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Arran Distillery: The Past, The Present and the Future

Arran is the first (legal) distillery on the Isle of Arran since Lagg distillery closed in 1837 which was highly revered back then. Arran distillery marks the revival of whisky-making on the Isle of Arran, so let’s dive into how Arran distillery all started!

Photo of Lochranza distillery in the morning. Taken in 2018.

How did it start?

The late Harold Currie who left us in 2016 held many titles, and amongst those titles, he was the Managing Director of Chivas Bros and saw the merger of Pernod-Ricard. After his retirement, he was approached by David Hutchison, who is one of Glasgow’s best-known architect. Moreover, he has ancestors from the Whiting Bay village of Arran and owns property on Arran. With the connections and experience Currie possesses, along with the technical ability for David to help design the distillery, they decided to start a distillery on Arran! In 1991, Harold Currie and David Hutchison set up the company called the “Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd” with a head office in Pathhead, Edinburgh.

Location Location Location

One of the first things to decide is the location. The location determines the cost and water supply, and therefore, the maximum capacity of the distillery. In addition, certain locations might pose limitations on the area of the distillery takes up.

The Isle of Arran has been described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ due to its geology and topography. The island has beautiful granite peaks and gorgeous glens around the north that is reminiscent of the Highlands and juxtaposes with the green arable lands in the south that resembles the Lowlands. Therefore, on the Isle of Arran, one location might differ significantly from another.

A distillery requires a good water source of a certain quality for its operations. The pH, mineral content, supply and general cleanliness are some of the essential factors. On that basis, Blackwaterfoot, Whiting Bay, Corrie and Sannox were struck off leaving Lochranza that can provide good quality water.

Planning and Finance

In November of 1991, the team approached the local Town Council for approval. However, this proposal incurred some harsh resistance from the residents of Lochranza. Residents voiced concerns over potential pollution and the over-industrialisation of their town. But after a bit of compromise and a pinch of humour, the majority of residents had their worries eased. The residents also recognised the benefits the distillery will bring to the island as a whole.

Earlier, the company came up with an estimated cost of the distillery to be around 1.5 million pounds. However, the costs quickly escalated to 2.5 million pounds, and the company needed more capital. In 1993, the company offered a £450 Bondholder Scheme to the public, offering 6 bottles of blended Arran Whisky after 5 years and 6 bottles of Arran Single Malt after 8 years. There was even a 10% discount for anyone who purchased before 6th December 1993! The company launched another offer of single malt ‘units’ which was defined as a dozen bottles of 70cl bottles. By autumn of 1994, the sale of bonds accounted for 60% of start-up capital. Fortunately, Currie managed to gain more investors and shareholders through his connections. This allowed the construction to begin in 1994.

The Early Years

The construction to be temporarily halted due to some golden eagles which were spotted nesting near the site. However, they finished their construction in June of 1995. During the official opening in August, Harold Currie addressed the crowd, amongst it was a much younger Jim Murray. Surprisingly, the eagles flew past the distillery on that day. Maybe, it was a good omen!

Gordon Mitchell was Arran’s first master distiller! He started his whisky career at Lochside distillery and later joined Cooley distillery in 1989 up till December 1994. As the distiller of a completely brand new distillery, he designed Arran’s new make spirit during the pre-production testing before the official first still runs on 29th June 1995. The quality of the spirit character astounded John Lamond, Master of Malt and Keeper of the Quaich. Gordon continued for over a decade, making Arran whisky and fulfilling the Bondholder schemes. Gordon also had a hand in distilling experimental Arran whiskies, like peated Arran and bere barley, both in 2004.

In August 1997, the Visitors Centre of the distillery was opened and graced by Queen Elizabeth. The distillery gave two casks to the Queen for Prince Harry and Prince William. The opening of the visitor centre was also greeted by big names actor Ewan McGregor, Whisky writer Michael Jackson, and Takeshi Taketsuru, nephew and adoptive son of Japanese Whisky Legend Masataka Taketsuru.

In 2001, Isle of Arran Distillers became a patron of the World Burns Federation. This later saw the launch of the Robert Burns blend and single malt! Around this time, Arran also did many cask finishes using casks that once contained Calvados, Cognac Marsala and port. Later, a Champagne Grand Cru cask finish was also introduced!

Master Distiller James MacTaggart

Wefie with Mr James MacTaggart in 2018!

