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Whisky Tasting Debrief: Isle of Arran Distillers

For our first tasting of 2020 we welcomed Andy Bell of Arran Distillery. Much like the recent havoc of a storm that shall not be named, it was a wet and windy night; it warmed our hearts to see everyone come out in the gale – thank you to those who did!

Andy, who normally works with international clients as a Sales Manager, delivered an incredibly learned, interesting and generous tasting. Although a lot of his work takes him out of the city, he is a passionate local boy; he began the evening by reminding everyone of Glasgow’s rich whisky history and how our product unites us with the rest of the world. Before taking us through the six whiskies he introduced us to the Victorian whisky writer and historian Alfred Barnard – really, a 19th century whisky blogger. Andy read the following quote to give us a sense of the hustle and bustle in Glasgow at the time:

‘From the centre of the Jamaica Bridge, the scene presented to the eye is one never to be forgotten: a forest of masts stretching as far as the eye can see;…wharves piled with wares from every nation; the continuous flor of passengers from the various steamers and the endless variety of sounds and sights complete a picture unequalled in any other city in the world.’

At this time, the Arran Distillery was not around but the island may have been the site of a few (50) illicit stills. The Arran distillery was built in the 1990s, a decision that really went against the grain as the 80s had seen a slump in the whisky world. The bold move clearly paid off as Arran have now been going for 25 years and have recently opened an additional new distillery and visitor centre in the south of the island, Lagg. Although they’re an expanding outfit Andy was keen to demonstrate how Arran keeps to its core values.

Arran DistilleryLochranza Distillery, Isle of Arran Distillers

For this reason, Andy started the tasting with the Arran 10 which he called the ‘cornerstone of our existence as a distillery’. Everything Arran does, he says, is built on this expression. This was a fresh, light dram with surprising depth. We discovered vanilla and crunchy green apples on the nose which developed into a more substantial oaky flavour on the palate. Andy compared learning about a whisky distillery to learning a language. With languages, he said, you need to start by learning some vocab. In French you might start with ‘je m’appelle’ or in Spanish ‘dos cervezas por favor’. With Arran you start by learning the 10 year old.

The process on Arran starts with the water from their local loch, Loch Nadavie, which has remarkably soft water. Andy informed us that ‘soft’ water is normally qualified by being less than 40mg of calcium per litre; the water from Loch Nadavie is significantly less than this. It makes their fermentation go at a fair pace! It also gives all their whiskies a really soft, gentle quality. Its an important part of their ‘whisky DNA’

Andy then let us try the Arran 21 as our second whisky of the night. We said he was generous! This is an unusual progression, but he reasoned that this would best allow us to see the effect of wood on Arran whisky. The longer a whisky spends in the cask the more the whisky is saturated with oaky flavours. By directly comparing the 21 and the 10 we could pinpoint that change. We could also note the change in colour: the 21 is natural colour and a lot darker. This comparison allowed us to note the consistencies too: this whisky had a fresh, fruity note on the nose that was similar to the 10 but for us in the team it moved from crunchy apple to fresh melon with a dusty, sweet note lingering underneath. On the palate this whisky is extremely well balanced: there are malty notes layered with vanilla, melon and the dry spice of oak on top. In terms of maturation, the folks at Arran used sherry butts exclsuively to create this well-balanced flavour; the same ratio as the 10 year old and thus another aspect that gives Arran a distinct DNA. Although they use first-fill casks on their 10, they use refill sherry casks for the 21. Andy explained that this is a carefully thought out decision: first-fill casks will have a really strong influence which for them will dominate the other flavours, like the melon note, that they have so carefully crafted.

Arran WhiskyIsle of Arran Whiskies. 

Source: Twitter @Arranwhisky

The next whisky we were delighted to try was the Arran Quarter Cask. This was a very tasty whisky indeed and a possible favourite from the night. Ever consistent, this whisky was also finished in a bourbon barrel but one a quarter of the size of a butt. To give you an idea of the numbers, sherry butts are around 475 litres as standard and so a quarter cask is around 120 litres. With a smaller cask the developing whisky has more contact with the wood and a faster, more intense maturation. Andy said it was like maturation on fast forward! We thought this whisky was bursting with flavour - which may have been helped by the strength, as the Quarter Cask is 56.2% alcohol by volume. This just seems to amplify the sweet notes of the whisky, such as a white chocolate aroma. We found that the rich notes from the quarter cask balanced well with the vanilla notes of the bourbon cask - creating a sweet, strawberry flavour. Definite recommendation from the team.

After some tasty canapes and a wee break, we tried our 4th whisky of the night, Arran Sherry Cask. For this whisky the team at Arran centre the flavour profile around classic sherry wood notes like dried fruit, cloves and spicy oak. To create this they make three changes to the maturation process: they use first fill, they use Oloroso sherry hogshead and they mature 100% with these sherry casks. No bourbon influence here! This kind of maturation make a really interesting whisky. Unlike the syrupy PX sherry, Oloroso has a dry, more aromatic quality which comes through in the dram. On the nose you do note that same Arran DNA that is consistent in all their expression through a fresh fruit aroma; what was originally fresh crunchy green apple has mellowed to red apple. Yet, on the palate the Sherry Cask is quite dry with a warming, gentle, toasty sweetness.

This whisky is also cask strength at 55.8% ABV and so many may prefer it with a splash of water. For us this opened it up even further and released a little more sweetness. At Arran, they collect the middle cut of the new make spirit between 63.5% and 73% ABV, giving an average strength of 69% ABV wich is then reduced to 63.5% with more water from Loch Nadavie before it goes into the cask for maturation. For a cask strength whisky, like the Quarter Cask and the Sherry Cask, the only change in ABV that occurs after that is through evaporation – the angel’s share.

Arran Old WhiskyOld packaging from Isle of Arran Distillers

Source: Twitter @Arranwhisky

Our penultimate whisky of the night was the Arran 18. Ever consistent in creating their flavour DNA the folks at Arran used first and second fill hogsheads to mature their spirit and then first fill sherry casks for a few months to perfect their whisky. The apple note was back on the nose again but was sweetened through maturation into a toffee apple. For us there was a prominent floral note like parma violets on the palate as well as a rich, toasty undertone. This whisky really balanced light and heavy flavours, which was something we noticed about all of the Arran selection. With water this whisky opened up into beeswax and orange.

Our final whisky of the night took us in a different direction; we finished with the peated Machrie Moor. We say peated, it’s very lightly peated at 20ppm and really proves Arran’s dedication to consistent flavour as even in this smoky dram one could note the same apple notes on the nose. Apple and also a sweet, grassy note. On the palate these flavours developed further into a more intense sweetness and heavier smoky notes. The ultimately gentle characteristics mean that this isn’t a whisky for the peat-heads amongst us, instead it is a great introduction to peat for anyone who has a relative they want to convince!

By the end of the tasting we and a lot of our guests were left buzzing full of a lot of new whisky facts and very keen to get on a ferry over to Arran!

Our next whisky tasting will be hosted by Tomintoul, owned by Angus Dundee Distillers. Join us and enjoy some Speyside whiskies, tickets still available!