Arran Amarone Cask Finish Single Malt Whisky

ARRAN AMARONE CASK FINISH
2020 release

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 100

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Isle of Arran Distillers

PRICE – It was a gift! (typically goes for around $80 to $100)

WORTH BUYING? – Didn’t have to (gift!) but it does have me now curious to explore Arran further.

I’m posting this on January 25, 2023, for two reasons:

First, this day is Burns Night, the annual celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns on his birthday. Burns was born January 25, 1759, in Alloway, a village near the Scottish mainland coast just southeast of the Isle of Arran, from which this post’s whisky hails. Burns is considered the Scottish bard, his 700+ poems articulating much about the Scottish character, landscape, and politics. Burns Night is celebrated there with a special supper, whisky of course, dancing, readings of the bard’s poetry, and singing his songs—”Auld Lang Syne” being among the more widely known.

Secondly, this bottle was gifted to me by the Fall 2022 student cohort of the San Francisco Semester (SFS), a study-abroad style adult acting program at the American Conservatory Theater where I teach. They were a spirited group, so there was something fitting about their honoring our time together with a gift of spirits. And it happens that today, January 25, is also the first day of class for the new Spring 2023 cohort of SFS students. So, after class, I will toast the day with a glass of this special Arran.

I’d not given Arran much thought before this bottle was gifted to me. I have vague memories of seeing their bottles on shelves, and the occasional Rolfy review. Since their 2019 rebranding I’ve actually clocked the new labels even less. That doesn’t say as much about their marketing as it does my own lack of attention to brand-name scotch. I tend to be much more attentive to secondary bottlers like Hunter Laing and Alexander Murray, given one can often get name-brand whisky from them without the brand name at a fraction of the price, usually at cask strength with no added this or that.

So my Fall 2022 students, to whom I’d introduced ideas about theater that were new to them, in turn had introduced me to a whisky that was new to me. Not bad. I hopped on the www and delved into Arran…

The isle of Arran is located just off the southern mainland coast, southwest of Glasgow. Various scotch region maps place Arran among either the Highland or Island producers. The latter makes literal sense, given Arran is an island. Tucked neatly between the Campbeltown and Lowland regions, with the massive Highland region just north, in terms of flavor profile it seems Arran could have taken any of those as a rubric. But the distillery doesn’t seem to want itself pinned down so neatly, indicating broadly that their whisky “shares some of the characteristics of the Highlands and Lowlands, the mainland and the Western Isles.”

Names are but words. The actual name of a region and any expectations thereof mean quite less than the exact microclimate of the location itself, and how this impacts the process of distilling and aging the whisky. The Arran website offers a nice, concise history of the distillery and its location. Arran is a small island, its air easily wind-swept, and with rich fresh water sources. Though there has been distilling going on, mostly illegally, since the early 1800s, it was only in 1994 that Isle of Arran Distillers was established, making it a relatively “young” operation by Scottish standards. According to the website, in 1998…

After 3 years of maturation, the first cask of Arran Single Malt Scotch Whisky was opened on 25th July by Scottish film star Ewan McGregor. This was the first legal dram on Arran for over 160 years. In this year, we released our first ever 3 year-old Arran Single Malt. Ewan’s cask is still with us, resting quietly alongside the Princes’ casks.

So they’ve got a good marketing team as well. In addition to McGregor’s namesake cask, a 1997 visit by Her Majesty The Queen was cause for two casks to be set aside in the names of Princes William and Harry. The marketing copy notes that “these casks are still slumbering peacefully in Warehouse 1.” Meanwhile, as we know, William and Harry have themselves not slept so peacefully—making the eventual fate of those sibling casks very interesting indeed. Good luck to the marketing team on that one!

By 2006, Arran released their first round of 10 Year whiskies, and they’ve been going strong since, continually adding higher age statements and various blends as stocks have matured. In 2018 they opened a second distillery on the south end of the island, more focused on peated whiskies to complement their northern unpeated distillates.

As for the current bottle in hand, it is a non-aged-stated blend finished in Amarone wine casks and bottled at a very respectable 100 proof. Amarone is a red wine from the northern Veneto region of Italy, which gets less attention than its larger cousin regions like Tuscany or Sicily. The Amarone grape is known for producing intensely flavored wines, partly due to the process by which the grapes are dried after harvest, which has the effect of concentrating the sugars and aromatic compounds. The prospect of this pungent influence on the honeyed, fruity barley notes of Highland-ish scotch is tantalizing. But might it slip into something too cloyingly sweet?

Here we are, five weeks after uncorking and three pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – a spectrum of yellows, from pale dusty straw to warm honey

NOSE – saline, thinly drizzled honey, fruity barley, malt, raw cut oak, faint fruits like mango and papaya and peach

TASTE – at once edgy and creamy, with soft caramels taking the lead, the tropical fruit and honey notes lingering in the background, some baked white peach with caramelized sugars, the malt and saline encircling everything with a crisply bitter outline

FINISH – medium-long but gentle, with caramel pudding and the tropical fruits, edgy malt and wood tannin, some grapefruit peel

OVERALL – like a young boisterous poet, youthful in their bitter edginess and romantic in their bright sweetness

Continuing with the poet metaphor, this whisky is not quite yet a Robert Burns. But they’ve certainly read their Burns, and imitate him amidst their own attempts. The whisky tastes familiar, unoriginal, and yet nevertheless alive. The passion at work is real.

I’m drinking this scotch on an appropriately drizzly day. When I joked back in early December about pairing rainy-day whiskeys with the typically nonexistent San Francisco “rainy season”, little did I know the entire Northern California region would kick off 2023 with a lengthy stretch of steady downpours, unlike anything we’ve experienced here for years. It’s been no joke. Lots of destruction, with the long parched landscape washing away in layers.

But from the relative safety of my rickety old Edwardian apartment building, under this particular day’s mild if steady shower, I’m warmed by this punchy pour. The 50% ABV (100 proof) lights a low crackling fire under what might otherwise have been mundane. The bitter edge of malt and cask tannin are as recognizable as the tropical fruit and creamy pudding notes. But they’re not synthetic. They do feel alive and kicking, which is more than some mainstream scotch brands can say these days. (Well they can say it, but…) Arran does not chill filter their whiskies, nor add any artificial coloring, allowing their fresh island rain water and the casks themselves to do the work. So while they may not have set out to achieve anything particularly new or unusual, they did side with quality.

Beyond January 25, 2023, going forward there are two reasons for me to reach for this bottle. One is to add a gentle but effective kick to a dull grey day. The other is to reflect on that kind and creative group of young artists who gifted it to me. This whisky is incidentally infused with their thoughtful gesture and my memories of our semester of work. And they made a lot of work! They struggled, but well and in productive ways. What they created may not have been unprecedented in the broad scheme of things. But it was true to them and very much alive—like the Arran Amarone Cask Finish Single Malt.

Cheers!

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