Arran Tasting with The Whisky Lounge

The name of The Whisky Lounge seems a bit of a misnomer – rather than a loungey bar somewhere it mainly seems to be a guy called Eddie. He organises events up and down the country based, around tasting whisky and having a good time. I went along to his show in London this year, at which everyone seemed to know him and he knew almost all of them, and it was rather good. So, having stuck my name on the mailing list I waited for his next London event, which came up rather fortuitously – a tasting of the range of the Arran distillery‘s whiskies, led by Céline Têtu. I’d spoken briefly to Céline at The Whisky Lounge London event, Arran being the first stand I went to, and was rather taken by her excellent scots/french accent so was keen to wander along to hear more and also learn about one of my favourite distilleries.

Arran is an island that I visited a few times as a child – popping over on the ferry (and on The Waverley at least once) when up in Scotland visiting people in Ayr. I don’t remember much about it apart from always asking if we could back every time we visited. When I joined the SMWS a few years back I saw that they had some bottlings from Arran and rather liking the style bought most of them until recently. I also picked up one of the distillery bottlings – the limited edition Peacock – and rather liked that as well, all of which has led me towards wanting to try more of their whiskies.

The Arran distillery is quite young, having been built from scratch at Lochranza in the north of the island in 1995, and is currently the island’s only distillery. The Isle of Arran itself is in a rather unique location, sitting between the mainland and the peninsula of Kintyre, home of Campbeltown whiskies, experiencing a relatively constant and mild climate thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream. This helps in the maturation of the whisky, with the constant temperature increasing the effect of time, with Arran whisky often passing as older than it is (as I discovered with one of my SMWS bottlings – 5 years old, the colour of Irn Bru and tasting as rich as something two to three times its age).

It’s quite difficult for new single malt focused distilleries to pay for themselves to start with, with 3 years before you can call your spirit whisky and generally 10 years before you can start putting a ‘regular’ bottling on the shelves. To help augment the income from limited young bottlings (such as the SMWS ones that I tried, as well as ones from other independent bottlers) they built a visitors centre, opened by The Queen, and have become part of the tourist trail on the island. As a thankyou to Her Majesty they gave a couple of casks to Princes William and Harry which they’ve been looking after ever since, as seen in this video from back in April:

The distillery turns 15 years old this week and to celebrate they are having an open day on July 3rd with various events during the day, a ceilidh in the evening, a special whisky cask aged beer from the rather good local Arran Brewery, 3 single cask bottlings from 1995 and a generally available special edition bottling, but more about that later.

The distillery uses barley that is malted offsite and farmed on the east coast of Scotland between Dundee and Montrose. They experimented with using local barley but it didn’t work particularly well, leading to their initial importing of pre-ground unpeated malt from the mainland. Having decided that they needed more control over the grinding of the barley a mill and silo were built on site in 2007, allowing less frequent deliveries and grinding on the premises.

Their stills are quite squat, with long, thin, tall necks stretching up 3-4m to a right angled lyne arm, giving a light and fruity spirit. Eddie had managed to get some new make to try and there were a few glasses dotted around the tables. On the nose it was sweet with mulchy grain, hay, sweet malt and a hint of sugary fruit – maybe pineapple. To taste it was very buttery in mouthfeel, with lots of sweet cereals.

Arran tasting mat

The first whisky to taste of the night was the Arran 10 year old. A mix of about 80% oloroso sherry cask matured whisky and 20% bourbon, this is the latest iteration of their ‘standard’ malt, first produced in 2006 and taking over from the 8 year old which had been the standard until then. Since the first release they have slowly changed the proportions of bourbon and sherry oak, starting with 100% bourbon and potentially moving to a 100% sherry in the near future. It’s bottled at 46%, and, as with all of the distillery’s whiskies, has no added colouring and is not chill filtered. On the nose it has candle wax, salt, milk chocolate, raisins and some lemon sherbert. To taste it has polished oak floors, woody spice, a touch of dried fruit and a dry woody finish. Water opens it up a bit with sweet honey, big tannic winey wood, a hint of chocolate and a spicy finish.

Next up was one of their Icons of Arran bottlings – The Rowan Tree, the follow-up to the Peacock that I have in the cupboard. It’s named for the local profusion of Rowan trees, not a particularly common species in Scotland, more often being found in Scandinavia. It’s bottled at 46% as well and made up of whisky from a batch of 10 second fill sherry butts, producing about 6000 bottles of which 600 are allocated for sale in the UK. On the nose it’s slightly briny with spice and dried fruit. To taste it has black pepper, cumin and a touch of curry, as well as raisins and a dry spicy finish. Left in the glass for a bit some flavours of grass and stones started to emerge. With water more wood popped out and the fruit turned to candy, with sticky boiled sweets behind the oak.

Third of the evening was one of their cask finishes – The Arran Madeira Finish. This is bottled at 50% and consists of whisky matured for 8 years and then finished for 10 months in madeira casks. This is part of a limited run of 6300 bottles, but the cask finishes they tried was so popular that they’ve decided to compliment the growing Arran range with 3 of them as regular bottlings – Port, Sauternes and Amarone (a wine that I’d not heard of, made using partially dried grapes to concentrate the flavour). This one was quite spicy on the nose with dried and tropical fruit (pineapple, apple syrup/maybe mango). To taste it had a dry sweetness to start, quickly becoming fruity and syrupy before tailing off into a spicy wood finish. Water brought out more syrup on the nose, and added more wood and a touch of milk chocolate to the taste.

