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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

When will this tour end? The car smells of burning hair.

Excuse the tardiness readers. As you will have seen from our Islay adventure, we hit the road like it was the last trip on earth and by the end of our 14 days away from home, we began to resemble the characters from Sideways. As we arrived back at our various homesteads, the mileometer read 1750- a substantial number on its own, but it is a misleading figure, when you consider that was 1750 miles over Islay's innumerable potholes, in the torrential rain and gale force winds, with 17 cases of whisky packed into every orifice - the car's, not our's fortunately.

It was a testing time for the sanity of Caskstrength. But we came out fighting, tougher than ever and determined to do the whole thing again next year, with added zeal. A few days away from our computers have done us the power of good.

Our final leg of Feis Ile 2011 took us to Arran and their open day, which was sensibly scheduled on the Sunday after the Feis Ile final fling and by the number of people we recognised there, a shrewd move from this smart forward thinking distillery. We'd visited Arran last year and the sun was blazing, but this time, alas the Islay weather front had been carried over and our ferry crossing was particularly sketchy. Joel and I have never particularly suffered from the ill effects of a cruel sea, but the crossing from Claonaig to Lochranza (just 2 cars braved the trip, inc. our whisky-laden automobile) was arse-clenchingly unnerving. At one point, the car looked to be lifting onto 2 wheels, as the small ferry yawed violently.

Were we thinking of our own safety? Of course not! We had a cargo full of Feis Ile bottles. "No matter what happens, save the whisky, Joel," I commanded. "And should we go down, pass the sad news onto Mrs Caskstrength and my faithful companion Bobby (who despite wearing a bowtie, is actually a ships cat from the seaside town of Poole.)

We made it, just about intact, but with the hearty cooked breakfast we enjoyed earlier almost paying our tonsils a return visit. What we needed was a stiff measure of something to settle our stomachs and there was only one dram on our minds.

Caskstrength have their very first celebratory whisky!!

About a year ago we thought we'd put our money where our mouse is and save up the cash to buy a cask of something. Nothing too big, but something fun to celebrate Caskstrength turning 3 years old. The good folks at Arran had just what we were looking for and before we knew it, Cask 1554 was being drawn from the warehouse for the last time and sent for filling. It yielded just 92 bottles, which were eagerly waiting to be collected from the distillery...

The Arran we selected follows in the tradition of the distillery's wonderfully light, buttery, fruity character and is a first fill bourbon cask, filled in 1998. In the coming weeks we'll be revealing more details about it and what our plans are - but until then, here's a sneaky video we shot from the distillery.

with the car safely loaded with 15 cases of Caskstrength & Carry On Arran tessellating perfectly, we settled down for a masterclass from Arran's roving ambassador and all-round top chap, Andy Hogan. In the distillery's Crofter's Cottage, we sat down to try several expressions from Arran's 15 year history, including the 14yo, the recent Machrie Moor peated expression, an Amarone wine finish, a great sherry cask bottling and this year's Arran festival bottling.

Andy had paired up locally produced food with each whisky - fresh oysters with the 14yo (a pairing, which I decided against trying, for reasons you can view here) but the whole experience really bought home just how good Arran have become at producing a robust, distinct spirit, yet with so much lightness and character. Here's our pick from the bunch:

Arran- Machrie Moor - lightly peated single malt - 46%

Nose: Very light, heathery peat, fresh apricot skin, brine and wet sand. With a touch of water, a hint of mossy, wet woodland emerges.

Palate: Fresh pine, crisp salad, dried apricots, with an underlying dose of pineapple chunks and fresh coconut.

Finish: Light balsamic notes, more fragrant pineapple and a Lapsang tea flavour, gently decaying, as the palate dries.

Overall: A really interesting change of direction for this decidedly 'non-peated' distillery, which certainly doesn't aim to emulate its neighbours. Machrie Moor is a solid whisky and a sign of promising things to come, with more peated expressions on the cards.

Arran - Single sherry cask bottling- Distilled 1998 - Bottled 2010 - 57.1%

Nose: Wonderfully rich and fruity, with boozy cherry notes (Griottines), dark polished wood, cracked leather and mint notes. There is also some wonderfully buttery/creamy notes one would usually associate with a bourbon cask. This really has it all. Very impressive.

Palate: Again, surprisingly light and tropical, with mango, coconut, butter toffee and apricots hitting the palate first, followed up by the usual darker dried fruits and oakiness associated with a sherry butt.

Finish: More of the tropical fruit, but slightly aged, less vibrant and richer- reminiscent of some older Bowmore bottlings, but without the massive lingering depth.

Overall: A real standout here. I bought a bottle of this last time I was on the island and foolishly gave it to someone as a present, without trying it. Now I have, I immediately regret being so generous. Can we squeeze another bottle in the car Joel? Please??

Finally, the Arran open day bottling - we luckily got to try last year's bottling on our previous visit, so it'll be interesting to see how this one stacks up against it...

Arran - Open day 2011 bottling - Bourbon cask - Cask No: 104 - distilled 1995 - bottled 2011 - 200 bottles - 52%

Nose: Orange marmalade, hazelnuts, white flowers, hints of buttery toffee, fruity sweet bourbon, marzipan, vanilla and lemon zest. Classic first fill bourbon. Cracking.

Palate: Orange juice again, maple syrup, mandarin segments, hints of lime cordial and creamy barley. A very broad array of flavours.

Finish: Lime pickles, hints of vanilla and fresh pine.

Overall: A nose to totally die for, everything you'd look for in fresh bourbon casks. Very similar to last year's open day bottling, perhaps lacking some of the richer chocolate malt notes but still a damn fine bottling nonetheless. It is more expensive at £125. If this is beyond your price range, we'd recommend going for the equally excellent sherry cask bottling.

Stay tuned for more Arran news, as we un-pack, number and label 92 bottles and try to find somewhere to put them.

Are we having fun yet? You bet we are...