James MacTaggart took over Gordon Mitchell as Distillery Manager of Arran in 2007. James had worked at Bowmore distillery for 31 years and played a part in some of the best Bowmores revered by Bowmore fanatics. At Lochranza distillery, he handles the quality control, buys quality casks for whisky maturation and chooses select casks for bottling.

A piano belonging to James MacTaggart, in the warehouse. Photo taken in 2018.

In addition, he determined the malting specifications at Glen Esk maltings so that the barley Arran distillery used could be up to his standards and expectations. He started requesting for peated barley as well, at 20ppm and 50ppm. That effort would bear fruits 3 years later when Arran distillery launched the first release of Machrie Moor, a peated Arran!

In 2019 James moved on from the position of Lochranza Distillery’s Master Distiller to the Director of Production and Operations which oversees both distilleries. In his place, David Livingston took over the role of Distillery Manager. James was also responsible for mentoring and getting Graham Omand to take up the role of Lagg Distillery Manager.

Arran in 2020

Photo of Arran Whisky Core Range from 2019. Photo Credits: Arran Whisky News

Arran distillery has come far from doing just cask finishes in the early 2000s. There is a core range featuring a 10, 18 and 21 age statements, a revamped cask finishes range, various limited editions, a lovely cream liqueur and single casks bottlings. The core range bottles were also rebranded in 2019, with the cask finishes range expected to follow suit!

Lagg Distillery and what lies ahead!

Lagg distillery under construction back in 2018.

In 2019, Arran Distillers revived Lagg distillery, and it would serve to produce peated whiskies for the company and allows Lochranza distillery to focus on unpeated whiskies. Due to Lagg distillery being on the south end of the island, it is below the highland boundary fault line, and it is technically considered a lowland whisky. That leaves the Isle of Arran with both a highland and lowland distillery. Perhaps Arran should become its own whisky region!

During the construction of Lagg distillery, the team also started planting apple trees in the field near the distillery. To the date of this article, close to 3000 apple trees have already been planted. It is likely that whisky might not be the only thing that will be made at Lagg distillery!

New wee apple trees growing near Lagg distillery. Taken in 2018

To continue the culture of experimentation, Isle of Arran Distillers has announced plans for a blended malt by putting new make spirit of both distilleries into various casks. This “Project North & South” will be maturing until it is deemed ready! According to Global Brand Ambassador, Mariella Romano, in 2020, Arran also has some local barley casks ageing in the warehouse. In another Facebook live video, the comments indicate that there is Champagne cask in the works!

 

 

This article contains a lot of recorded history from the book “The Arran Malt: An Island Renaissance” by Neil Wilson. If you wish to know more about the history of Arran, you can get the book at the distillery website or from amazon. Special thanks again to Euan Mitchell, James Mactaggart and the wonderful people at Arran for that unforgettable time in I spent on Arran in 2018.

Isle of Arran Distillery – The One and Only

The Isle of Arran Distillery sits in the foothills of the village of Lochranza on the north-west tip of the Isle of Arran. The owner of the distillery chose this location because of its vicinity to Loch na Davie. Loch na Davie holds the purest water in all of Scotland because granite and peat cleansed and softened the water in its slow meandering down from the mountaintops.

Short History of the Isle of Arran

The Isle of Arran used to house about fifty distilleries on the island. However, most of them were illegal, and smuggling activities went on for a period. Similar to Campbeltown, the proximity to water made producing and selling moonshine easy. However, as time passed, these illegal distilleries either obtained licenses to operate officially or close down. The last legal distillery on the Isle of Arran, called Lagg, was closed in 1837.

History of Arran Distillery

Harold Currie, a former director of Chivas, founded Arran Distillers in 1994 with the intention of building a distillery on Arran. Construction started in 1994 but halted after a pair of endangered golden eagles built their nests on a cliff near the distillery. As a result of the interruption, the distillery opened only in 1995. Arran distillery also took on the silhouette of two golden eagles as part of their logo.

The first spirit ran from the stills at the Arran distillery on 29th June 1995 at precisely 14.29 hours. It is the moment of glory for the Isle of Arran as it is the first legal distillation after more than 150 years of non-activity. The distillery was forced to store some casks in the warehouse of Springbank distillery due to their small capacity. However, in a recent revolutionary upgrade, the Arran distillery is now capable of storing and maintaining its production efficiency.

An interesting note about the founder, Harold Currie, is the fact that he was 70 years old when he decided to build Arran. He lived to a ripe, old age of 91 years old and left the distillery in capable hands when he passed on.