Being so young a distillery it’s quite difficult to have a wide range of whiskies at traditional ages. They will shortly be releasing their oldest regular production whisky – a 14 year old which we couldn’t try as it was still in the cask finishing its maturation. This will lead to the standard range of whiskies being the 10 and 14 year olds as well as the three cask finishes mentioned above. In addition to the single malts they also do a cream liqueur, Arran Gold, and a pair of blends, Robert Burns and Lochranza, the latter of which has been on my ‘to try’ list for a bit. In a few more years they will have an 18 to round out the age selection, but from there who knows what they might do.

In the meantime they’ve already been continuing their experimentation and the fourth whisky we tried was very much in that line – The Arran Pomerol Finish. Pomerol is an area in France near to Bordeaux known for producing expensive wine, making this an interesting finish both for the quality of the previous occupant of the barrel (a wine from Château La Conseillante) as well being a red wine finish, not particularly common due to it being hard to produce one that works well. This one is bottled at 50% and has a pinkish tinge that is surprising for having only been in the wine cask for 6 months. Again this is finished after 8 years in oak, split 50/50 between bourbon and sherry and married together before being put in the wine barrels. On the nose it is quite meaty with lots of heavy red wine woodiness. To taste it has a thick sweetness with more meaty wininess, hints of icing sugar, spice and a touch of lemon, rounding off to a woody finish. Water brings in more sweet vanilla and fruit but also more sour wood. Left in the glass for a while it opens up further with more sherry sweetness and red wine heaviness coming through. A bit of a divider this, with most of the room really not liking it. I was more on the dislike side, although as it developed in the glass it grew on me.

Arran 15th AnniversaryNext to taste was a bit of a treat – The Arran 15th Anniversary Bottling. This one is being specially produced for this week’s birthday, with 5640 bottles going on sale very shortly (although only 500 of them staying in the UK) – Céline had only had a couple of tastes of this before, showing quite how new it is. It’s from a batch of 1999 distilled spirit, matured in oloroso casks for 8-9 years and then finished for 2 years in Amontillado casks, my favourite kind of sherry. On the nose it’s quite savoury, with sherry wood mixing with a slight brininess to give rich salted caramel. To taste it’s thick and syrupy, with red grapes, spicy wood and a chunk of tannin, rolling towards a buttery apple finish. With water there’s more wine fruit and buttery biscuits, and the wood is tamed although still sits spicily in the finish. A tasty whisky and a nice celebration of the first 15 years of production.

The last whisky of the night was a bit of a curveball – The Peated Arran. Having made a point of letting us know that Arran produced unpeated spirit, Céline went on to explain what this dram was all about. It was first produced in 2004 and came about due to an accidental delivery of barley peated to about 14ppm rather than the distillery’s regular unpeated order. Rather than send it back they decided to have a go at making whisky with it, producing 5 casks. It was rather popular and as such the distillery now produce a few casks of peated spirit a year, having now upped the peat levels from the initial mistake to about 20-25ppm. They make them as the last batches each year before closing down for summer maintenance, giving a chance to clean any residual peatiness out of the workings before starting again in autumn with their regular unpeated spirit. This bottling was one of 253 bottles from a 2005 distillation from barley at about 14 ppm, matured in first fill bourbon casks and bottled in 2009 at 57.7%. On the nose it has a light smokiness laying on a background of grassy fields. To taste it was rich with some sweet peatiness as well as sweet oranges and golden syrup. Water brought out the more vegetal notes from the nose, with a some grass appearing, accompanying oily butter and some sweet mulch. It took water well, tasting younger as the water knocked out some of the peat, adding more cereal and mulchy grass. Being a younger whisky the peat overpowered the wood influence, making it taste quite a lot peatier than the 14ppm suggested.

Annoyingly I can’t make it up to distillery this weekend for the party, but it’s definitely on my list next time I’m on the right side of Scotland. Equally annoying is that the whisky doesn’t quite live up to the spectacular single cask bottlings I’ve had over the last couple of years – they’re all rather good, with the Rowan Tree and Madeira Finish coming in as my favourites of the evening, but none quite as rich and complex as the ones that I’ve found at the SMWS. That won’t stop me picking up more Arran in the future, distillery bottlings as well as single casks, as they are also very reasonably priced, with the most expensive whisky of the evening coming in at under £70 and most bottlings being around £30-£50. Excellent value for such good whisky.

Arran 10 year old
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 46%. ~£30

Arran Rowan Tree
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 46%. ~£35

Arran Madeira Cask Finish
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 50%. ~£40

Arran Pomerol Cask Finish
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 50%. ~£45

Arran 15th Anniversary Bottling
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 54.6%. Available soon

Arran 2005 Peated
Scottish Island Single Malt whisky, 57.7%. ~£45 (limited availability)

Eddie of The Whisky Lounge is Eddie Ludlow and he is in the process of putting together this Autumn’s event calendar. Keep an eye on his website for details.

Master of Malt have a good range of Arran whiskies, although they don’t have the peated. Eddie might have a couple of bottles of that, although I suspect they’re for personal consumption, but The Whisky Exchange have a few which they are more likely to sell you.