Finally I am getting around to posting the last blog from my Scotland trip. Thanks for bearing with me but it has been a hectic few weeks here at the store as we roll into our busiest season of the year, build a new single malt Scotch emporium and prepare for our biggest event and sale of the year: the 4th Annual Whisky & Fine Spirits Expo!
Our final day of distillery visits was probably the most memorable for Doria, Kevin and myself. While Islay and its numerous distilleries were thoroughly enjoyable, we were now heading to an island that is less well known to the general public for distilling but is very well known by everybody for its spectacular scenery. In fact, the Isle of Arran is often described as Scotland in miniature, as it boasts every type of landscape that one generally thinks of when picturing Scotland in their minds.
However in order to get there, we had to take a very early morning ferry from Port Askaig to Kennacraig on the Scottish mainland, drive 10 miles on a single lane track across a sliver of land known as the Mull of Kintyre to the port of Clonaig, where we would catch our next ferry to Lochranza on Arran.
This is the view which greeted us at Clonaig. We were the only car in line, in fact the only car at all. There wasn’t a person, a ticket desk, not even a building for miles around, just this slipway into the freezing water on what was a very typical, cold, wet summer’s day!
Thankfully the crossing was short and this is the view that welcomed us as the boat glided into Lochranza; next stop, the distillery!
The distillery that we had come to see is the Isle of Arran Distillery, one of Scotland’s newer distilleries, having being established in 1995. It is not the first distillery the island has had, as distilling was introduced by Irish monks hundreds of years before, but it is the first legal distillery the island has had since 1825.
After several warming cups of tea, we headed back out into the pouring rain (it rains a lot here), accompanied by Louisa Young, Arran’s Senior Brand Manager, along with James MacTaggart, Arran’s Distillery Manager. James is a great guy but he has a peculiarly West Scottish sense of humor. I mean, the rain was coming down in sheets, and he was leading us up into the hills behind the distillery to view its water source. We didn’t really need to look for the water, it was everywhere!
After another few cups of tea it was time for James to take us through Arran’s complete production process. What was fascinating about this tour was firstly we had James leading it; the man spent about four hours of his busy Thursday morning with us. And secondly, the man is as passionate as they come. He is an old hand when it comes to making whisky, having previously managed the Bowmore Distillery on Islay. James is originally from Islay and whisky runs in the family; his son currently works at the Caol Ila distillery on Islay.
Arran uses three types of malt called Optic, Oxbridge and Concerto, which are grown and malted on Scotland’s east coast to their specifications. I found it interesting that, while Arran is an island distillery, they prefer to use non-peated malt for most of their whiskies. This is in stark contrast to many of Islay’s peat monsters. The malt is then shipped to the island where it is ground down into course grist, ready for the mashing. We were fortunate to see the mixture of grist and boiling hot water flow into the empty stainless steel mash tun.
The sweet wort is then extracted from the grist and pumped into one of the 5 wooden washbacks for the fermentation process. While almost every other distillery has moved to using stainless steel washbacks as they are easier to clean, Arran has gone the other way. They have decided to use traditional Oregon pine washbacks as they believe the liquid contact with wood makes for a much better fermentation. After the yeast is added they let the wash ferment from anywhere between 52 and 80 hours, the longer fermentation producing a better wash for the stills.
This is where the magic happens. The wash undergoes a double distillation but what makes Arran and its spirit so unique is the extremely small cut (the best part) that is taken from the still. Many distilleries will begin taking the cut early, some as early as 5 minutes into distillation. This produces a heavier style of whisky. On the other hand, Arran is cut after nearly 50 minutes, meaning that only a tiny percentage of the spirit taken from the stills can be used. What does this mean? It means that you have delightfully delicate malt that has a lovely spicy character.
After all of that it was time to see where all of this sweet spirit ended up!
My trip to Scotland had a real purpose, apart from visiting distilleries and educating myself on whisky! I had come as part of Vine & Table’s first foray into the world of handpicked single malt Scotch casks (we have already picked out bourbon barrels in Kentucky) that I could bring back for my very loyal customers. I was looking for something unique, something that you could not get on any other retailer’s shelf; I sought a whisky that spoke to me, that had all of the character and finesse that I would expect in a whisky. But above all I wanted a whisky that would stop me in my tracks, that would dance on my taste buds when the golden spirit passed my lips, a whisky that sparkled and made me smile and above all a whisky that would keep me coming back for more.
Did we find it?
Well we hunted through Arran’s three warehouses (6,000 casks), looking for that elusive needle in a haystack. James was a man in his element, he was thoroughly enjoying himself as he darted from row to row, jumped from one cask to the other. He was climbing up and down ladders that had clearly seen better days, dipping his Valinch into casks and passing down samples to us below. We tasted many excellent whiskies, but none that truly spoke to me.
Then, when I was beginning to think I would go home empty handed, it was there, in my glass. Wow, I instantly knew that this was the one. It was like getting a knock on the head and suddenly seeing stars! What’s more Doria and Kevin knew straight away too. It seemed almost too good to be true, but it was true- and it’s coming to Vine & Table this fall!
This is it. Cask No. 01/749, a 12 year old cask strength, single cask, un-cut, un-filtered bourbon barrel.
There is no denying that you can get carried away when tasting in a warehouse, being in the moment, with tired taste buds, angels flying around, etc. So on our return to Indy we did a blind taste of all 15 sample bottles which we brought back from Arran. 01/749 was the clear winner in Broad Ripple too!
I am anxious to hear your comments on the whisky that is currently on a ship somewhere in the mid Atlantic as I type this. For those lucky enough to have bought tickets for our upcoming Whisky & Fine Spirits Expo on Friday October 12th, you will be able to sample this exclusive whisky in the presence of Louisa Young from Arran Distillery, who is also making the trip across the pond for our event.
Expect to see a pre-release offering of this very special once off Scotch in the coming weeks, I am expecting less than 200 bottles from this cask strength whisky to arrive from Scotland.
All in all, it was a fitting end to a wonderful trip to Scotland.