Production Methods at Arran Distillery

Arran distillery continues to use the traditional methods of producing whisky. The only drawback for the distillery is its lack of space for a traditional malting floor. Nonetheless, they buy their barley from the best source in Scotland to ensure high quality.

Arran distillery used barley and water from Loch na Davie to make their whisky. First, the barley and water are mixed in a mash tun to make wort, which then goes into wooden washbacks. The workers then add yeast to the wort for fermentation. To ensure a fruity new make, fermentation at Arran runs between 52 hours to 72 hours. The result is a liquid called “wash”, which is what we know as beer.

The workers double distilled the wash in copper pot stills and the final new make is a liquid that is about 68% alcohol strength. The distillation team placed this colourless liquid into oak casks that previously held sherry or bourbon. The wood gives the colour and character of the whisky, so the choice of the cask is one of the crucial influence for the final product.

Most of the Arran whiskies are bottled at either 46% abv or cask strength, so the flavours and aromas are retained for enjoyment. There are some of them which are bottled at 40% and 43% abv.

The Range of Arran Whiskies

Some bottles from the range of Arran’s exceptional whiskies

Arran has an impressive range of whiskies despite its young age as a distillery. All of the single malt whiskies at Arran are non-peated except for one. While most of their single malts are non-age statements, they do have age statement whiskies in their core range. We highlight some of them below:

Arran Lochranza Reserve

This is a non-age statement whisky bottled at 43% abv. It was released to celebrate the location of the distillery and named after the village. It is made up of 7 to 8-year-old whiskies mostly matured in bourbon oak casks.

Arran 10-year-old single malt

The Arran 10-year-old single malt is their flagship single malt. It is the backbone of Arran distillery, and one of the most enjoyed Arran whiskies in the world.

Arran 14-year-old single malt

The Arran 14-year-old single malt is one which is exceedingly popular among whisky drinkers. Slightly more complex than the 10-year-old, it is the go-to Arran whisky if you are looking for more complexity and richer flavours.

Arran 18-year-old single malt

The Arran 18-year-old single malt is the premium league of the Arran range of whiskies. The complexity is heightened at 18 years old, and the whisky displays rich and matured notes of Arran’s signature – orchard fruits and vanilla.

Arran Machrie Moor and Machrie Moor Cask Strength

Arran Machrie Moor and its cask strength version are released yearly since 2010 in small batches. Every batch is slightly different, but the core flavours are mostly the same. The difference is more prominent in the cask strength version as the abv usually differs from the previous year batch.

In addition to the above, Arran also experimented with wine cask finishes. Currently, they have three different wine cask finished whiskies labelled as cask finishes.

Arran Port Cask Finish

The Arran Port Cask Finish is the first experiment of wine cask finish. Using barrels from Portugal, the port wine cask give a sweeter finish to the typical Arran Malt.

Arran Sauternes Cask Finish

The Arran Sauternes Cask Finish is a sweeter version of the Port Cask Finish due to the influence of the delicious white wine that is Sauternes. The whisky is highly complex with notes of the white Sauternes shining through.

Arran Amarone Cask Finish

The Arran Amarone Cask Finish is a marriage of the Arran malt with the cask of Amarone wine from the north-east of Italy. The Amarone cask imparts a bright reddish tinge to the whisky and gives higher complexity to the drink.

There are other Arran whiskies such as the Smugglers Series, The Bothy Quarter Cask, the Robert Burns Single Malt and the latest release of the Arran Malt Distiller’s Edition. The newest release celebrates the 10th anniversary of Arran’s master distiller, James MacTaggart working with Arran Distillery.

Arran In the Future

Arran distillery has much to offer to the world of whisky, and we look forward to more exceptional whiskies from them. There is new of a 21-year-old Scotch coming in 2018 so do stay tuned for more! Arran is also building a second distillery in the southern tip of the Isle of Arran, in the village of Lagg. The new distillery will take over the making of the peated Machrie Moor series. Estimated to complete only in 2019, the future of Arran is looking brighter with each passing moment.

 

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Whisky Review #71 – Arran Sauternes Cask Finish

The Arran Cask Finish is an experimental series that Arran did to cast new insights into the excellent Arran Single Malt produced by the distillery. The whisky is transferred from the traditional oak casks into three different wine casks for a period to add flavours and character. It is then bottled at 50% when they achieved the balance between the malt and the wine casks. The higher abv retains the aroma and flavour of these expressions.

The subject of today’s review is the Arran Sauternes Cask Finish. It is almost a gourmet whisky after taking on influences from the highly sought-after Bordeaux sweet wine. Arran sourced the Sauternes cask from an artisan producer of the Sauternes white wine, and we are assured that it is a fantastic whisky to try.

