Thanks to Master of Malt for the sample and apologies for not reviewing this before you went ahead and selfishly sold all of the bottles.
The character of Sir John Falstaff first barreled his way on stage in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, then again in Henry IV, Part II, and finally, in a larger “starring” role in Bill’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Henry IV, the portly Falstaff proves to be a bad influence on the king-to-be Prince Hal by dragging him into such low-life activities as tavern drinking and petty crime. Falstaff was a jovial, somewhat bumbling lump of a man who enjoyed his booze and spent his time bragging about things he hadn’t done and/or lying about the things he had. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, he clumsily schemes to make some money by courting married women, which, predictably, results in Falstaff being routinely embarrassed and mocked…which he takes with his usual indefatigable good humor. Nowadays, the term “Falstaffian man” seems to get applied to plus-sized men who champion their love of the table and the bottle and prove to be such eccentric yet gregarious characters that most of us find it hard to escape their sizable gravitational pull. It’s become a sort of complement, acknowledging someone’s capacity for bon vivant fun while simultaneously frowning upon their disregard for related potential health problems down the road.
Why the hell am I mentioning this, you ask? Well, it seems that the founder of Cragganmore, the uniquely named John Smith, was himself a bit of a Falstaffian fellow. Already an experienced distiller having worked at Glenfarclas and Macallan among others, Smith opened the distillery in 1869 after also throwing his weight behind the new Strathspey railroad which began service six years earlier and was a major factor in Cragganmore’s success. Legend has it that Smith was so large, he couldn’t fit through the door of a passenger train car. Legend does not have whether or not he ruined the reputations of princes or smeared the good names of married society women, so just how Falstaffian he was remains to be seen. Suffice it to say, he was a large man who made great whisky.
Today, Cragganmore is one of the 643 million distilleries (no, not really) owned by Diageo and is part of their Classic Malts line-up. This 20 year old single barrel offering from Master of Malt was matured in a re-fill hogshead, and numbered 274 cask-strength, non chill-filtered, non artificially colored bottles. Sadly, this is another expression from Master of Malt that sold out before I was able to review it, but visit them anyway to see all the other great stuff they have.
The Nose: A crisp, yet well-matured Speyside nose full of floral honey, fresh-baked apple pie, raisins in vanilla-tinged rice pudding, and a bit of juicy fruit gum. Behind that lush honey and fruit sweetness, there are much subtler notes of dried sawdust, faint worn leather, and a tiny hint of pipe tobacco. There’s nothing too unexpected or unique about the nose, but there’s also nothing that’s not delicious and inviting about it. Water brings out much more orange citrus and quiets some of the “dessert” notes.
The Palate: Wonderful entry of honey, orange pith and juicy but tart, crisp apples. Zippy, warming toasted malt and spicy wood grow in tandem with soft white pepper, grated ginger and bitter clove. Continued cut wood notes go from dry to green with an earthy twinge into the finish. Like the nose, water brings out more citrus in the form of candied lemon. It also candies the ginger a little and smooths out the bigger oak notes. I actually liked this quite a bit neat, but water does make the palate a little more approachable.
The Finish: Continued honeyed citrus sweetness mingles with more drying spice and green wood and subtle oak.
Thoughts: Though the nose is rather stereotypical of a Speyside malt this age, it’s also really enticing and rich. The palate is not quite as rich as the nose leads you to believe, but instead, surprises with its vigor and spiciness. I was missing some of the more earthy, rugged complexity I usually associate with Cragganmore but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this older Speyside.