SWAG: Spotlight on Arran Distillers

[It’s been a while since my ‘blog’ last entry WLP, for various reasons. From now on, I won’t be [able to] updating the menu pages, so it’s all down to the powers of the search bar from now on. Furthermore, pictures may or may not be aligned. That is all for now].

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In this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021, you won’t find Arran distillery under ‘A’. Since the recent birth of Lagg distillery on the south side of the island, the existing Arran distillery is now to be found under ‘L’ for Lochranza.

Organised by SWAG’s Kenny, our host for tonight’s SWAG online tasting is Mariella – Arran Distiller’s Global Brand Ambassador – “,.. such a new title, I can hardly say it”, she says. Mariella’s dream was to work for a small independent company and/or distillery with a passionate focus towards ‘no-nonsense whisky’, meaning good barley, good wood, slow fermentation, considered distillation [tall stills and a near-horizontal lyne arm don’t give much reflux – they control it inside the still by running slow], slow ageing,… no chill-filtration, no colouring etc.,…. Arran [Distillers]/Lochranza distillery ticks all these boxes.

Established in 1995, Harold Currie begun building his distillery on the Isle of Arran in 1993. Arran – home to seven golf courses, one mini golf course and now two distilleries – is situated off the West coast of Scotland running alongside the Kintyre. Due to the proximity of the gulf stream, snowy peaks and tropical is are to be found coexisting at various times of the year.

The year 1993 was an extraordinary time to begun such a venture given the historical backdrop – a huge decline in whisky sales globally at the beginning of the 1980s that lead to a whisky surplus and a devastating number of distillery closures.

  • 1983: ‘The Great Cull’ saw 12 Scottish distilleries close [TWE]
  • 1985: Coleburn, Convalmore, Glenesk, Glenury Royal, Hillside and Millburn close
  • 1991 Inverleven closes
  • 1993: Pittyvaich & Rosebank close
  • 1994: Littlemill closes

Against this tide of closures – when the industry seemed non-existent – Harold Currie bought land on Arran in 1993, started building in 1994, and began making spirit in 1995. He brought whisky making back to the island after 150 years.

The Arran/Lochranza distillery today, is 26 year old. That puts the distillery in a very different position to the swathe of newcomers that have emerged ever since. As a demonstration of Arran Distillers established position, we start tonight’s flight with an 18yo. How many tastings start there? Arran have only a few casks that are aged 25 or 26 years, so a regular/core range 25yo whisky is well off the cards, for now. A 21yo, however, remains Arran’s oldest core-range [flagship] expression.

The five whiskies we are trying tonight are bottled at 46% abv and higher. I had no smell or taste at the time of the live tasting, so I made initial notes without tasting, followed – a few weeks later – by my own tasting notes and impressions. Let’s begin.

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Arran 18yo [2021] Ob. 46% WB89[2] [WF]86 WLP187 WLP285

  • N: Though seemingly an all-sherry malt, due to plenty of refill cask maturation at play this isn’t a bomb as first expected. One could spend hours on a nose like this, one I find this far more complex than when I first tried it in 2019 [WLP]. Smelling like an old soft-aged sherried [30yo] Bunna, the colour of this spirit reflects all those rich [“lush” says Mariella] stewed honeyed vegetal waxy fruits brought on by 16+ years in refill casks with a [9-month approx.] finish in first-fill oloroso wood. Out of interest, the 21yo is [currently] all made up from 1998-vintage refill casks. Overall, this 18yo offers up a dreamy nose.
  • T&F: Less sublime/more jobbing on the palate than the nose, but still with plenty to admire: form, mouthfeel, colour,… and that vegetal waxy aspect from the nose remaining true. A little water is recommended and encourages the toasted character to shine through. Later, we’ve [more] vegetal > sweet~bitter cocoa~vanilla, still with plenty of fruit action all over the place, a metallic edge, and just a touch of heat. With this one’s age showing at the end, it’s a testament to the blender – a feature throughout this flight – that the spirit is never overwhelmed/over-shadowed by the casks. We finish with a honeyed/caramel melon sweetness with a kale-like vegetal aspect.
  • C: Accomplished and characterful whisky from a relatively new & small company selling some of its oldest stock. At £86, this is a very fair and competitively priced 18yo in the current climate. It’s easy to imagine that Arran will continue to go from strength to strength as further decades roll on.

