The arran tasting was the latest in the vertical distillery tastings. There are so many to chose from- will we ever cover them all- unlikely but the challenge is there. A vertical Tamnavulin or Ben Wyvis seems unlikely for differing reasons. Arran was cosen as I think the smaller independents deserve support seeing as how they tend to bring a bit of imagination and application to the malt market perhaps as a new distillery they might find customers for their make difficult to persuade their's is a product worth buying. A blend recipe calls for consistency so a new whisky will not have been used before and may prove difficult to get on with the - adding its own stamp on the overall flavour or mixing unexpectedly with the other components. Having said that with so many malts dropping off the blenders shopping list due to the closures in the 1980s and 90s maybe the opposite is true and another option can replace lost distilleries or could be used to create a totally new combination of possibilites. Also blenders are unlikely to purchase serious quantities of a malt fresh on the market until a profile has been built up of how the malt tastea and behaves as well as how reliable it is. Well I guess thats the way it works, perhaps the blending army marches on regardless of fineries of nuance and balance- use what you can when the demand is there- a lot less romantic but realistic. Anyway, down to business.
Our first dram was bottled by Loch Fyne Whiskies- 10yo 57.1% single bourbon cask. Last year some 'experts' were invited by Arran to the splendid Oran Mor venue in Glasgow to take a look at the distiller's range then help select a cask for bottling. The eccentric voting system meant Mr LFW's choice (and mine too) was not picked. This resulted in some unsightly behaviour and an interesting manoeuvre- Richard bought the cask and bottled it. I suspect Arran wanted each of the merchants to pick a different cask as their favourite and go on to buy it and bottle it in a similar brash display of confidence and financial posturing. Slander aside the dram has toffee on the nose with the high strength soon fading to make undiluted nosing and tasting easy. The finish is long with the butterscotch and shortbread nicely developing. With water the mouthfeel changes to an inflated jellybaby, great texture with some pear drops emerging, little evidence of the distillery's island location is shown: I don't known where the cask matured though I believe some found their way to Campbeltown- which may well have left a seaside mark on the cask. If memory serves, the sampling was very generous and by the time the judges had got to the 5 samples to select a cask for bottling there had already been 5 or 6 from the regular range to scrutinise: I wonder how different the scoring would have been if the line up was in a different order- maybe no different.
11222333455555666 a mediocre 42%. 'Level 42'(coincidence), 'strong nose', 'didn't like the taste', 'John MacEnroe - good for the money but can be bitter', 'its like someone pished in the cask' (a succint if not charming comment).
The distillery is small with output not near the 750K litres capacity but a 40% increase in production was recently announced. The main production area is conveniently in one room and all on one level, infact the whole building is very neat and sits comfortable in its verdant valley location. The whole island is so user friendly and has something for nearly everyone so the malt range nicely encapsulates the personality of its birth place. I'm beginning to sound like a tourist brochure.
Next we tried a 12yo Cadenheads Bourbon hogshead at cask strength. More prickly on the nose than the first but with the peardrops more pronounced and a strong element reminiscent of the G&M 1999 bottling on the palate- the buttery tray bakes seem to have a cherry on top this time and there is some woody spice. This particularly fruity/floral tang may be the flavour thread that I might pick up and use to identify Arran in the future- its certainly unique to at least a couple of samples I've tried. With water the sweetness is mostly at the start while the middle belongs to the cherry/peardrops glazed and jellied fruits. 23444444555666677 and improved 54% but is there better to come? 'Talk Talk', 'broader, aftertaste better', 'tasted better', 'Pancho Gonzalez- goes on and on', 'nobody's pished in this cask', (a fine compliment).
The distillery has come a long way since opening in 1995, winning applause for its adoption of higher strength bottlings, attitude towards colouring and filtering as well as its contribution to the response to the growing level of interst and enthusiasm for malts. At one point their keeness to bottle multi-cask variants challenged even Bruichladdich for experimental boundaries and market saturation but more recently this activity has settled down to a more focused core range with fewer one offs.
Next was the sherry cask that the other judges from the Oran Mor tasting chose- sherry cask 12yo 56.4%. The nose is the quitest so far but the palate is a change of direction with the sherry influence well stated while not playing the wine card too strongly. The finish is again long with coffee chocolates and maybe a hint of the sea coming and going. This is a very clean sherry cask so those shy of sulphur shouldn't be too worried, if at all. So far the drams have taken dilution nicely with this one particulalry comfortable with water. This is certainly a dram to savour, especially if you are a sherry cask admirer, a different class. 22445555666666777 - up another gear to 58%. 'Kajagoogoo', 'very active finish', 'strong', 'Roger Federer - a big hitter', 'not sherry straight away'. Hmm no reference to bodily fluids.
