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.
As a sweeping generalisation, the longer the spirit spends maturing in wood, the darker its eventual colour. Whilst produced from the stills clear, alcohol is a solvent and therefore leaches pigment from the compounds contained in the wood. Caramelised sugars (from charring), tannins and melanoidins (from the breakdown of cellulose) all play their part. As does the size, type and condition of the wood itself – smaller, larger, virgin, refill, charred, 1st fill, refill etc. And that’s completely ignoring interactions with temperature, humidity, or even the dreaded use of E150a. There’s a lot of variables. But, you don’t have to look far to see that this extractive process varies greatly - 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 assumptions.
Today’s whisky comes from independent bottler Whiskybroker - it’s a 22 year old drawn from a refill sherry hogshead and bottled at the end of last month. It’s notable for two things. Firstly, its original sale price of £65 – compare that to other recent ex-sherry Arran bottlings of a similar age and you can clearly see the mark up that other bottlers and retailers are putting on your whisky. A similarly aged example (distilled just three weeks after this one) has recently gone up on Whisky Exchange as an exclusive bottling – it costs £150. Now, that not to say that the level of quality in these casks are identical, or even that the more expensive example isn’t superior – it might well be (and in my opinion, TWE are excellent with their cask picks) – but it does put the price differentials that exist in the market into the starkest possible terms. Unsurprisingly, I believe the bottling sold out in short order.
The other notable aspect of this indy Arran is its colour. Whilst it’s certainly got more hue than you’d expect from ex-bourbon maturation, it isn’t exactly dark, nor necessarily displaying a colour altogether unexpected from 22 years of maturation. This no doubt stems from the refill aspect of the cask – the initial levels of activity (and quite possibly volumes of precursor liquid held in the wood) now lessened following its first filling. However, as you’ll note from my review, the actual flavour profile of this Arran sits very much in the heavily sherried category – more so than many bottlings with darker hues. It’s entirely possible that as the extraction of colour and flavour do no follow each other in a linear fashion that this cask (hogshead 1058) has given more of the latter – it has certainly not been inactive - only 140 bottles were drawn from the cask at 53.9% ABV.
Nose: Brown sugars are slathered in rich chocolate sauce and then dusted with cacao powder for good measure. Heavily reduced fruits – hedgerow berries – sit with figs, dates and prunes. Sticky toffee and steamed pudding are joined by earthy gingerbread whilst in the background, spiced orange and air dried meats (serrano ham) sit atop of malty brown bread. Reduction adds leathery aspects – saddles, hides and cloth, whilst also emphasising red fruits with bright berries and a dusting of icing sugar.
Taste: An unctuous sticky texture provides an arrival with both weight and structure – stewed plums, raspberries and raisins are collected and fashioned into a rich fruitcake. Cinnamon spices from the sherry merge with peppery tinges from the underlying Arran malt – they build throughout the development, subsiding into a musty dustiness. Almonds (marzipan) and walnuts sit with cigar boxes and old dried books. The addition of water unleashes further spices – both from the wood and from the sherry – nutmeg and pepper alongside anise and liquorice.
Finish: Medium with nuts and spices fading whilst orange zest remains.
22 years of age is as old as you’ll find Arran at the moment – and this example continues to reaffirm my belief that the distillery’s spirit is versatile both with cask type and with maturation length. Rich and intense sherry flavours are both decadent, but also not so overwrought that the DNA of the underlying spirit is lost. There’s a lot to like here and self-confessed ‘sherryheads’ would rue any decision not to buy this based on its colour along. Tasty stuff delivered at an exceptionally tasty price.