Isle of Arran are one of Scotland's newer distilleries, having been founded in 1995. Arran has a long history of illicit stills and only once before 1995 saw a legal distilling operation located in Lagg. The founding of Arran was achieved through the sale of 'Founders Bonds' which, for an investment of capital, gave buyers 5 cases of Lochranza blended whisky and 5 cases of Arran Founders Reserve when it was ready to be bottled in 2001. Time has passed by quickly and now Arran is able to offer a wide range of single malts in their core range, from 10 year olds through to an 18 year old. The business is growing quickly and recently announced plans to build a new Arran facility - back on Lagg once again.
Arran has released nearly a dozen Amarone Wine Cask whiskies over the years. This 2007 example is one of, if not their first. The whisky was matured in ex-bourbon casks before being re-racked into Amarone (which is a blend of Corvina, Molinara and Rodinella grapes) for a finishing period. We reviewed the 2017 Arran Amarone last year – let’s see if this example from 10 years earlier (with a slightly higher ABV of 55% as opposed to 50%) is just as successful.
Another wine cask from the Felsina estate. This time, a Chianti Classico, which looks like it might have been a limited edition produced for the Russian market. It’s bottled at 55% and has spent less than a year finishing in Chianti casks before being released in 2007.
I’d already written this review in my head. I’d sampled this whisky several times over the past few months and on each and every occasion found that it possessed an incredibly sulphurous edge to it. Today was going to be a musing on liquid taints – sulphur being a not uncommon, but sometimes controversial example. Now, I’m not nearly as predisposed to this supposed scourge as some, indeed, in some cases I enjoy a hint of gunpowder or brimstone in my whisky – particularly if the distillate is weighty or meaty. Others are less forgiving – go visit Vin at No Nonsense Whisky and you’ll quickly realise that he could probably detect a volcano on a different continent – whilst suffering a cold. But, nevertheless my past experiences with Arran’s Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter 3 had revealed sulphur on a level that even I was uncomfortable with it. And then I sat down for this review, and found that some months later the bottle had miraculously improved. Pre-written review out the window.
Cask 'finishing', once thought the preserve of the experimental is now a commonplace sight across whisky world. Perhaps the first example of this approach was from Balvenie's David Stewart who took a traditionally oaked whisky and re-casked it into a sherry butt to see what would happen.
This Arran wine cask release was matured in ex-bourbon for 8 years before being finished for 9 months in fino sherry casks from the famous Valdespino bodega in Jerez. It was bottled in 2007 at 50% ABV.
8 year old Arran that’s spent an unspecified time finishing in Fontalloro wine casks from Felsina in Italy. This particularly well-known wine is produced from 100% Sangiovese grapes – which makes for an interesting classification of ‘IGT Toscana’ (rather than DOCG Chianti Classico) as being a varietal Sangiovese it fell outside of the Chianti regulations of the time (early 1980s) which required a maximum of 70% Sangiovese and at least 10% from white grapes to be included in Chianti red wines. Whilst the appellation has modernised, Felsina has decided to stick with the IGT Toscana classification. This Arran finish was bottled in 2007 at 55% ABV.
Matured in traditional oak for 8 years, this Arran has been finished for 7 months in Hungarian oak (Quercus Petraea) that previously contained tokaji aszu (the proper name for the sweet wine commonly called tokay in English speaking countries). It was bottled in 2007 at 55% ABV.
Released in 2008, this 8 year old Arran spent 10 months maturing in casks which previously contained Madeira.
Moscatel de Setubal is a fortified Muscat wine produced in the Setubal Municipality of Portugal. This Arran has spent 8 years maturing in ex-bourbon before being transferred into this particular style of dessert wine for a finishing period of 10 months. It was bottled in 2008 at 55% ABV.
This 8 year old Sassicaia finished Arran is slightly different to many of the wine cask finishes that the distillery has produced – it was first matured in sherry casks rather than ex-bourbon. Sassicaia is a sought-after Tuscan red wine that was first released in 1968 (it is regarded as the first ‘Super Tuscan’ wine). It’s made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape and comes from the only single wine estate in Italy that has gained its own DOC (in 1994). This Arran has spent 9 months finishing in Sassicaia casks before being bottled at 55% in 2008.
