After briefly being distracted by a bottle of Glenfarclas 105 20 year, I’m getting back on track and continuing the coverage of this winter’s Florida Scotch dinner, which began here and should be read before continuing on with this post.
By the luck of coincidence, the order in which I wanted to taste through the evening’s whiskies happened to match the chronological order of the openings of their associated distilleries. So after starting with Monkey Shoulder to represent Kininvie (1990), we moved on to the Port Cask Finish bottling from the Arran distillery (1995).
The distillery is located on the eponymous Isle of Arran. This relatively large (167 square miles) island is situated in the Firth of Clyde (in Scotland a firth is coastal body of water that can range in size from a small inlet to a large bay), which is bound by the Scottish mainland to the east, the Cowal peninsula to the north and the Kintyre peninsula to the west.
In 1993 Harold Currie, a retired Chivas Regal executive, founded the new distillery. Construction began in 1994 and distillation commenced in the summer of 1995. To put the timing into context consider that the Scotch whisky industry suffered through a terrible decade in the 1980’s, with 18 malt distilleries permanently lost. Even though things started to turn around in the 1990’s, the fallout from the downturn wasn’t over and the first half of the decade saw the loss of four more distilleries; Lochside (1992), Pittyvaich (1993), Rosebank (1993) and Littmill (1994).
Yes, two new distilleries did open in 1990, but the Speyside distillery was somewhat of an anomaly having been under construction for nearly three decades and Kininvie had some mitigating circumstances. It was built in a way that utilized much of Balvenie’s existing infrastructure which would minimize investment, and its sole purpose was to supply whisky to existing blends so there was no need for the costly promotion and marketing of a new brand. When the Arran distillery opened it really was a pioneer, and it would be nearly a decade before another new malt distillery went online in Scotland.
The island hadn’t been home to an active distillery for a very long time, but it still had a rich distilling tradition, with more than 50 illicit distilleries having operated there at various times, primarily in the early 1800’s. The only licensed operation on the island ran from 1825 to 1837.
The question of where to locate a new distillery has always been important, although the considerations influencing that decision have changed with time. Historically, the remoteness of Scotland’s islands proved quite useful for hiding from the tax collectors. As the laws were reformed to make legal distilling a more profitable venture, other factors became more important. Local natural resources, transportation infrastructure and technology all played roles.
A combination of factors led to the explosive growth in the number of Campbeltown distilleries in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The list includes a local coal seam, plentiful peat and barley across the Kintyre peninsula, a reliable water source in Crosshill Loch, and a natural harbor which provided a commercial link to Glasgow and London. Another point that is often overlooked is the introduction of steam engines. This new technology allowed the establishment of many distilleries in a dense urban area, something that would not have been possible if they were all powered by waterwheel, as had been the previous tradition.
Distilling was long established on Islay and in Speyside based on their abundant resources, primarily peat on the former and water in the later, but large scale commercial distilling only became viable in these areas with improved transportation infrastructure. In the case of Islay this came in the form of steam powered, shallow draft “puffer” ships and for Speyside it was the penetration of railroads into the remote northern portion of the country. Both of these developments happened in the latter half of the 1800’s.
In the modern era truck transport is king. Any location with good road access (and reliable ferry service in the case of the islands) has commercial distilling potential. Of course a good water source on site is still essential, as well as a connection to the electric grid, but all other resources and finished product can be trucked in and out. Over the last five decades the percentage of malt whisky sold as single malt, rather than in bulk to blenders, has grown steadily. With this shift, the marketability of a distillery’s location has become ever more important.
Clearly the founder of the Arran distillery understood this. If a new distillery were to be located in Speyside, it would be incredibly difficult for it to stand out among the sea of neighboring facilities. By having an island all to itself, Arran immediately established an identity through its unique location. The ability to draw in whisky tourists so they can connect with the home of the brand has definitely become an important part of the equation.
According to the distillery’s web site, its location was chosen for three reasons; the exceptionally pure water source, the relatively warm microclimate that is beneficial to the aging process, and the island’s historical reputation for producing high quality whisky. Beyond that, it would be the only distillery on an island which has many other attributes with appeal to tourists.
Arran is often referred to as “Scotland in miniature”, with its varied geography showcasing many of the features that can be seen around the rest of the country. The island is also home to seven golf courses, three castles, and several prehistoric “standing stone” and “stone circle” sites.
The island can be reached from Glasgow in little more than two hours (one hour driving and one hour on a ferry). From there it’s less than a 30 minute drive to the distillery. The distillery itself is located on the northern end of the island at Lochranza, home to one of the one of the Arran’s golf courses as well as one of its castles. This is also the island’s other ferry access point, from which the Kintyre peninsula can be reached in just 30 minutes. From there the adventurous whisky tourist could head south to Campbeltown, north to Oban or just across the peninsula to Kennacraig, which has ferry service to Islay.
This picturesque distillery is in what I would consider to be the medium size range, with a production level of 750,000 LPA. Most of the distillate is unpeated, but they do produce whisky from barley peated to 20 ppm for four weeks and 50 ppm for two weeks each year.
As a new, independently owned distillery, some younger releases were inevitable in the early years. The first legal whisky was a limited 3 year old bottling in 1998. That was followed by a 4 year old the next year, and a Single Cask bottling vintage dated to 1995 was launched in 2002. A Calvados finished bottling was released in 2003 and a variety of vintage dated bottling and cask finished bottlings came out in the following years.
The official bottling of 10 year Arran was released in 2006, becoming the flagship offering of the distillery’s range. A cask strength 12 year old was added in 2008 as well as a 14 year old in 2010. There were limited releases of 16 and 17 year old in the two years leading up to the official 18 year old bottling being added to the lineup in 2015. That core lineup now includes three wine cask finished bottlings (Sauternes, Amarone and Port), Single Cask Sherry and Bourbon bottlings, and Machrie Moor; an expression made from Arran’s 20 ppm peated malt.
The Port Cask Finish bottling that I selected for the dinner is one that I’ve tasted before, but I was quite excited to revisit it more than three years later. It was recommended to me by a bartender at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, which says a lot considering the volume of their collection. I recall enjoying it immensely, but that was at the end of a long night of sampling and my hand written tasting notes were barely legible.
The first thing I noticed on the nose was an earthy character (dunnage warehouse, the dirt floored cellar of an old house in New England). Complex stewed berry fruit follows and is joined by aromatics slightly reminiscent of shoe polish.
On the palate it’s full bodied and has a firm embrace. The malty character comes through up front. There’s a nicely balanced interplay of gingerbread cookies, subtle sweetness (somewhere between honey and agave nectar) and the fruit notes of a well-aged tawny port.
As it moves through the finish it becomes drier, with warming spice notes growing in intensity. Eventually the other flavors fade, leaving the pleasant spicy character to its own devices.