Now for a contentious departure. Amarone 50%. Pretty in Pink, but its not everyone's colour. Presumably the youngest whisky we tried, its fresh and lively with the wine having quite a bit to say. Actually the whisky/cask cross over has got to a point where it is difficult to recognise Arran with some malty notes coming and going while the traits of a red wime maturation are clearer- a touch of sulphur, tannins, some twisted currant flavours. I wonder how many people might even be able to identify this as Scotch malt whisky? Lets not tell the SWA. Perhaps I have travelled down this road often enough to be familiar with the lay of the land while some of my fellow waderers feel less comfortable with their surroundings. when some of the regulars started commenting about 'imbalance' and 'incongruence' I began to doubt my judgement, however as is often said beauty is in the eye of the beholder, some of us just have better eyesight than others. 00011111334457777- quite a mix up- its been a long time since so many zeros, they are usually reserved for bizarre and obscure world whiskies. a far from happy 34%. 'Simple Minds', 'smooth finish, not over powering', 'good colour', 'didn't like the taste', 'Tim Henman', 'acetone in a bawbag'.
The final conventional dram for the night was the peated Machrie Moor 46%. Nice and pale while remarkably peated. 'Lightly peated' can lead to disappointment for Islay lovers but here there is more than a hint of the kiln. The nose has coal but is quite suppressed and subtle while the palate offers what is promised in quite a sophisticated way with a generous measure of sweetness into the bargain. If there is youth, like in quite a number of other malt's quick-to-the-market peaty efforts, then it is not noticeable in an unwelcome way. Very impressive- just like the sherry cask the quality spirit and casks have lead to a clean, bright, almost crisp malt with character and enough of everyting in the right place. Either that or I'm hanging out for a peaty dram. I suspect both points are valid. 00223344555666677 - a below par 46%. 'Ultravox', 'smokey', 'astringent aftertaste', 'Andy Murray - not quite the best', 'bit like a Bowmore - s**t hot'.
Finally through the great courtesy of Mr McTaggart we had the wonderful chance to try the new make Arran. I always wonder at how appealing the spirit from the stills can be, not just for myself but for those who sample it for the first time. The question is often- 'why can't we buy this?' Admitedly a lot of those sampling 'clearac' screw up their face, cough and go on a bit, but isn't it significant how many find the fresh intense taste appealing? That aside the opportunity to experience the newborn spirit is so helpful in understanding what happens next. The distillery spirit style is relatively easy to maintain, its the next 10 years where the cask will shape the character. Ask a classroom of 5 year olds what they are going to be when they grow up, these youngsters contain their parents DNA but their life experiences will take them to maturity- we can influence the future but not decide it. Now I sound like a Christmas cracker philosopher. The laundrey freshness is evident on the nose backed up by the grain: malted milk drinks and barns. There is a note of something burnt in the undiluted version with water bringing out fruit, perhaps strawberries and lemonade- very appealling.
So where next for Arran? They have certainly made their mark, the quality is undoubted I think, the diversity of cask aging has proven, mostly, succesful, the foray into peated territory might need further consideration and this is a nice chance for us to grow up with the malt. 15yo, 18yo 21yo etc. How will it develop? It must be difficult to keep stocks of the earlier vintages for future aged bottlings when the demands of commerce are never too far away. Will we see the brand rise in stature with the result that the chance to taste ever rarer aged expressions fades as prices rise too? Maybe this is something we have to accept, as long as someone is paying top dollar for the exclusive stuff we can keep drinking the good old 10yo. Although the scoring wasn't as high as we've seen the general feeling was very positive for Arran, like Tomintoul they just seem to do what they do well : good whisky.
The next tastings are :-
POURS Thursday 7th July £20/17, 36yo Inchgower, Bain's South African single grain, Shackleton's Blend, Glendronach 18yo 46% Allardice, Cadenheads Bowmore 11yo 58.5%
Japanese tasting for raising funds for the earthquake relief effort, Wednesday 13th July in the Vintners Rooms £25
Lagavulin Thursday 14th July