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.
It’s a fascinating thing when a new distillery opens – there’s invariably a small army of early-adopters – straight through the doors, following the distillery from its fledgling years through to maturity. But, when I think back to the beginning of my whisky journey, the single malt boom had hardly begun – there was not a raft of new sites opening for me to pin my colours too. When I came of age, Arran was just at the point of being founded – as my whisky adventure took flight, Arran became an established player, releasing a wide range of expressions throughout the years and experimenting with a huge variety of cask types (particularly wine) and both unpeated and peated malts. Staggeringly, there’s been over 1000 releases worldwide since the distillery was founded - and I’ve had the pleasure of watching the liquid develop over the past two-decades……which feels like an even longer time when you consider that were I to take the same magnifying glass to any of 2017’s new distilleries, that by the time they too came of age, I’d be approaching retirement.
Those newer to the whisky world (and therefore probably younger than I) now have a host of new distilleries to follow and help nurture with support over their formative years. Age might just be a number, but there’s a real milestone in your whisky journey being able to witness a distillery you’ve followed since birth come of age.
Arran’s first core range 21 year old is not out first sighting of the distillery’s spirit at this age – there’s been a good dozen or so private and limited edition releases over the past 12 months. But, it’s taken another year of production for the distillery to have built up enough stocks to start to meet the cask demands of creating a core range expression. This first batch consists of 9,000 bottles is delivered at 46% ABV and costs £115 from Master of Malt.
Nose: An expressive fruit melange packed full of stone fruits (apricot and peach), with grapefruit and gooseberry in support. Spices runs throughout – cedarwood and stem ginger with a touch of brassy polish inferring the level of maturity this Arran has now obtained. Depth comes from milk chocolate, buttery pastries and a hint of Ovaltine. Reduction brings out further fruitiness with orange peels, tangerine segments, steeped berry tea infusion and some underlying maltiness.
Taste: The arrival sums up this whisky instantaneously – sweetness vs. spice. It delivers (with a decent mouthfeel) on the fruity promise of the nose with orange zest and lemon tea (rather the St. Clements) alongside chocolate covered hazelnuts, light sponge cake, latte coffee and maple syrup – all sweet, rich and dessert-like. The mid-palate changes things up, with the cask influence coming to bear – woody ginger emerges and fades whilst white pepper bitterness flows then ebbs. It’s tantalisingly restrained. In the back palate, madeira dryness sits with chopped walnuts and ripe hedgerow berries. The addition of water (which is in no-way mandated) proves to be a worthwhile pursuit – tinned soft peaches and cacao nibs sit with emergent sweet florals – lavender and potpourri.
Finish: Medium to long, with bitter orange, dried tobacco leaves and sugared spice.
Arran’s first core range 21 year old has been well worth the wait. After two decades, the whisky is now starting to take on a lovely ripe, fruit-forward character, whilst managing to retain its characterful Arran spice. The composition of casks selected to create this expression ably highlights the balance that’s possible when solid ex-bourbon casks meet solid ex-sherry wood – the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.