The sea was eerily calm and the sun was breaking through the clouds, but the view on the horizon was foreboding. Where an island should have been, there was just a wall of dark grey cloud. Big spots of rain started to land on deck, and many of the awkwardly distanced passengers hurriedly donned coats and then face masks before retreating indoors. The rain began to pour. A few minutes later we descended into the bowels of the boat to be reunited with our car, before driving out into the storm beyond.
It could have been the start of a film. There were a few that came to mind in this surreal Covid-secure ferry crossing experience. Yet, the destination was no hidden tropical island, it was rather an island that held the promise of distilleries that were actually open to visitors. We had arrived at Brodick, on the Isle of Arran, in typically extreme Scottish weather. They say that in Scotland you can experience all four seasons in the space of a day, and apart from winter snow, we sure did. We drove through the Brodick downpour, onto ‘The String’, one of only two roads that cut across the centre of the island, and as we crested the ridge that runs down it’s spine, we emerged from rain and cloud into glorious sunshine, with a great view over the sparkling sea to the Mull of Kintyre beyond. You would not know the weather was so grim just a few miles away.
Arran truly is ‘Scotland in miniature’, but not only because of its wild and changeable weather. It has craggy mountains to the north and east, rolling glens to the south, an expansive moor full of soggy peat, and a beautifully rugged coastline. Its wildlife features many of Scotland’s iconic beasts, including golden eagles, red squirrels, otters, seals and deer. The island has experienced the highs and lows of Scottish history too, including the clearances in the early 19th century, when tenant farmers were removed from the land and shipped off to Canada in order to make room for more profitable sheep and crops. Finally, (but of the greatest importance to Malt of course) Arran has a very long and rich whisky heritage, which is coming to the fore again with the growing success of ‘The Arran Malt’.
Arran’s whisky history
In 1644 taxes were introduced on whisky for the first time as its popularity grew, and as many refused to pay them, over the following 200 years or so smuggling and illicit distilling became the norm. The Isle of Arran was at the centre of this whisky smuggling trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s remoteness, challenging weather, and the rugged landscape left it relatively overlooked by excisemen based on the mainland, who were tasked with shutting down illicit distillation and catching the smugglers. It’s estimated that there were over 50 working stills on Arran in the peak of production. There are a number of swashbuckling tales of local smugglers being confronted by the law, and accounts of islanders being fined or imprisoned. Eventually, in 1819 a legal distillery was built at Lagg, small by today’s standards (25,000 litres a year), but it was enough to make many of the illicit stills redundant. This coincided with the reduction in island population due to the clearances, and with an increase in whisky production at nearby Campbeltown, as it became the centre of the legalised whisky trade through the 1820’s. By the time that Lagg ceased production around 1840, the penalties for smuggling were so severe, and the legal whisky trade so well commercially established, that illicit distillation on Arran gradually became a thing of the past (although tales of secret small-scale production pop up from time to time!).¹
This whisky heritage is now being built upon by Isle of Arran Distillers, (minus the smuggling – as far as I know!) with distilleries at Lochranza (1995) in the north, and Lagg (2018) in the south, one mile from the site of the early 19th century distillery. The intention is that Lochranza will focus on non-peated spirit, whilst Lagg will produce heavily-peated whisky. It seems that the Arran tagline of ‘Scotland in miniature’ has become part of the ethos of Arran Distillers, as the whiskies they produce cover the whole range of Scotch whisky flavour profiles. There’s the bourbon cask matured ‘Arran 10 Year Old’, sherry cask matured ‘The Bodega’, lightly peated ‘Machrie Moor’, and now a heavily peated ‘Fingal’s Cut’ range, that aims to show what Lagg is aiming to produce in years to come. Add to that as many different cask finishes as you can imagine, (Sauternes, port, Côte Rôtie, Amarone, Marsala, rum, and no doubt more), festival bottlings and the beautifully presented ‘Explorer’s Range’, and there is a bewildering number of expressions to try.
I do get concerned when a distillery, such as Arran, has a vast range of output. It is possible that so intent on catering to all whisky drinking preferences, that it could do so at the expense of excelling in any particular area. It feels like distilleries are striving for our complete attention, providing a dram to suit every mood and event, so that we need not buy any whisky from elsewhere ever again. Yet, despite these reservations, I was to discover that there were some gems to uncover on Arran, and that they were spread across the different styles.
