We woke on Day 2 of our brief trip to Arran to a wonderful view of the coastline from the attic room of our B&B. The previous evening was spent munching fish and chips in the restaurant of a nearby hotel, drinking the local Arran Ale (a pint of Squirrel anyone?) and playing “guess the dram” with a selection of whiskies from the bar. And what better way to awake than to a view of the northern Arran coastline and a full cooked breakfast!
Our first appointment (aside from the eggs and bacon) was a distillery tour. Arran is the third most visited distillery in Scotland. A remarkable achievement for an island distillery and it highlights the enormous possibilities of this venture. A specially built cafe-cum-art gallery, The Eagles Nest houses the distillery shop and a small tasting room where tours start. We were lucky enough to taken on our tour by distillery manager James MacTaggart, an Ilach who spent over 30 years working at Bowmore before making the short hop across from Islay to head up the production at Arran. From the Eagles Nest, James took us across some fields to the local stream which runs down from Loch na Davie,where all of the distillery’s water is sourced from. With only three ingredients, the water source is always a point of pride for any distillery and this small brook which feeds Arran is clean, clear and beautiful.
James, playing the Malt 'Timpani'!
From here we made our way, via the barley store (with its ingenious weight system of measurement) and mill into the heart of the distillery itself. A small operation, Arran is producing 750,000 litres per year and has just two stills housed alongside the single mash tun and washbacks in one main space. Brewing had just begun again after a 3-week break but sadly the distillation was still a day or so away, so no chance to try a cheeky white dram! We did get to try a glass of '2nd Water' from the Underback - wow! Warm, sweet, and malty. You could bottle this stuff as a health tonic...
However, our next trip was into the warehouses. Arran has the facility to store some of their production at the distillery site and a new warehouse was recently added, where each cask is individually slotted to allow for easy access to all casks. Fortunately for us, James needed to check the progress of one of their earliest casks, from 1995 and oh!... how fortuitous for us that we happened to be there too.
Arran – Cask Sample – Filled 1995 – Ex 1st fill Bourbon Cask - 52%
Nose: Incredible fruit, vanilla and fudge notes. The colour of the whisky (deep amber) indicates the level of quality wood the distillery is using and it shows. With water, a real hidden depth begins to unravel from within the glass. Dark chocolate notes, into creamy white chocolate, nutmeg spices and spicy /malty rye notes all come to the fore.
Palate: An Incredibly oily mouthfeel, with lemon zest, more rich vanilla, big bourbon influence and a lighter malt note developing on the death. Despite the brilliance of the cask, the distillery character has so much room to breathe.
Finish: Drying spiced notes, sweet chocolate and a touch of pepper/salt.
Overall: With casks like this at their disposal, it is no wonder why the 14yo has matured into such an interesting beast. It all bodes incredibly well for the future and the proposed 18yo expression, which we can't wait to try. It's probably some way off yet though!
As we gazed longingly around the warehouse (including a future king's cask!), James came back with something very interesting indeed. A wee sample of peated Arran whisky. Utterly delicious, it certainly isn’t Arran’s intention to take on its island neighbours on the other side of Campbeltown, as their core distillery character is now flourishing under the 10 and 14 year old banners, but this will add another interesting profile to their growing portfolio of excellent fringe bottlings, when it’s eventually released -watch this space.
You can pick up two different single cask bottles in the distillery shop (and online) – one bourbon cask, one sherry cask, both in the region of 200 bottles only for the utterly amazing price of around £45. Value for money? You can bet your bottom dollar on it!
Our time at Arran was drawing to a close and, after a cheese and ham sandwich back in the Eagles Nest and some wonderful stories from James about his experiences in the business, it was time to head back to the CalMac ferry port and our train home to London.
Waving goodbye to another magical Scottish island, we grabbed a map and started planning our trip back. It’s frighteningly easy from Glasgow to access this island, which makes it such an attractive visitors destination. Now tourists have another great reason to visit: the whisky.
A huge thanks to everyone at Arran Distillery for making our trip so wonderful.