Let’s check it out!

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Bright Gold
ABV: 50%

Nose: The Bordeaux sweetness is apparent on the nose. Tropical fruits, oaky sweetness and a slight musk hang in the forefront. Pepper spice fades in and out from the background. (16/20)

Palate: Rich, honeyed notes coats the palate coupled with a little citrus zest in the back of the tongue. A gentle spice floats in the background, adding some depth but not overwhelming the sweetness of the honey and citrus. Towards the end, the spice turns warm as the liquid goes down the throat. Quite a good whisky to drink on a cold winter night. (18/20)

Finish: Relatively long finish with sweet honey and the return of tropical fruits. (16/20)

Body: It is not as well-balanced as the Amarone Cask Finish, but it is still a balanced whisky. The surprising citrus zest in the palate is both the strength and weakness of the whisky. Nonetheless, it is savoury and worthy to try. (30/40)

Total Score: 80/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “I think this is the whisky to drink on a cold night when you want to savour a good whisky for some warmth. Among the 2 Arran Cask Finish whiskies which I had tried, I prefer the Arran Amarone Cask Finish to the Sauternes Cask Finish because I think there is a deeper character in the Amarone Cask Finish. I have yet to try the Port Wine Cask though – will be back to Quaich Bar to try it!” 

Geek Choc: “Well, Flora remembered me this time, and I get to try this delicious whisky. I like the honeyed notes in this one. While I had only nose the Amarone Cask Finish and did not try it, I guess that I will prefer the Sauternes over the Amarone because of its warm spice.”

 

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Whisky Review #69 – Machrie Moor 2016 Cask Strength

Machrie Moor is Arran’s special child. It is the only peated whisky in its entire collection and is bottled at both 46% and at cask strength. The Machrie Moor series started as a yearly release in 2010 and Arran has plans to expand their peated selection moving forward.

The history of Machrie Moor started in 2004 when Arran’s master distiller decided to try a peated Arran. The peat was obtained from Machrie Moor which is near to the distillery, hence the name of the expression. The yearly releases are different from one another, and the most prominent difference is their ABV.

The object of our review here is Machrie Moor 2016 Cask Strength (CS). The expression is a single malt whisky that is made up of 5 to 7 years old whiskies aged in bourbon casks with a moderate peat level of 20ppm.

Let’s dive into the review.

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Pale Gold
ABV: 58.5%

Nose: Citrus fruits like orange and lemon is at the forefront with gentle peat floating in the background. Hints of creamy vanilla notes hide in the background too. (16/20)

Palate: Sweet citrus fruits (lemons) come through strongly and coats the palate. As the liquid stays in the mouth, peppercorn coats the palate and lingers. The peat smoke gentle swirls around the palate, combining beautifully with the citrus and pepper spice. (18/20)

Finish: Long finish with creamy vanilla notes. Peat smoke lingers gently in the mouth for a long time before exiting like a puff of smoke. (17/20)

Body: A beautiful and balanced expression that is surprising for a young whisky such as the Machrie Moor 2016. The characteristic of this gentle peated whisky is excellent for simple exploration. While it is not a peat monster, the slight smoke is a perfect way to introduce a new person to smoky whisky. (30/40)

Total Score: 81/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “I love this! It is a gentle peated whisky that all ladies can enjoy without choking on thick smoke. It is perfect for whisky lovers who want more complexity in their whiskies.”

Geek Choc: “Well, I think it is a well-balanced whisky I enjoyed. However, I think it can be better if the ppm is higher. I am looking forward to new Machrie Moor with a higher ppm.”

 

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Whisky Review #68 – Arran 18-Year-Old

18 is a magic number in the whisky world. It is common for whisky lovers to look out for aged liquid 18 years and above. Somehow, the liquid almost always tastes better. Nevertheless, there are still exceptions, and we believe that we can’t judge until we tasted the liquid.

The Arran 18-year-old is currently the oldest expression in the core range. While it may soon lose its position as the oldest expression, this champion is still worth exploring because of its complexity. It is made up of almost 90% of ex-sherry cask whisky and the rest from ex-bourbon cask. Do expect this whisky to be sweeter than the 10 and 14-year-old.

Let’s look into this beautiful 18-year-old whisky.