Scores 86 points

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Arran Amarone Cask Finish [2020] Ob. 50% WB84.10[105]

Aged for 7-8 years in bourbon casks followed by a 9-month finish in fresh Amarone wine casks. Amarone is a North/Northeastern Italian wine made from well-ripened grapes which translates to plenty of sugars and very little tannin.

  • N: “Dessert whisky” says Mariella, this has PX & [tawny] port [cask-finished] vibes. There’s huskiness too and a creaminess, blu-tac > Polyfilla, tomato plants & the soil of,… which demonstrates there’s more to this than just that initial wine-brought sweetness. Good stuff so far.
  • T: It sure is sweet [to begin with], but in a very welcoming way – reminiscent of Mackmyra’s Skordetid in part. Why Amarone? “It creates balance”, says our host. What balances the sweetness [for me] is a citric quality with more of that distinct waxy vegetal aspect [later on],.. and runny vegetal [green juice] caramel,…
  • F: ,… all at the front > middle of the mouth,…. slightly tannic at the end then bitter~>sweet, slightly peppery – one of very few signifiers that this is at 50% = dangerous!
  • C: There are a number of competitors producing this sweet[er] red wine style of whisky. No doubt it’s tricky to nail an Amarone finish without over-powering the spirit, but here, we have a very desirable result – one that appears to suit the distillery’s citrus character well. Let’s hope they made a big batch. This appeared popular on the night. It’s a bottle I’ll be buying.

Scores 85 points

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Arran’s very first still is situated in the car park. This begins our virtual tour of the distillery. Current output is 50,000 lpa, but if Arran/Lochranza ran 7 days a week they could technically hit 1.2mlpa. Further reading: whiskylovingpianist: On Location, Arran & Lagg

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Arran Sauternes Cask Finish [2020] Ob. 50% WB82.62[56]

“The marmite whisky”, says Mariella. I’m often a fan of this sweet white wine finish, so let’s see what we have here.

  • N: With a murky pong, this one might have fared better coming before the sweeter Amarone. I think it’s safe to say we are talking bourbon cask maturation, though arguably, it’s also rather ‘new’/Euro distillery-esque, stylistically. After an hour or so, it starts to sing its slightly unusual song – the wine from the casks entrenched with the spirit, providing notes of honey, melon,… that kind of [typical of the genre] thing.
  • T: Unlike the Amarone, you can tell this is around 50% abv. Arriving with a ginger & lemon juice bite and a slightly resinous forward momentum, this is considerably more sour in comparison to the Amarone,… slightly metallic,… soapy [yep],… 
  • F: ,.. into more honey, aromatic fruity [Lush Co.] soap and tempered heat into a concluding dryness. At the death, the honeys [from the wine] make me want to go back for another sip. Perfect with ginger beer and a slice of lemon? I agree.
  • C: Rather ‘interesting’ tricksy/complex/‘academic’/tough to love whisky [delete as appropriate], though I reckon this one found a death seat after the 18yo and then the Amarone. Saying that, it went down fairly easily.

Scores 82 points

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Attending the opening of the distillery in 1995 [see pic above] includes [amongst others] Michael Jackson and son of Masataka Taketsuru [President of Nikka].

The Queen visited in 1997,….

,… followed by Ewan McGregor in 1998 [see pic below]. After his visit, Ewan was presented with a cask that still sits in the distillery warehouse. In light of the new [Sky] Starwars series [and given the fact Ewan is tee-total], Mariella had the idea of bottling his cask into R2-D2 shaped bottles. Great idea! Ewan? Notice everyone [in the pic below] is holding up tumblers. Glencairn’s had not been invented then. Further reading: wiki

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Arran [Tawny] Port cask finish [2020] Ob. 50% WB82.79[59]

  • N: Perhaps this expression sits rather well in-between the Amarone and the Sauternes. I like the balanced complexities on show here. With plenty to explore over time, sweet and savoury delights await.
  • T: There’s no doubt we are still in grapevine territory, though Arran’s Amarone still shines through by comparison. Perhaps the previous two malts have thrown me off, but here we’ve plenty of glimpses of flavourful kitchen dishes along the way. We are talking about gravy [quince] jam, apricots & plums in [meat] stews,… plus a greasy mouthfeel.
  • F: More metallic > mineral/chalky action and just a touch of aromatic detergent/soapiness towards a sour conclusion. Resinous casks – the oak itself – also show here.
  • C: Good whisky if a touch,… muddled [slightly painting by numbers?]

