There's no shortage of experienced whisky drinkers who will only purchase a bottle of scotch if it's cask strength, non-chill-filtered, and devoid of artificial colorants. By that logic, Cragganmore 12 has three strikes against it right out of the gate.
For the record, I completely understand why people draw these lines in the sand. These simple rules usually allow you to spend your money with the distilleries (or independent bottlers) most deserving of your help and/or those most willing to treat you like an educated consumer. And what's more, if you were to hold fast to these same standards, you'd quickly find it's a simple way to maximize the chances of bringing a tasty bottle home.
So in that respect, I get it. The only thing I'd add is that there's a very fine line between being pragmatic and being didactic. If your standards are too rigid and you dismiss all "mass market" scotches out of hand, there will be occasions where you miss out. And in my mind, the entry level bottle of Cragganmore is one of the exceptions that calls the rule into question. Sure, Cragganmore 12 is bottled at 40%, chill-filtered, and almost assuredly colored, but none of these qualities stop it from being really good.
Diageo begins by making a fairly bold claim right on the bottle that the whisky has “the most complex aroma of any malt.” And yet, I can't think of much in the scotch world that keeps pace. I'll be the first to admit that in comparison to the true professionals of the spirits industry, my sense of smell is about as polished as a piece of rebar. But even for a numbskull like me, I'm stunned at the depth here.
Smell Cragganmore, and there's a symphony of incredibly distinct aromas (it sounds pretentious, I know, but it's true). The whisky is perfumed with gardenia, but it's also slightly grassy, and citrus comes forward in the form of lime peel. Take your time, and you'll smell star anise and chopped green onion. Explore it a little more and it'll generate some freshly-cut pear. It's stunning, really.
And taste-wise, there's so much more to play with. Roll it around on the palate, and there's a huge release of herbal and floral notes that mix with very savory, chewy malt. All the while, there's a delicious vanilla cream sweetness and just the slightest hint of smoke to add (yes) even more depth. For me, I also had the distinct sensation of tasting nutmeg and rosewater in there. A lot of what I like about Clynelish 14 is present here, though in direct comparison Cragganmore is less waxy, less salty, and more herbacous.
I'd say that Cragganmore is all the more surprising given that it's a Speyside malt, which as a category tend to have the reputation of being light and inoffensive—often by design. Sipping on a scotch like this is a good reminder that “balanced” doesn't have to mean “boring,” and that scotch will often defy regional categorization. There are a great many flavors and aromas competing for your attention here, but oddly enough the wild tangents all seem to meet back in the middle. If there's an “off” note here, I can't find it.
To me, Cragganmore 12 is one of the heavy-hitters of Diageo's official bottlings. I've had non-chill-filtered, cask-strength, and naturally-colored versions of Cragganmore, and they're pretty damn similar to this. Albeit rarer and often more expensive. Perhaps they're slightly better, true, but the returns are marginal for the price. My advice: buy a bottle of the regular-ass Cragganmore and marvel at the balance, nuance, and value. It's one of my favorites.