My first encounter with Arran whisky, a few years ago, was a bottle of the 10 Year Old single malt, and I have to be honest and say that I didn’t enjoy it. In fact it became a bit of a chore finishing the bottle, as I found it quite neutral and dull. The vanilla heavy, spicy oak, orchard fruits, and almost grassy style of whisky, is not a favourite of mine. However, more recent bottle splits with local whisky mates of the ‘The Bothy Quarter Cask’ and ‘The Bodega’ showed some promise, and a return to the 10 Year Old didn’t seem as bad as I remembered (either my palate has changed, the bottling recipe has, or the previous one was from a bad batch!). It is a malt that thanks to its relatively neutral profile is pretty flexible, and can be taken in many different directions. When you add into the mix no chill-filtration, no colouring and bottling at such a good strength, it seemed clear that ‘The Arran Malt’ deserved a bit more of my time and attention.
So, it was with some excitement that I made the trip to Arran for the first time in a few years, knowing that I would at least manage to visit Lagg, as we were staying with family just a mile or so down the road. In the end I made it to Lochranza too, but only just. Covid-19 restrictions had threatened to prevent such visits, but Isle of Arran Distillers have worked hard to open their distilleries in Covid-secure ways, and they did a great job of welcoming us in the circumstances.
At Lagg we were able to visit the café (booking essential) and the distillery shop, but tours and tastings were not yet underway (tastings have since resumed). Lagg is a beautifully presented distillery, located in the quiet south-west corner of the island. It’s structure is meant to be evocative of the Arran skyline, which is dominated by Goatfell, the highest peak that overlooks Brodick Bay. This skyline, that was hidden from sight by the cloud on our approach to Arran the day before, is also reproduced in the Lagg logo. On a miserable day the distillery setting is truly wild and exposed to the elements, and the building seems to lie low to the ground, shaped to withstand the buffeting it takes from the wind. However, on a sunny day the views out to sea are stunning, with Ailsa Craig (the rocky island birthplace of all curling stones) on the horizon, and the Irish coast beyond.
Over lunch I was able to sample the Machrie Moor: Fingal’s Cut whiskies, heavily peated Arran malt, one matured in quarter casks and bottled at 46% and the other finished in sherry casks but bottled at cask strength of 54.4%. It’s fair to say that tasting whisky during a family lunchtime requiring the marshalling of three children under 5, is not very conducive to the production of in depth tasting notes. Yet, I was able to taste enough to know that I wanted to bring a couple of bottles home, with the sherry cask in particular making a good impression. It is these purchases that are reviewed below.
Machrie Moor is an expanse of peat bog on the west of the Island famous for the ancient standing stone circles scattered across it. One of them features Fingal’s Cauldron Seat, where this giant of Celtic mythology is said to have sat, and a standing stone with a hole in it that is said to be where his dog Bran was tethered whilst he ate. As a whisky romantic, seeing as the peated Arran whiskies make use of these myths passed down over centuries for branding purposes, I would love it if Arran peat was involved in the malting process, such that the island link and provenance would be all the stronger. However, with no maltings on Arran (malt is shipped over from Glenesk Maltings), and no peat cutting allowed on the moor (for whisky at any rate), the Machrie Moor whiskies can only ever be at best evocative of the place that gives it its name. It’s of note too that the packaging is brash, unnecessarily wide, and demands attention (the whisky equivalent of manspreading perhaps). In short the whisky within has a lot to live up to.
In the distillery shop, samples were available in disposable cups of the Lagg New Make spirit. It certainly packs a punch at 63.5%, but shows great potential, with sweet citric and vegetal notes along with a good whack of peat that fills not only your palate, but the room it’s been poured in. Following a lengthy chat with a knowledgeable and passionate member of staff (this has not always been the case on visits to other distillery shops), it sounds like an early Lagg release will be on the cards. Although I’m no expert by any means, judging by the new make and the peated whiskies Arran Distillers have produced from Lochranza, it should be well worth a try. There also promises to be further development at the distillery, with an unused section being lined up to produce brandy from locally grown apples. That will certainly bring something unique to the sometimes repetitive nature of Scotch distillery tours!
