It is no secret that I have a bit of a soft spot for Arran. Growing up in Ayrshire this could be considered my “local” malt whisky distillery, indeed the island crowned by Goatfell would dominate the seascape on any reasonably clear day – however you’d certainly have to take the short ferry crossing before the pagodas would become visible! A relative newcomer to the whisky scene (if you ignore the torrent of new distilleries in the last few years) Arran was the first distillery I personally visited – I won’t count my visit to Tomatin as a 10 year old, since I was refused a dram! – and I have taken interest in their journey from fledgling distillery to today which sees an established and mature core range.
The very early days of Isle of Arran Distillery saw a private cask ownership scheme as a solution to the inevitable cashflow problems a new whisky distillery suffers as its spirit matures. This proved so successful that the scheme was halted, since so much spirit was owned by individuals that the distillery itself was perhaps not accumulating enough stock to see through its brand development years.
A possible result of this squeeze on its oldest stock, the early releases of The Arran Malt were punctuated with experimental cask finishes, perhaps in an attempt to sell some interesting and palatable bottles from whisky which was a little younger than had been hoped. Some rather careful juggling of inventory is required in the early days of a distillery it would seem – I suppose these days you would just buy in some neutral grain spirit and bottle a gin!
Regardless of the principal cause for the wide array of unusual cask finishes in the early days, it is undeniable that there was innovation and a source of interest in such releases. Today Arran has matured into a solid core range, spanning entry-level no age statements to an 18 year old bottling. It would be a shame if upon attainment of this status the old experiments were to fall by the wayside, and hence Arran has kept the innovation gears turning with fairly frequent limited releases.
From the semi-regular The Bothy batches through the extravagantly-packaged Smugglers’ Series to the exclusive-to-members White Stag releases, these limited editions have proven so popular that their release often spells trouble for Arran’s long-suffering web server. Unfortunately Arran is not immune to The Flipper Effect and it is sad to see these releases sell out so quickly only for bottles to immediately resurface on auction sites (I fear that elaborate packaging such as the Smugglers’ Series helps incite those of this mindset), however that is the subject for another post!
I have acquired a number of Arran expressions in my personal collection over the last year or so including core expressions, limited releases and independent bottlings. What better opportunity to taste them side-by-side and explore what ties these varying expressions together, what sets them apart?
First up is Lochranza Reserve: a No Age Statement, non-chill-filtered, naturally-coloured entry-level malt bottled at 43% ABV.
Nose: Light and bright with perfumed orchard fruit; crisp green apples and some raspberries. Given some time hints of lemon peel appear.
Taste: A light palate with sweet honey drizzled apples and summer berries.
Finish: Aspects of malt and light cocoa.
It is encouraging to see an entry-level whisky unadulterated with chill-filtration/colouring and bottled at a decent strength. What’s more, this is a pleasant dram with character. For around £30, this is tremendous value!
Initially matured in first-fill ex-bourbon backs, The Bothy is then transferred into quarter casks for an 18 month finish/secondary maturation. Bottled at cask strength (55.7% ABV for Batch 1) in batches typical of 12,000 bottles, non-chill-filtered and naturally coloured.
Nose: Light fruit is joined by some malt cereal and a hint of nuttiness. Some orange peel, then the fruit becomes slightly tropical. Gentle spice constant in the background.
Taste: A good mouthfeel, balance of apples and spice with some marzipan. Unreduced the palate is fairly “hot” at cask strength.
Finish: Lingering perfumed fruit with some vanilla sweetness.
A very pleasant unadulterated Arran where the distillery character shines through. Batches of The Bothy typically go for around £55 which is pretty good value for a cask strength whisky (age statement or not!).
After an inaugural 18 year-old, a rather different 18 year-old entered the core range in 2016. Utilising both ex-sherry and ex-bourbon matured whisky, Arran 18 is bottled at 46% ABV and again is neither chill-filtered nor artificially coloured.
Nose: Rich with some dried fruit and nuts complimenting the distillery character. Light cinnamon present alongside a slight hint of milk chocolate. The reduced nose has more green cereal; grassy and malty.
Taste: Luscious palate with lots of sweet tropical fruit balanced with warm, gentle vanilla. Lots of blackcurrant alongside a hint of orange peel.
Finish: Juicy fruit is overtaken by notes of malt and cocoa powder.
The typical Arran distillery character of light orchard/citrus fruit balanced with spice is present, given a more mature delivery befitting its 18 years. Reasonable value for a 18 year-old distillery bottling at around £75.