When talking about Pinot Noir, most folks would immediately think about Burgundy. Not so with this Arran wine cask release which has spent its finishing period in Pinot Noir casks from the Knipser Estate (South West of Frankfurt) in Germany. It was bottled in 2009 at 50% ABV following 8 years of maturation (most of which would have been in ex-bourbon).
A relatively short finishing period for this 2009 Arran – just 6 months in wine casks from Pomerol in Bordeaux. The particular casks utilised here are from Chateau La Conseillante – a famous estate that can trace its roots back to 1735. Given this, it’s likely that the wine was probably a blend of 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec, as is standard for this producer.
The St Emilion red wine that this Arran has been finished in was sourced from Chateau Fonplegade – one of the oldest Bordeaux vineyards complete an with imposing French castle. The Grand Cru Classe classification within the St Emilion region is quite broad, with 63 individual estates within the category, of which, Chateau Fonplegade is but one. Slightly older than many of the Arran wine cask finished, this bottling is 9 years of age, which includes a whole 12 months of finishing in Bordeaux wine casks. It was bottled in 2008 at 50% ABV.
It’s hard to imagine that Isle of Arran Distillery has only been around for a shy over 20 years – there’s a constantly growing number of releases from the distillery and an expanding fan base all getting exciting for the unveiling of the distillery's first official 21 year old in the next few years. The Arran core range is a mix of traditional age-statements bottlings (10, 14 & 18 year olds) and wine-finished whiskies (port, amarone, madeira, sauternes). We recently took a look at the 2017 amarone release, so there's no time like the present to take a step back to the beginning and take alook at the Arran entry level bottling – the 10 year old.
This is the first time I’ve seen a Pineau des Charentes (which is a mix of Cognac and grape juice) cask utilised for whisky maturation. Apparently there’s a German single malt called ‘The Nine Springs’ which has also given it a go – but, they remain quite the rarity. This example from Arran is a touch older than many of its sibling wine cask series bottlings at 10 years of age. Nevertheless, it’s not had an extended period of finishing – just 8 months, which is broadly in line with the wine finishes the distillery has produced over the last decade. It was released 2008 at an ABV of 55%.
The 10 years that Master Distiller James MacTaggart has been with Arran have passed quickly – the distillery has gained in stature and reputation, reached the milestone of introducing an 18 year old to its core range and are developing their plans to open a second distillery on the southern coast of the Isle of Arran at Lagg. In the meantime, the distillery is celebrating MacTaggart’s 10 years with the release of the ‘James MacTaggart Anniversary Single Malt’.
This month, a new Royal Mile Whiskies exclusive Arran has been launched in partnership with Leith-based bar Nauticus which opened in September 2018, occupying the location of the former Parlour Pub on Duke Street. Nauticus has been established to champion home-grown produce (90% of the menu is either Scottish made, or Scottish owned) and local spirits – but, the bar also looks to draw on the heritage of Leith as a key trading port from as far back as the early 14th Century.
The Dramble’s web guru Danny is a huge fan of The Arran Malt – it’s very much his talisman whisky. Ever since I introduced him to the limited edition 18 year old (the distillery’s first to reach this level of maturity) a few years ago, he’s become both a convert, and a preacher for the quality of whisky being made over in Lochranza. His bottle collection shows this journey of discovery quite clearly. My experience with Arran goes back a few years earlier to when the distillery was still building up its stocks and starting to create its first core range. The first Arran 12 year old had rolled off the production line in 2008 - my introduction came two years later when the 14 year old was revealed.
Despite exclamations to the contrary, packaging plays a more important role in consumer purchasing decisions than you might think. Regardless of a vocal minority who would ideally see all whisky produced in homogenised clear glass bottles without any use of extraneous cardboard or wood (and honestly with prices heading the way they are, sometimes I feel like joining this brigade), packaging can communicate many things. From differentiating your brand identity, to standing out on shelves and swaying customer purchasing decisions….or even just adding some beautification to the growing number of closed bottle ‘whisky shrines’ that social media seems riddled with.
Over the years, consumers have been informed in equal measure that age-matters, or that it’s just simple a number. The truth is arguably more nuanced, and inherently wrapped up in the underlying quality of spirit, but there’s always something to be said about a distillery coming of age. Arran celebrated its 21st anniversary back in June of 2016 (announcing plans to build a second site, south of the Island in Lagg shortly after), but we’ve had to wait nearly a year and a half for their official 21 year old release. This time lag has nearly killed Webmaster Danny – he’s an Arran fanatic through and through – but as the person who first introduced the distillery to him, the significance of this release is not lost on me either.
