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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.

Guest Post: A Historial Look into New Zealand Whisky

Photo Credit: Greig Price

Most people imagine New Zealand to be a clean, peaceful country with a large population of sheep.  To those who had been there, fond memories of food, Hobbiton, clear blue skies linger, and for the drinkers, sauvignon blanc. You may have tried New Zealand wine, but have you tried New Zealand whisky?

What is New Zealand whisky and does it even exist?  To understand the story of New Zealand whisky, we need to go back to the history of New Zealand itself.

A Short History of New Zealand

Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud) was a country covered in forests and abundant birdlife. The Maori people settled there and the British later colonized it. The resulting interactions between these two peoples influenced later generations and whisky production.  New Zealand was seen as the final frontier for the British colonial masters.  Creating a new nation, the migrants wanted a society unbound by the rules of the countries they left behind.  The Maori culture values water and land, and these values progressively manifest themselves into the thinking of the new settlers.

The peoples of New Zealand realised the importance of nature and the need to protect it quickly. They enacted new legislation to protect the natural resources for future generations. With this, a growing awareness of where people lived, the food they ate and the water they drank began in earnest.  Therefore, New Zealand was spared the blight of heavy industries, and the water quality benefited from it.

The Influence of Clean Environment on Wine and Whisky

For wine drinkers, location is everything, and to scotch drinkers, the mention of Islay will conjure up images of peat, smoke and brine.  For New Zealand whisky, the inhabitants, terrain, and scarcity of available resources heavily influence the production.  The new colonial arrivals brought with them a rich history of distilling, particularly the Irish and Scots.  It wasn’t long before a thriving unregulated “moonshine” industry sprang up, with reports of whisky being made as early as the 1830s.

Early Whisky Production and Regulations

Onerous government regulations combined with prohibition and world wars delayed large scale commercial whisky production until 1969. The behest of Scottish banks to quell nascent competition (See the Pattison Crash) was largely a part of the reason. In 1969, the now-defunct Willowbank distillery sprang up. Fittingly, Willowbank was located in Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh), the most Scottish city in New Zealand. A statue of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns still resides in the centre of the city. Dunedin is a coastal city surrounded by misty hills with a Scottish climate. It was a perfect location for the production of high-quality New Zealand whisky.

Initial production requirements which called for the use of Scottish peat, water and barley were not practical due to the distances and costs involved.  Locally sourced ingredients were used instead. The whisky received mixed review –  “It’s palatable, just not Scotch”.

The Willowbank distillery produced blended whisky under the Wilson and 45 below labels, and a single malt named Lammerlaw. As with all single malts, the distillery gave it a meaningful name after their water source – the Lammerlaw mountain ranges. There are also lots of plains, where farmers grow the bulk of New Zealand barley during the long, hot and dry summers.

Change of Ownership

In 1980, Seagram took charge of operations after a change of ownership. Lammerlaw single malt gained a reputation as a quality single malt whisky as a result. Foster’s brewing took over in 1997, resulting in Willowbank getting stripped of its assets.  Its pot stills went to Fiji for the production of rum.  Given the “taste” of Foster’s beer and their lack of foresight, it is somewhat ironic that the stills from Willowbank have gone on to produce highly sought-after Fijian rum.

Fast Forward to the Present

With the distillery closed, there were over 400 barrels of whisky that were sitting around, unwanted.  In 2010, these barrels found their way into the hands of The New Zealand Whisky Company and Thomson Whisky.  Both companies released bottlings from these barrels successfully.  Noted whisky writers, Jim Murray and Charles Maclean, further attested to their quality and the whiskies won awards at major international competitions.  The current oldest release is a 30-year-old single malt, a testament to the staff at the sadly closed Willowbank.

New Zealand Whisky Producers

Thomson Whisky was quick to realise that their barrels would not stay full forever, and they need a new source of whisky.  This spurred Thomson to start producing whisky. A new batch of distillers, such as Workshops and Cardrona, also started whisky production.  New Zealand whisky producers focused on best practices in small batches using locally-sourced ingredients.  For example, Workshops Whisky, who built their still inhouse and sourced their water from an onsite well direct from the Southern Alps is a success.  Thomson Whisky, who have used locally-sourced peat, applied Manuka tree smoke to the barley and currently using ex-local pinot noir barrels for ageing.

Exciting Times for New Zealand Whisky

So to summarise the points made earlier, New Zealand is a country where its inhabitants used the physical isolation and environment to make whisky. Using the best local ingredients where possible, with time-honoured techniques, they make whiskies that are light and floral in character.  With future releases, this may no doubt change, especially with wider distribution starting to occur.  Sustainability and quality over quantity are paramount, which in the coming years, New Zealand whisky will start to gain more attention as a result of this approach.

About the Author

Greig Price is a native of New Zealand who has lived overseas on and off for the last twenty years and the last 12 in Singapore. Whenever this kiwi is homesick, he’ll seek out pies, potato chips or pinot noir. Or generally, anything else alcoholic from the land of the long white cloud and then bore you with why it tastes so great

The Glencairn Glass – The Birth of Innovation

Before the birth of the Glencairn Glass

Before the birth of the Glencairn glass, there was no special glass for whisky. In its long and colourful history, there was never once a single glass that the whisky industry could claim as its own. All the other spirits have their glasses, but whisky, with all its complexity, failed to have its own.

The creator of the Glencairn Glass

Raymond Davidson decided to change the sad fate of whisky. His innovative mind dreamt up a design for a glass that is suitable for whisky. He chose a glass style that is similar to the traditional sherry nosing glass, known as the copita. The shape of the glass is said to encourage the user to take some time in appreciating the nose and palate of the whisky. At the same time, the glass is a practical design that allows vigorous usage in a bar environment.

Help from the Master Blenders

However, Raymond Davidson did not do this on his own. He brought the initial design of the glass to some of the most famous Master Blenders of his time and sought their guidance and advice to improve. With their expertise and enthusiastic participation, the glass developed and changed into what it is today. The size and shape are crafted to hold 35ml of whisky and still allow for the user to add water. The liquid is also optimally exposed to air to let aromas develop.

The Unique Shape of the Glencairn Glass

The finalised product is nothing like the copita glass that Davidson initially modelled the glass from. The tapering mouth of the glass captures all the aromas of the whisky and yet, makes it easy for users to drink from it. The wide crystal bowl at the bottom helps the users to appreciate the whisky’s colour better while the solid base is excellent as a cradle. It is also a sturdy glass for use in a bar environment. For the discerning whisky drinker, the aesthetic of the glass is as vital as the liquid itself, since it would help him or her to better appreciate the drink.

The Glencairn Glass of Today

Since its birth in 2001, the Glencairn glass has gained popularity. It won the Queens’ Award for Innovation in 2006 and is endorsed by the Scotch Whisky Association. Most distilleries and whisky bars around the globe used this glass. The arrival of the Glencairn glass has changed the history of whisky drinking and placed itself at the centre of the whisky industry. Finally, whisky has a glass to call its own – the Glencairn Glass!

 

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