The sixth batch of Arran from That Boutique-y Whisky Company is a 19 year old release of 250 bottles bottled at 49.7% ABV.
Nose: Quite consistent with distillery bottlings: on the fruit side there is perfumed/floral raspberries. The tropical side is accentuated with time. Dusty malt notes are present in the background becoming sweeter over time bringing toffee.
Taste: A lovely kick of vanilla and marzipan with orange ice poles and some more warm spice.
Finish: A balance of orange peel, floral honey and malt.
Independent releases often afford an opportunity to explore a different side to a distillery, but in this case the typical Arran character once again shines through. A great dram, although keeping in mind the 500ml bottle we’re starting to drift outside value territory at around £68 (the equivalent of £95 for a standard 700ml).
The second release in a series honouring the unlicensed whisky trade from the numerous stills to be found on Arran in the 1800’s, The High Seas comprises rum cask finished whisky alongside first fill ex-bourbon and some peated stock and is bottled at a cask strength of 55.4% ABV.
Nose: Quite different from standard releases, a slightly seaweed coastal character not normally found in Arran plays nicely with poached apple and spice. A touch of demerara sugar on the sweet side announces the rum casks, some vanilla spice appears at the back of the nose. The reduced nose has stone fruit in abundance.
Taste: Starts lighter and crisper than anticipated with citrus and light spice, then the rich demerara sugar notes come through. Similar to the nose, a touch of water softens things right out bringing stone fruit.
Finish: Back to classic Arran with fruit, spice and malt.
A voyage away from standard Arran releases, yet the distillery character is still stowed away behind the sweet and coastal notes. A well-named dram!
The final release in the series, The Exciseman marries whisky matured in quarter casks with ex-madeira matured spirit. A higher cask strength of 56.8% ABV, this whisky is as always non-chill-filtered and contains no artificial colouring.
Nose: Very rich nose for an Arran; plump sultanas and dusty spice, manuka honey sweetness. Behind this the distillery character is present with apples. The reduced nose is more classically Arran with lighter fruit coming to the fore.
Taste: The sweetness of muscat grapes and honey in front of poached pears with cinnamon. Reduced, the palate lightens up with some sweet citrus oil.
Finish: Manuka honey continues onto the finish, balanced with orchard fruit and spice.
Once again we see the experimental side of Arran with the third instalment in the Smugglers’ Series; this is sweet and rich unlike any standard release, yet thankfully the madeira is tempered by the lighter notes provided by the quarter casks and so never feels over-done.
Released in 2016 to celebrate the distillery’s 21st anniversary, this limited edition contains whisky distilled in the first three years of operation at Arran. Fully-matured in ex-oloroso sherry hogsheads this release is bottled at a 52.6% ABV cask strength in the usual Arran unadulterated style. Despite the hint at an 18/19 year old whisky there is no age statement on the bottle.
Nose: Lots of tropical fruit to the fore joined by some stone fruit with sultanas sprinkled throughout. The back of the nose has a sweetness of fruit gums, then a walnut note closes things off. The tropical notes are further accentuated with a drop of water.
Taste: Classic balanced palate on a mouthfeel that is somehow simultaneously luxurious and crisp – lots of orchard fruit and sherry cask character. Some cacao nibs alongside other earthy spice. The addition of water brings lime peel.
Finish: Long and complex, moving from rich fruit to dark spice to nuts.
A wonderfully complex dram where the rich oloroso notes have integrated beautifully with the all-too-familiar Arran character – as one should expect with a retail price of around £150.
From this cross section of the range of Arran Malt it is clear that the distillery produces an outstandingly consistent spirit and applies a careful approach to maturation. Regardless of the makeup of any particular release the same identifiable character was present. This is the case across the range from entry-level to the most exclusive limited releases, meaning there is some solid value to be found in the core range.
As Arran has matured it has retained an experimental side with some of the special releases, which offer some excitement and variation without departing from the heart of The Arran Malt.
As I have tasted these expressions Master Distiller James MacTaggart has celebrated his 10th anniversary at the distillery, a milestone which sees Isle of Arran Distillers assured in their place as an established Scotch whisky distillery looking to the future. It’s a confident-looking future with a second distillery currently under construction in Lagg on the south of the island. Due to open in 2018, the second site will take over production of the peated malt currently bottled under the Machrie Moor branding. The perfect excuse for another visit to the island!