People have been tasting things for as long as they’ve been putting stuff in their mouths. But how long have they been observing what they’re tasting? Early forays into food and drink were more focussed on the life sustaining properties of consuming things as opposed to systematically breaking down those experiences and the differences in aroma, texture and flavour. Things were simpler then - apple = good – ominous-looking mushroom = bad. And the same is true for alcohol. We’ve been boozing much longer than we’ve been musing about boozing.
It starts at a young age. A tantalisingly empty Panini album whose pages beseech to be filled. Over time, sticker by sticker, through purchase and through trade, the gaps are slowly satisfied until all that remains are the hardest to find - Radja Nainggolan (the Belgium midfielder) apparently being the unicorn for the 2018 World Cup album – who’d have known? However most kids, and in particular their parents, aren’t prepared for the expense of purchasing the near 1,000 packs required to ensure the completeness of their Panini album and as such the majority sit, unfinished gathering dust. Fast-forward to 2021 and this mindset of completeness is far from limited to collecting images of men in shorts – indeed, when it comes to whisky, this preoccupation is increasingly becoming warped into a mentality that it's all or nothing.
Today we have another TWE exclusive single cask from the distillery’s second year of production. Sharing the same age as the suspected wine cask from a few months back, this bottling also comes from an unspecified cask type – however in this instance the profile is much more readily recognisable and is undoubtedly derived from sherry.
There’s a wealth of occasions, moments and milestones which distilleries can (and probably should) celebrate. From breaking ground on a new site and the filling of cask #1 all the way to celebrating a 200th birthday and everything in-between. But the achievements from the earlier parts of a distillery’s journey – the ‘first ofs’ - are in many ways the most significant of a lifetime. A centennial or even bicentennial is of course a remarkable achievement, but it’s a poor relation to the whisky being made and enjoyed right now. The times have moved on many times since. 25 years though – that’s a landmark that I can actually relate to - both personally, and also in liquid terms.
Watt Whisky’s first trip over to the Isle of Arran produces an 8 year old single malt that has spent its life maturing inside an ex-bourbon barrel. 173 bottles (not a huge number for the cask size and spirit age it has to be said) have been produced at 59.2% ABV and are available via The Whisky Exchange for £59.95.
The colour of a whisky plays a significant part in its overall visual appeal, but also invariable leads to the forming of assumptions – lighter whisky being less flavourful, darker being matured for longer and therefore being more flavoursome, or having a particularly large sherry influence. Neither of these statements are necessarily the case. The colour of whisky might provide you with some clues as to its maturation and possible flavours combinations, but only through tasting can you validate your suppositions. Today’s whisky provides us with a perfect example with which to learn from.
Danny’s favourite distillery makes another SMWS appearance with this 17 year old Arran that was distilled on 20th April 2000. It was matured for 16 years in an ex-Bourbon barrel and then re-racked into a 2nd fill toasted hogshead for another year of slumbering. One of 234 bottles. Spicy & Dry flavour profile.
You might not know who Emily Chappell is by name, but you’ve doubtless already seen her work. Emily is the artist who designs the graphic novel style labels for That Boutique-y Whisky Company’s range of independently bottled whiskies. Her time is spent not just creating the now iconic labels, but also researching them – digging into whisky folklore for interesting and oft-times quirky stories about both the distilleries and the people who worked at them. The fun and colourful labels are somewhat of a ‘code’ of knowledge, historical references and in-jokes about each individual distillery. You’ll certainly need some hefty whisky smarts to pick up on each and every one.
A lot of emphasis is put on the colour of whisky – at times, far too much. It’s hard to deny our natural inclinations towards assessing the visual charm of liquids – unless you’re subjecting yourself to a unexpected night time simulation, you’re using your eyes before using your olfactory system. But, it can be a highly deceptive taste indicator often misleading people into presuppositions - darker equalling richer and more flavoursome - lighter being dismissed as younger and less developed. This seems particularly true for a contingent of ex-sherry lovers who actively seek out the most impossibly opaque expressions with nary an opportunity missed to exclaim “ would you look at the colour on that”. In fairness, they’re often right in their assumptions, imperviousness hue does suggest an intense sherry tasting experience – but not always.