Lochranza distillery is in a contrasting setting to Lagg, as it sits in the relative shelter of the northern hills, in a very scenic part of the island that is much more popular with tourists. The café was still closed, but a makeshift bar had been set up in the shop where you could try before you buy, which considering the wide range of whisky on offer at Arran is pretty helpful when it comes to preventing a duff purchase. Tasting sessions are being run there at remarkably good value. The price was £15 for either a limited edition or core range tasting. This was a good deal cheaper than the £25 that had been paid for the equivalent at Deanston the week before.
Time was running out for me to make a visit to Lochranza, as family holidays demand a much wider focus than whisky (including a time consuming visit to Lamlash A&E as one of the little ones picked up a minor injury!). As there was no chance of me making it to a tasting, I messaged to see if there was any way of being accommodated at another time, and found Peter (visitor centre manager) to be most helpful. In the end a flying visit was made to pick up some ‘driver’s dram sets’. It was another day of changeable weather. I drove up the west coast from Sliddery, near Lagg, in torrential rain, with the waves crashing into the shore to such an extent that our evening ferry back to the mainland was under threat of cancelation. Thankfully, there was no socially distanced queue to enter the distillery upon my arrival, as if there was I’d have been soaked.
The staff at Lochranza were every bit as welcoming and informative as at Lagg, and I was talked through the samples I was collecting in depth. It was a couple of weeks before I managed to try them, with the highlight being a 23 year old single sherry cask. The whisky purist might complain that the sherry has overwhelmed the distillery character. However, this is sherry bomb production at its best, and worthy of standing alongside any of the single cask releases from more established proponents of sherry cask maturation (GlenDronach etc), and it costs less, at £145 a bottle. Considering this was laid down in the early days of production at Lochranza, it is about as high a compliment that can be given, showing both a high quality of spirit and good cask acquisition from the very start.
Having arrived at the distillery in pouring rain, I exited it just as the sun was breaking through the clouds once more, bringing the kind of brightness that you only get following a storm, as the light is reflected off wet tarmac and saturated grass. This wild and brooding place was transformed into a calm and beguiling picture postcard. Scotland was being Scotland in all of its stupendous variety, even in this miniature version of itself, and it has to be said that Arran’s distilleries encapsulate this rather well. I returned to the south of the island a contented visitor, with a family to re-join, and sadly, a return ferry to catch.
Machrie Moor: Fingal’s Cut – Quarter Cask – review
Colour: Very pale gold.
On the nose: Key lime pie, vanilla, strawberries and cream, pepper, briny smoke.
In the mouth: No surprises – it follows straight on from the nose. Lots of citrus, some salinity, and a peat smoke that starts in the background and then comes to the fore. A smooth and lasting finish, leaving lemon zest and sweet heathery peat behind.
If this is Machrie Moor it is definitely in the summer, on a warm day with sea air wafting in from the ocean, and the heather in bloom. This is gentle sweet peat, reminiscent of bourbon matured Islay malts, and that is no bad thing at all in my book. It might be a bit tame for Fingal, although he surely had a break from being a mighty warrior from time to time. Price is par at £45.
Machrie Moor: Fingal’s Cut – Sherry Cask Finish – review
Colour: Ruby ale.
On the nose: Gammon cooking over a peat fire, charred pineapple, a hint of lemon, leather, dark chocolate, a boozy Christmas pudding.
In the mouth: Oily, maple-cured bacon, bbq ribs, candied orange peel, dates, muscovado sugar, cola bottle sweets, more leather, with a persistent and lasting smoke. The sherry and peat intermingle nicely. It’s a fairly drying finish, maybe due to the abv.
A solid dram that lives up to its bold billing and packaging, with enough peat to transport you to Machrie Moor, but given an extra autumnal dimension by the Oloroso cask finish that makes it fitting for a wild and stormy day. It’s punchy and meaty, such that Fingal might well approve. It’s priced at £60, which given the strength is pretty reasonable.
¹ Gregor Adamson – Arran Water: An Island Whisky History (The Angels Share; 2019) provides a fascinating full account of the history of whisky on Arran, and was referred to in writing this paragraph.
Machrie Moor montage by Chris Dunn, otherwise all photographs by the author.