Our apologies that it has taken too long to do anything Arbikie.
This is a distillery that’s started with gin and vodka and expanded into rye. Formed by farmers, it is very much of the land. Their releases have the from the field to bottle ethic pretty much nailed down. It is very much a single estate vibe that we’ve seen with Daftmill, Hillrock and for some releases, Kilchoman. So, an exclusive club and one that harks back to the days of farmers taking some excess crops and making use of their knowledge and location to distil whisk(e)y. And this list will grow as Ballindalloch is able to rely on its estate for barley.
Arbikie is situated in the northeast of Scotland, a region that was decimated by distillery closures in the 1980s. Family farming on the land is into its 4th generation and it was here that the trio of brothers returned to their roots, to establish the distillery. This is one of the few distilleries that I’ve yet to visit. That will change with plans to open a visitor centre later this year, subject to any COVID-19 restrictions.
The label for this rye contains all the details that any reasonable person will want to know. The field being Drummies, the grain variety of Arantes rye, unmalted, 52%. Distilled in December 2015, this resided in cask A, a charred American oak barrel, for 2 years before being bottled at 48% strength. An outturn of 388 bottles was harnessed and this is specifically bottle number 176. It’s also naturally coloured and non-chill filtered.
This debut release came in 2 editions, best explained by Arbikie themselves:
‘We have produced two versions of ‘Rye Whisky’. The first, a ‘Scottish Rye Whisky’ in line with The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, consisting of over 51% Rye, Odyssey Malted Barley, both grown on the farm, and using Arbikie Estate water straight from our private lagoon. The second, an American version in line with techniques typically used in North America.’
This particular rye has long since sold out and it should be noted that all proceeds for it went to the Euan Macdonald Foundation for Motor Neurone Disease. At the time of writing there is a batch 2 available via The Whisky Exchange for £250, which is 4 years old and finished in Armagnac barrels. Described as a unique luxury whisky release, it’s a hefty price tag. And that’s the problem with Arbikie for many, as the pricing is beyond what they will consider paying. Even in these premium times, there is it seems, a limit to the madness for consumers.
A large distillery like Waterford, and that’s what it is in comparison, can produce 3 million litres and give us their version of terroir and keep the pricing south of £80. Young Scottish and English distilleries, tend to fall into the wider spectrum of pricing, but generally, keep things under £100. There will be economies of scale, low yielding grains and a more hands-on approach with some distilleries. Arbikie has an annual capacity of 200,000 litres, which is more than many other Scottish distilleries such as Dornoch with just 30,000. But £250 for a 4 year old? That’s unquestionably way out there and very much a hard sell for anyone. A niche release for a niche market. The previous batch release came in at 3 years of age, was finished in Pedro Ximénez casks and is still available at retail. Master of Malt will send you a bottle for a mere £225.95.
How much are you willing to pay for craft? I suppose that’s the main thrust of the conversation. I can still recall when Daftmill arrived on the scene with their whisky that was over a decade in age, people complained about paying the price tag. In essence, it was relatively affordable compared to what we’ve seen since for whiskies a third or even a quarter of its age. We’ve touched upon it before, back in June 2018 when I considered a New Bottle Order and then again in October 2018, when Adam quite rightly asked if New distilleries are pricing themselves out of relevance?
Go on, go read both and return to a more simpler time when flipping and bottle chasing was in its infancy and you could actually go somewhere, share drinks, engage with friends and random strangers over your love of whisk(e)y.
Recently on the Twitter-sphere, someone suggested that Malt looks to attract controversy with the scores it hands out. This is a ridiculous statement. Mark and I, rarely discuss scores. As a team, we’ve never collectively discussed scores or even floated the idea of a high/low mark to gain publicity. We don’t need to attract attention. If we did, then we’d offer seasonal click bait articles such as best of the year, top 10 gifts or the best way to wrap a bottle for Christmas. Sites do this and some of them are no longer with us, which underlines the vapid nature of such content. Behaviours such as rushing out to purchase the latest big release and fire out a review, WhiskyTube style, within 48 hours for all those clicks and views. We don’t. The simple fact is, we’re happy doing our own thing and whether that takes weeks, months or even years like this Arbikie, then that’s cool. And all the writers here will tell you, we’ve never queried their score with them. We trust their judgement and accept it, even if we might like or dislike the whisk(e)y myself.
I mention this only because we’re known for actually deducting points for what we see as being excessively priced whiskies. Generally, a point will do, with some extreme examples warranting 2, although I’ve never done that myself. Yet, I ask when faced with this Arbikie, what the deduction should be? At least the later batches have been shipped as 70cl, whereas here it is a 50cl size. And of course, there’s the other aspect where I was given this bottle to review (as part of a bottle swap), so essentially it was free. Does that mean I should just ignore the pricing? No, because it remains relevant to every release, regardless if a free sample or a secret handshake is thrown in. So, with that all said and done, let us commence with the liquid.
Arbikie Highland Rye – Adam’s review
On the nose: Dusky, malty sort of rye, this. Sawdust and bran. Rye dough. There’s a slight plasticity too – something a touch industrial. Earth and white pepper. Stone fruit skins. Not much development here – very overt in its youth.
In the mouth: A good bit more fruit and ripeness and interest here. Still that malty rye spice, but the texture’s very voluptuous, especially for a rye. Victoria plums and treacle. Honey and tinned peaches. Crystallised orange. A metallic tang at the death is joined by the return of the earthiness.
I actually have an awful lot of time for that palate, but overall it’s still a work in progress. The nose isn’t quite up to speed with what’s going on in the mouth. Price is rather on the naughty step too – point docked for that.
Arbikie Highland Rye – Jason’s review
Colour: amber gold.
On the nose: rye of course, gold leaf foil, tinned syrup and golden delicious apples. A paraffin oil residue, peppery as expected and dried straw. There are pencil shavings and lime.
In the mouth: less pronounced on the palate, but dense texture. A vortex of wood and earthy spices, but one that remains in symmetry. We have peanuts, toffee, candied orange, tinned syrup and grape juice. A very wholesome and filling whiskey.
Watch this distillery. I’d love to give this rye a few more years and without any luxury finishing. It won’t be for everyone, but I bet you’ll appreciate it for what it is. Meanwhile, this inaugural-ish release hints at that potential and is a liquid billboard for the future. I just fear the price. Surely you distil and create so that people can enjoy your efforts and hopefully return for more? While there is a charitable aspect specifically here, the general trend across these releases is too much. Hence a point chopped off for being on the wrong side of £200.
The second image kindly provided by Arbikie and thanks to Francis for the bottle swap. There are also commission links within this review if you wish to go and explore Arbikie in person.