Scores 82 points

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Ryan – who got the order all wrong – is “on fire from the Fingal’s” [coming up]. Before that, we’ve an even stronger powerhouse at 57.2%.

Arran Heavily Peated Ob. Bottled for Lagg Distillery Rum Cask finish [3000 bts] 57.2% WB88.33[15]

Lagg will not be making anything but whisky, so while we wait, here’s an Arran whisky bottled for Lagg. This is an online-available “experiment”, which – because of the global ‘situation’ – would have been a distillery-only exclusive. It features a higher-than-usual ppm bourbon-matured Arran/Lochranza single malt which has then been aged in ex-Plantation rum casks for 2 to 2.5 years. Arran peat their barley at 20ppm as standard. This is made from peated barley at 50ppm. It’s a good experiment to see how Arran spirit would hold up to more ppm, and perhaps, an indication of what Lagg’s whisky might be like in the future?

  • N: Slight smoked [bacon > turkey~BBQ] snacky meaty vibes with juicy dried fruits, calvados hints – [more] apricots, peach,… the peat and fruity-sweetness working very well.
  • T: A big peated fruity dram, neat. Adding water softens the impact without spoiling the [very tasty] qualities. With a prominent fruity smokiness, there’s no getting away from the [young?] spirited ‘pow’. What it isn’t [thankfully], is smoked rum.
  • F: Eventually,.. smoky cocoa powder,…smoked nuts,…. still spirity yet there’s a slight savoury potpourri sweetness at the end. Is that the previous Amarone et al talking?
  • C: A powerhouse whisky, the rum cask finishing working well [it’s not overbearing], becoming more standard/straight-ahead Caol Ila-like later – the heavier phenols favourable. There’s no point looking at this as an indication of what Lagg will be. It’s more a declaration of Lagg’s no gin or vodka policy. Will rum casks have a future at Lagg? Answer: Possibly.

Scores 84 points

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And what of an Arran local barley release? Perhaps. However, Arran did buy orchards and land for growing barley, so maybe we should watch out for a smoky calvados. As for single estate whisky/full-island maturation, Arran Distillers are working on it.

Last one then.

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[Arran] Machrie Moor Fingal’s Cut [2019] Ob. Sherry cask 54.4% WB86.12[36] website£60

At cask strength, this is bourbon cask-matured juice with a sherry cask finish of around one year.

  • N: Getting back to sherry now, which is upfront, and boy does it suit Arran’s spirit well. I wish I’d saved some of my 18yo for comparisons.
  • T: Fruity, slightly oaky/citric, waxy, a touch vegetal,… very representative of Arran’s profile overall. With water, it’s more salivating, slightly ‘green’, and with a touch of cocoa,… towards granulated sugar?
  • F: Confirmed once again, sherry and peat suit Arran’s spirit very well. We’ve a rather thick arrival [by comparison to the previous drams] with a vegetal salty sugar juice [bite], a generous lump of simmering peat, and more aromatic satsuma/orangey fruitiness [which I’ve failed to mention before, but has previously occurred during this flight] covered in chocolatey potpourri. The smokiness is very firm without being dominant, and is comforting too.
  • C: Despite being youthful, this is a cracker. Best of the night/flight for me, and others agree. This expression is very representative of Arran/Lochranza’s profile in many ways, heavier phenols not upsetting these qualities.

Scores 87 points

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VOTES

Without Charlie present, SWAG’s voting system is a far more sombre affair. The Machrie Moor whisky wins the poll, followed by the heavily peated [Arran for Lagg], but there isn’t much in it. Charlie pops up in the last few minutes of the session. The room lights up. Our host notices it too. Fireworks ensue!

Takeaways:

  • Arran/Lochranza’s profile: vegetal waxy caramel-sweet~citrus-sour – one that suits refill sherry maturation. 
  • The distillery is demonstrating some excellent blending, executing subtle finishes from their refill-maturated stocks.
  • Their whisky appear to work young and mature, and with a sweet spot in-between. As a result, many still lament the 14yo.

Further reading:

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With thanks to Kenny, SWAG, Mariella, and Arran.

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END

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