibit sulphur is much higher. And at that point you’re into the vagaries of personal preference (some people love it!) and the nuances of cask selection (some casks – especially active ones – will strip the compounds far more readily).
Nevertheless, this still leaves Craigellachie in an interesting position as a whisky. In my view, whilst its character is ideal for adding base notes and body into a vatting or blend, it can be something of a square peg when it comes to being presented ‘as is’. But regardless of whether you actually enjoy the profiles offered from the spirit – just make sure that if you’re antipathetic toward it, you’re not making yourself look silly by talking about Craigellachie and sulphur candles in the same breath.
From the most recent batch of Mossburn’s Vintage Casks range comes this 2007 Craigellachie. The bottler has dabbled with this sometimes awkward Speysider several times already (Batches 5 and 13 from 2017) – though this time around the Craigellachie spirit has spent an undefined amount of time in some olosoro hogsheads. Bottled at 46% (the lowest ABB that the range dips to) and released back last November, this release is still easily available – you’ll find it in a number of outlets including the Whisky Exchange for £64.95.
Nose: Flintlock pistols and newly struck Swan Vestas. Nothing untoward (IMO) - it’s simply part of the DNA here. Flambe orange peels joins plump raisins and sultanas whilst cream toffee and walnut whip sit alongside malt loaf, damp oak, musty cellars and wet leaves. The addition of water presents a softer side – leafy berries, almond paste and milk chocolate.
Taste: Arrival with more body than the 46% would imply. Burnt toffee into café latte and then concentrated blackberries, redcurrants and simple syrup sweetness. Cask influence follows with black pepperiness and ground ginger sitting alongside canvas sacking, spent coffee grounds coffee and walnut cake and touches of lighter flint.
Finish: Medium and favouring pepper and ginger with touches of golden tobacco leaf and coffee.
It is highly likely that your overall enjoyment of this whisky will stem from your prediction towards or away from the distillates' natural Pompeii 79AD tendencies. There’s a real heftiness to this whisky that belies its 46% ABV. It sits well with the sherry cask finish and the natural flintiness never feels like it has gone too far down the sulphur dioxide rabbit hole - at least for my palate. I quite like it. But doubtless, some of you will be less forgiving. And that’s totally fine. Just don’t make yourself look silly by mentioning candles.
Review sample provided Mossburn Distillers & Blenders