Sunday morning was the beginning of the schizophrenic weather I hinted at in yesterday’s post. We had enjoyed a proper raucous ceilidh the previous night, as the midgies subsided it became a cool, clear and beautiful night. The next morning brought rain and wind the likes of which I haven’t seen for a very long time. It was one of those stormy mornings that wakes you early from a deep and elemental sleep. The wind was fused in roaring channels round the house and the rain came at the windows in spits and hisses, fearsome rags of raging air that seemed to reach in through the first open door and rip you from the warmth of the house. To stand in the droves of rain for only a few seconds would mean a complete soaking, there was little or no mercy to be had when you were out in the thick of it. As I watched it all for a brief moment from the shelter of a bus stop I could see so clearly where the desire for a whisky can come from. There was no other thing I wanted to drink upon arrival at shelter. These are the days that bring home to you the beauty and nourishing value of a warm, cosy bar. A place to sit and blow rainwater off your nose, ideally by a fire, drinking the first mouthful of spirit from your glass, feeling it melt through you as the storm still rages in the growing distance. These are the days that put vitality in whisky, one hour of a brooding storm is worth a thousand tons of office concocted marketing bollocks. The same weather that makes whiskies’ existence possible is the same weather that compels its consumption.
Arran had very kindly agreed to give us a tour at 12.00, by which time the hurricane had morphed into glorious settled sunshine thereby reinforcing the stereotype of Scotland’s ever changeable weather. We were shown round by the very accommodating and knowledgeable distillery manager James MacTaggart. On inspection it became very clear that this was another micro distillery in the style of Glengyle in Campbeltown. All the distilling equipment is in one building with two small warehouses out the back. The water source is only a minutes walk from the distillery and the very snazzy visitors center is adjacent to the distillery building, all this gives it a very neat and compact feel. It is a modern, functional distillery in a very wild and ancient place. In some ways I was disappointed to see so many modern practices like a fairly rapid fermentation (but in wooden washbacks which is a plus), and such a high proportion of fresh bourbon barrels used. However it was also a joy to see such a small enterprise succeeding against the odds out in the sticks. The cost of making whisky on an island, simply in terms of transporting the malt and the casks to and fro, is huge and it all adds up over time. Not to mention the environmental obstacles they face constantly, the regulations over the use of their water source was one particular thorn in their sides. It felt very much like a David slugging away in a world largely populated by Goliaths.
Arran is expanding these days to meet future demand. The implementation of a new rack warehouse in recent years and their own very modern mill have been worthwhile expenditures for them. They plan to extend the core range of Arran to a 14yo later this year along with the flagship 10yo and three permanent wood finish expressions, an 18yo may be on the horizon in a few years time as well. Obviously by this point there is very limited stock from the early years of production in 95 and 96. They mention buying back casks from private owners but this will obviously become costly as time goes on. However they have so far been quite careful with stock management so I’m sure we will end up seeing older bottlings of Arran as the years roll by.
One of the things that became apparent in the warehouses was that Arran’s days of experimentation are slowing down. The distillery appears to have found its feet as it were and is becoming comfortable in its own skin. We hardly saw any wine casks in the warehouse, in fact James told us that apart from the three ongoing expressions to be launched later this year, there will be no more wine finishes (commendable decision in my opinion). They are obviously more confident with their spirit now, they know its character and is strengths and they are clearly trying to play to them. Their cask profile is much more focused on fresh bourbon with a small proportion of refill wood and fresh sherry and they have settled on the classic Arran style. This is complemented with a few weeks production each year of the peated distillate, now up to about 20ppm compared with 14 a few years ago. We tasted this as a 1yo from a fresh sherry butt and were surprised by how rounded it was already. Although this is not unusual for young peated malt you could tell it had great potential. I hope they are able to lay some down for a longer period of maturation, I was imagining how it would be after 15 or even 20 years in cask, it was a beautiful prospect.
All in all it was a very enlightening visit to a distillery that is, after fifteen long years, just starting to hit a bit of an easier road. You feel it has found its stride and is maybe in for a more comfortable ride in the coming decade than the previous one. It has not been the easiest of paths to this point but Arran is to be commended for achieving what it has. Starting a distillery from scratch is no easy feat, let alone on an Island, and when you actually visit the distillery and spend some time there you can really see what an enormous undertaking it has been for everyone involved.
I really wanted to taste this but I sadly wasn’t able to get a sample in time so I have decided to finish today with my tasting notes for the official 10yo.
Arran 10yo OB. 2009. 46%
Nose: A little acidic at first but that clears up nicely after a moment or so and that familiar freshness comes through. Quite flowery and citrusy with some firm, clean maltiness, nutmeg, shortbread and then digestive biscuits again, this biscuit character seems quite common in Arran. There is something faintly cardboardy and porridgy about the nose, which is a little off putting because the aromas are otherwise very pleasant. It clears up a bit after a while then… wow, some lovely notes of guava, white stone fruit and a little spice. This nose seems to reward time.
Palate: Again quite acidic on the attack at first, a difficult delivery. More biscuity notes, this time with quite a bit of caramel as well. Putty, creamy vanilla, wood and spice, lots of fresh bourbon talking now, typical crème brulee character. Still a touch acidic but its rounded out by some very clean saltiness. I like the bite this whisky has on the palate, it probably benefitted greatly from being bottled at 46%.
Finish: Surprisingly long and drying round the sides of the mouth although the sweetness of the flavours remains on the palate. A little nutty now and quite crisp and moreish.
Comments: A good entry level dram for new whisky drinkers, something a little more challenging with more bite and character than your usual bottle of Glen Boring. I can see how they are aiming for a more easy Speyside style but for me it has quite a lot of rugged Island charm. Very good, easy drinking whisky, though its not without a little complexity.
As we drove back along the, by now very familiar, winding roads back to Brodick to meet our ferry another ferocious blast of wind and rain had broken out. It seemed very fitting somehow, it had been a break neck couple of days and we were all feeling the weight on our eyes. For me the trip was a frustratingly brief taster of an Island I would really love to get to know better. They call it Scotland in miniature but I think this casual promotional blurb does the island a disservice. Arran is so clearly its own place, a land as deserving of its own character and identity as the other unique Islands that speckle Scotland’s west coast. In the same way that its distillery, while often dismissed as being unlike a true islander, has grown into its own shoes, possessing an individuality and distinction from other distilleries. It is an Islander there can be no doubt about it, one I’ll be returning to for sure.
On behalf of Wayne, Debbie and myself I would like to thank Mike from Blavod and all the wonderful people at Arran distillery who helped make this such a memorable and enjoyable trip. As wild as the weather they laid on for us.