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.
Fast forward over two decades and cask finishing is a standard practice fully embraced by the industry. However, the precise chemistry of oak maturation is still not yet fully understood, and arguably even less comprehended when considering a further re-cask into a barrel which has held an entirely different liquid to whisky.
Finishing is rather trial and error. Some spirits naturally integrate the new flavours which re-casking provide and take on greater depth and complexity. Others do not, and result in whiskies where the finish is either overpowering, or indeed the reverse, where it is completely lost to the inherent flavours of the spirit itself. Wine cask finishes to my mind are particularly volatile to the whims of maturation. For every successful integration I've tasted I can name two where things have not gone quite according to plan. It is therefore with great pleasure that I can let you all know that the 2017 batch of the Arran Malt Amarone Finish is just as successful as its forerunner.
For those who are thinking "That's great Matt, but what actually is Amarone?", a quick wine lesson: Valpolicella DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is located in Verona, Italy. A wide variety of Valpolicella wines are produced from three main grape varieties: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara. One of the types of wine produced from Valpolicella is Amarone - where the grapes have been allowed to partially dry out before production has commenced. This drying causes the grapes to shrivel, but also to intensify in both sugar and flavour. As such, Amarone wines are usually high in alcohol and are often quite expensive – after all, if your grapes are half the size, you need twice as many!
Back to the whisky now. What we have here is the Arran Malt, matured in the 'traditional' way, then re-casked into barrels which previously held Amarone. You can tell this just by looking at the whisky with its wonderful pink salmon hue.
Nose: Relatively pronounced with sweet sugary figs, candied orange peels and fresh raspberries, all dipped in sherbet. Chipped oak and vanilla are present, but take a back seat to the sweeter notes. Water enhances this sweetness even further.
Taste: Very solid arrival, which whilst mouth-filling, does not overplay the sweetness as much as the nose. Ripe summery raspberries, prunes and dried pears, are counted by sympathetic spicing in the form of cinnamon and light cocoa.
Finish: The wine finish is at its most noticeable here, combining with malts, dried spicy fruits and again the cocoa. There’s a good level of astringency at the end which balances well against the liquid's inherent sweetness.
Wine finishes either work or they don’t. This one does. Whilst undeniably a sweeter whisky probably best enjoyed after a meal, Arran's spirit inherently lends itself well to an injection of sugary spiced fruit. Worth looking out for. Especially if you like malts which might make you think of the sherberty fruity sweet flavours of an Eton Mess!
With thanks to Isle of Arran Distillery for the review sample.