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Deep Gold
ABV: 46%

Nose: Sweet sherry oakiness wafts up the nose with baked peaches in syrup in the forefront. Some toasted nuts (likely almonds) are present too. Hints of vanilla and light cinnamon spice hides in the background. (17/20)

Palate: Caramel sweetness (sherry influence) coupled with soft cinnamon spice coat the palate. There are also notes of sweet white peaches and citrus fruits at the back of the mouth. (17/20)

Finish: Long finish with sweet white peaches all the way. It is also slightly astringent (oak influence) towards the end. (16/20)

Body: This expression is well-balanced and has more character. The flavours and aromas mix well together to create an expression with depth worth exploring. (30/40)

Total Score: 80/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “Yums! The 18-year-old is indeed more magical than the 10 and 14-year-old. I might just change my mind about buying the 14-year-old and upgrading straight to the 18-year-old!”

Geek Choc:“This is my favourite so far. I have a special love for ex-sherry cask whisky, and the 18-year-old is just right. The balance between the sherry, bourbon and oak influence is right, making this whisky balanced.”

 

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Whisky Review #67: Arran 14-Year-Old

Arran distillery needs no more introduction after our post of its history and another one on the event at Quaich Bar. The object of our review today is the Arran 14-year-old. Dubbed as the perfect “go-to” dram for a whisky lover who wants to upgrade from the 10-year-old and not yet wanting to advance to the 18-year-old, this whisky here is a beautiful expression.

Arran 14-year-old is made up of whiskies matured in 60% ex-sherry casks and 40% ex-bourbon casks. Therefore, when compared to the 10-year-old, it is not as fruity but sweeter due to the sherry influence.

Let’s check out the review now.

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Copper Gold
ABV: 46%

Nose: Sweet oak mixed with dried fruits, vanilla and toffee, come up front when we first nose it. The spice hides in the background. When we add a little water, some sea salt tang appears alongside caramelised fruits notes. (16/20)

Palate: Sweet vanilla and honey coat the palate with notes of green apples and pears. Charred oak is also prominent with spice at the back of the tongue. Interestingly, the spice disappears, and the honey notes become more noticeable after airing the whisky. With water, the spice comes a little stronger to the forefront, but the vanilla and honey sweetness quickly overcome it. (16/20)

Finish: The finish is reasonably long with dried fruits and vanilla notes. Some honey is also detected at the end. (15/20)

Body: The balance for the 14-year-old is slightly better than the 10-year-old. It is still somewhat singular in its profile but an upgrade from the 10-year-old. (30/40)

Total Score: 77/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “The 14-year-old is slightly more complex as compared to the 10-year-old. While I still tend to lean towards the simple 10-year-old for my daily dram, this 14-year-old is a potential upgrade for me after I finished the 10-year-old bottle.” 

Geek Choc: “It is singular, but I kinda like it. The higher sherry influence in the 14-year-old appeals to me as the sweetness of the dried fruits makes it more interesting.” 

 

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Whisky Review #66 – Arran 10-Year-Old

The Arran 10-Year-Old is the entry level to its incredible range of whiskies. Made with the occasional whisky drinker in mind, this whisky is approachable and easy to drink. If it is the first time you are trying Arran, the 10-Year-Old is an excellent bottle to start. The liquid that made up the 10-Year-Old is 20% from ex-sherry casks and 80% from ex-bourbon casks. The result of this mixture is a sweet, fruity and slightly spicy concoction.

Let’s check out the review without further ado.

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Pale Gold
ABV: 46%

Nose: Sweet vanilla cupcakes greets the nose with a touch of spicy cinnamon. Notes of citrus fruits (oranges, lemons) follow after to create a sweet and gentle nose. With some time, fresh oak appears to deepen the complexity of the whisky. (15/20)

Palate: Sweet vanilla notes couple with red apples coat the palate beautifully before citrus fruitiness rush in to fill the palate. The mouthfeel is soft and mellow, creating an almost silky feel. (16/20)

Finish: A relatively long finish with sweet apples and a slight citrus zest. Hints of spice linger in the throat. (16/20)

Body: Reasonably balanced for a 10-year-old whisky with a straightforward character. It is indeed an entry level whisky that can be enjoyed by everyone. (29/40)

Total Score: 76/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “I like the Arran 10-Year-Old for its simple character. It is an approachable dram and one that beginners can easily adapt to. The sweet, fruity spice adds complexity to the mellow notes of the whisky.”

Geek Choc: “It is a simple drink that can be enjoyed anytime. If you have friends who are not whisky drinkers, this is a good dram to introduce if you want to convert them into whisky lovers!”

 

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