“Our founder was a visonary, a pioneer and a crazy man,” quips Arran’s global brand ambassador Mariella Romano. And indeed: Besides vision, passion, resolve and a “just do it”-kinda attitude, it also takes a certain amount of craziness to tackle a project like Arran Distillery. When the late Harold Currie, a former Chivas Regal director, started building the production site on the Isle of Arran in the mid-90s, the Scotch industry was not at its peak. All over the country, iconic units like Rosebank or Pittyvaich had closed. And the general interest in whisky was nowhere near as high as today; neither domestically nor abroad. To set up a new distillery in such an economy – and moreso place it on an island – one must indeed be more than just a little nuts.
In the case of Arran, however, it was a wise decision to defy both the zeitgeist and good reason. Today, the distillery looks back on a successful 25-year history. It is one of Scotland’s smaller units (currently stocking about 28,000 casks, most of which are stored on site). But it is also one of only a few distilleries that kept their independence. Furthermore, Arran is expanding. On the island’s south end, the whisky makers had recently erected a second production site. Henceforth, they will produce their unpeated Scotch at Arran Distillery in the north and their (heavily) peated Scotch at Lagg Distillery in the south.
Another recent innovation: Arran gave their core range a complete overhaul in 2019, changing not only the bottle design, but also the recipe of their 10-Year-Old, 18-Year-Old and 21-Year-Old expressions. To bring the dramming community up to speed about these developments and to celebrate the distillery’s 25th anniversary accordingly, Arran’s German importer Kammer-Kirsch organized a special event at one of Hamburg’s classiest whisky and cocktail bars, The Rabbithole. On January 29, they invited three dozen whisky freaks to an extraordinary masterclass. Under the guidance of the afore-quoted whisky maven Mariella, me and other guests set forth to degust four high-quality single malts by Arran plus the new makes of both Arran Distillery and Lagg Distillery. A rare and illustrious line-up!
After greasing our palates with Arran’s smooth and fruity New Make Spirit, we continued with a time-honored treasure, namely one of Arran’s legendary 95ers. These single cask releases were drawn from some of the earliest barrels the distillery ever filled. The one we had (Arran Single Cask 1995/197) clocked in at a modest 49.1 per cent ABV. It was full-bodied, flavorsome, exciting and memorable with perfectly concerted notes of toffee, peach, coconut, pineapple juice, brittle, pears and lemon cream. A very special sip, without a doubt.
It followed the re-imagined Arran 10yo. Previously, it was composed almost entirely from ex-bourbon casks. But now its formula also contains a considerable about of sherry casks. This results in a very round and palatable every day sipper with a beguiling sweetness and a beautiful smoothness. Then came Arran 18yo. To compose this elegant single malt, the distillery made their biggest-ever order of sherry casks, buying an entire solera system at once! The corresponding whisky is very dark to the eye, very intense in the nostrils and very juicy on the tongue. It mixes sugared fruits and dark berries with blueberry cake and chocolate pralines. Like the 18 Years Old, the Arran 21yo has also been ripened in sherry-soaked wood, albeit not entirely. Its composition includes a certain amount of bourbon barrels, too. It is a soft and velvety pour that brims with berries, apples, cookies, grapes, apricots and macadamia nuts. Our last whisky stuck out from the rest: whereas Arran’s house style is usually very elegant and balanced, the new NAS expression The Bodega is an in-your-face sherry monster that was exclusively matured in 1st fill oloroso casks. It has a piercing cocktail cherry sweetness, a yummy almond pudding creaminess and an old-styled velvet curtain dustiness. It hit all the right notes with me. Such an abundance of sherry can only be followed by one thing, namely a great deal of smoke. We got it from our last dram of the evening, which was the superb New Make Spirit from Lagg Distillery. It was crisp and clear on the one hand, yet sooty and peaty on the other. It left me and many of other visitors deeply impressed. Cheers to Mariella from Arran and Flo from Kammer-Kirsch for letting me join this wonderful whisky gathering and treating me to such fine drops!
Arran 10yo (Single Malt / 10yo / Islands / Oak casks / 46% / ~30 Euro)
Arran 18yo (Single Malt / 18yo / Islands / Sherry casks / 46% / ~95 Euro)
Arran 21yo (Single Malt / 21yo / Islands / Bourbon & sherry casks / 46% / ~130 Euro)
Arran Single Cask 1995/197 (Single Malt / 23yo / Islands / Barrel / 49.1% / ~220 Euro)
Arran The Bodega (Single Malt / NAS / Islands / ex-Oloroso / 55.8% / ~50 Euro)
Arran New Make (Unpeated Single Malt / Unmatured / Islands / 63.5% / not for sale)
Lagg New Make (Peated Single Malt / Unmatured / Islands / 63.5% / not for sale)
*** I was kindly invited to the masterclass by Kammer-Kirsch. ***