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.
This Arran was distilled in 1997 and matured for 20 years in a refill hogshead. It’s bottled at 44.4%. The colour is certainly is dark – almost mahogany. However, the ABV of 44.4% might also provide us with some useful information. This is quite low for 20 years of maturation and (when combined with our observation of the colour) would lead me to believe that the refill hogshead that this Arran been matured in was particularly active. More active casks provide both increased colour intensity, but also greater diffusion – so a relatively higher decease in alcohol (I believe it’s normally a drop of around 0.5% ABV per year). At a glance many a whisky enthusiast would look at this bottling and exclaim “would you look at the colour of that!” (indeed, this is a near daily occurrence on many of the sherried whisky forums). But, making an assumption based on colour that this Arran will be packed full of vibrant fruits and pronounced rich sweet sherry flavours would be almost entirely wrong.
Nose: The heavy cask influence is immediate – dark chocolate, coffee, old leather and more than a fair share of old and musty wood. Sweetness is present in the form of orange, prunes and dates, but plays second or even third fiddle to much deeper aromas. Nuttiness, liquorice and a touch of anise – an unusual, but pleasant enough concoction of root beer flavoured with Blackjack chews. A little resting brings out bakery notes and allows some light earthiness to develop. The addition of water releases burnt sugars, old tobacco and some smoke – almost engine oil like.
Taste: Sweet, sour….and more wood. Heavily stewed berries, damsons and plums start with natural sweetness, but quickly develop acridness taking us down the rabbit hole again. Black tea, leather, polish, old trees and the darkest of dark chocolate are where we’re at with this. It’s very woody stuff indeed – old wet planking with fairly sour tannins. That said, the bitterness that you’d probably expect from such heavy wood influence has been tempered quite nicely – it’s there, but doesn’t overbear. There’s a slight breadiness which transforms quite patisserie after a period of resting. As you’d expect, spicing is quite prevalent – cloves, cinnamon, but in particular traces of coastal salinity. Just a slight drop of water smooths things out and allows the fruit to gain sweetness. It also brings hints of delicate florals which, when undiluted, are overpowered by the stronger flavours.
Finish: Long with touches of honey and toffee sweetness at the back of the palate.
This heavily oak influenced Arran is not going to be to everyone’s liking, but it ticks certain boxes for me. There’s oodles of depth and complexity going on here and whilst they’re all from the same deep and dark woody page, they take time to both develop and to decipher. Sweetness is initially lacking (a few drops of water tease it out though) and those judging this liquid solely on its colour might well end up disappointed, confused or both. The mahogany shade doesn’t bring a wealth of sherry-soaked raisins, juicy berries and bright sugars - it brings big wood influence from a highly active maturation. A salutary lesson in why it’s important to judge by your own tastes, not just by colour.