The journey from field to bottle for Craigellachie whisky is similar to the majority of Scotch malt whisky brands. It is the nuances in malting, fermentation, distillation and maturation that shape the individual nature of the whisky’s character, and in the case of Craigellachie it is the malting process that particularly stands out.
Craigellachie sources its water from underground springs by the Blue Hill Quarry, adjacent to the distillery, fed by a pipeline directly into the distillery.
Craigellachie uses Concerto malted barley from Glenesk malting in Angus, with the specific requirements from John Dewar and Sons to only use barley grown in the UK, preferably Scotland. Importantly for the character of Craigellachie whisky, during malting, rather than a gas burner being used to spread hot steam through the grains, heavy fuel oil is used, producing steam with sulphur in it. The oil-fired kiln at Glenesk maltings is only used for Craigellachie and the malt produced in it kept separate from those destined for other distilleries.
A Richard Sizer Porteus Mill processes 10 tonnes of malt per grind, taking a little over two-and-a-half hours to process. The old mill, dating from the 1860s, is lovingly kept working by Ronnie, the obliging mill engineer. Two grist bins, rather than the typical one, allow Craigellachie mill to process two millings by the time one mash is finished.
Every Tuesday morning the yeast tank is refilled with a cream MS-1 strain. Craigellachie uses 192 litres of yeast per batch, with a capacity in the tank of 4,500 litres. As a ratio, it works out at 19 litres of yeast per one ton of mash. The use of liquid yeast represents a transformation from the situation pre-2008 when the distillery still brought yeast in dry form in sacks, mixing it with water to create a ‘slurry’. The use of liquid yeast eases handling and has speeded up the process.
The old mash house has a large stainless steel plate in the floor covering the hole where the mash tun was historically situated. The new mash tun, installed in 2001, sits in an adjoining purpose built mash house. This 10 ton Steinecker mash tun is a full lauter, meaning the rakes can move vertically as well as horizontally, while computer control and monitoring for pressure differentials negates the need for an underback.
The temperature of the mix of malt, yeast and water in the mash tun is raised until it reaches 67.3°C, considered the optimum temperature to start sugar extraction. At this temperature, the enzymes needed in fermentation are preserved – in Scottish whisky production it is illegal to add enzymes, in contrast to American or Irish whiskey, hence all enzymes must come from the malt. Having collected the first water (wort) containing the extracted sugars and precious enzymes, the temperature is gradually increased in subsequent waters to tease as much sugar out of the malt as possible.
The mash tun produces 47,000 litres of wort which is pumped to one of the eight larch wood wash-backs where fermentation takes 55-65 hours. Craigellachie typically operate 21 mashes per week.
wash back No.7
The fermented wash is pumped into the two wash stills – one mashing produces enough to charge each of pair of stills with 22,730 litres of wash. Another element that distinguishes Craigellachie is its use of worm tub condensers – a coil of copper tubes lying in a large iron container filled with constantly flowing cold water. The vapour coming off the stills is directed through these tubes and is cooled and so condensed by the surrounding water.
Many companies have phased out worm tubs in favour of modern shell-and-tube condensers as worm tubs are notoriously prone to leaks, meaning water coming through the spirit safe and alcohol being lost in tub – and then consequently down the drain where the used water flows from the tubs. To guard against this, workers regularly drain down each tub, gas test it and then run water through it to see if there are any leeks. The continued use of worm tubs not only maintains distilling tradition; they also beneficially affect the character of the distillate produced. Worm tubs offer less copper contact than shell-and-tube condensers so produce more complex spirits with a heavier mouthfeel.
view looking over worm tubs to pagoda
At Craigellachie, 20,000 litres of wash at about 8% alc./vol. enters the first still, which produces low wines at about 27% alc./vol. The low wines from both wash stills are combined along with feints from the previous 2nd distillation to charge the spirit stills with 22,730 litres.
In the spirit stills, foreshots (heads) are allowed to run for around half-an-hour until the distillate reaches 72% alc./vol. at which point the run is switched to spirit (heart). The spirit run lasts between four-and-a-half to five hours and the final cut to faints (tails) is made at around 63% alc./vol.. Inside the still house, the scent of sulphuric malt is evident in the air – a smell specific to Craigellachie.
The new-make spirit is sent by tanker to Dewar’s maturation and bottling plant in Glasgow. Here the whisky is stored mostly in ex-American bourbon barrels, with around 10% refill European oak, for a minimum of three years and anywhere up to 21 years, before blending and bottling.