When I first heard about Arran whisky and tried learning about the brand, I was intrigued by the different contradictions that stood out throughout the course of their history.
Arran’s Lochranza Distillery opened in 1995. Here we see one contradiction: in 1995, the whisky industry was at the tail end of dark times. Sales of whisky had crashed and were at an all-time low, and many Scotch distilleries had closed due to the lack of profit. As can be expected, people thought that the building of Arran Distillery was foolish.
It also didn’t help Arran’s case that they intended to sell single malt rather than make the wiser and more practical decision of bottling blends, or selling their whisky for use in blends. After all, other than a few distilleries that sold single malts like Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, and those that were part of Diageo’s classic malts, blends were largely the way by which many distilleries survived during that time. Yet another contradiction in Arran’s history.
Fast forward, and Arran decides to undertake a rebranding of their core range. According to Andy Bell, Arran’s Head of Sales and Strategy for Europe and the Nordic Isle, there were several factors that led to that rebranding.
Firstly, the team at Arran felt that while their principles continued to involve prioritizing the quality of their whisky, there were lost opportunities when it came to consumer engagement due the old bottling design. They felt that their old bottling design was somewhat of a “Frankenstein’s monster,” which had various incoherent elements that had been added on over the years. One of these was their old slogan (I believe it was “Pure by Nature”) that they no longer used elsewhere in there marketing yet remained on their packaging.
They said the old design had served its purpose, so they wanted to reimagine the bottling design to make it modern and more effective in communicating their brand values, like the importance they place on the soft water they use at the distillery – on the new design, this is shown by the “ripples” on the bottle’s shoulder.
Secondly, according to Arran Master Distiller James MacTaggart, they wanted to create a new design that would help them clearly distinguish between whisky made at Lochranza Distillery (where Arran whisky is currently produced) and their newly opened Lagg Distillery, dedicated to the creation of peated Arran whisky.
Along with the launching of their new packaging came two new Arran single malts; one of them is the Arran “The Bodega” Sherry Cask. In a way, the release of this expression seems to also be a contradiction, especially when you compare the expression to what Arran was used to doing in the past.
Arran initially had a lot of limited wine-cask-finished releases in the early 2000s: Marsala, Madeira, Sauternes, Port, Amarone, Chianti, you name it. The variety of casks used was in part due to the lack of a wood policy that led them to simply fill whatever casks they could. One could even argue that finished whiskies constituted the primary identity of Arran in the market at that time.
However, when current Managing Director Euan Mitchell came over from Springbank, where he served as its Sales Director, he pushed the company to create a core range of aged-stated releases. Mitchell felt that this move would result in the creation of a constant and recognizable identity that consumers can expect from Arran whisky, an identity that cannot be achieved by their initial preference for experimental finishing.
The current core range is a manifestation of the success of that endeavor. As if to put an exclamation mark on their commitment to the creation of that identity, the new core range was extended by the addition of The Bodega, a whisky that also used wine casks but through exclusive maturation, not finishing. Yes, they still continue to release finished whiskies, but it says a lot that they would consider a single malt exclusively matured in a wine cask (and, of course, it had to be Sherry) to be a fixture that they believe consumers can rely on.
The Arran “The Bodega” Sherry Cask single malt whisky is what I’ll be reviewing today. Despite not having a stated age on its label, Arran openly communicates that it contains 7-year-old single malt. I reached out to Andy Bell, and he confirmed that The Bodega is exclusively matured in first-fill Oloroso-sherry-seasoned American oak hogsheads, which was selected over European oak to better complement the house style of Arran whisky. It is presented naturally: without added color, without chill-filtration, and at cask strength (55.8% ABV for this batch).
Arran “The Bodega” Sherry Cask – Review
On the nose: It has a fruity core yet also has a very noticeable bubbly or effervescent character. Red wine pan sauce, grape skins, blackberries, and fresh figs. Then, a gentle waft of button mushrooms carries the development into tobacco leaf, cloves, diluted sweet soy sauce, crushed peppermint candy canes, and spatters of citrus. Maraschino cherries and licorice. The word “elegant” comes to mind.
In the mouth: More typical Sherry notes come in here, but manifests in a manner that is rich but has distinct clarity rather than stickiness. Dried figs this time, alongside cherry-flavored candy, hazelnut, old paper, and cloves. Tobacco takes a step forward, reminding me of smelling the length of a cigar, and is flanked by chopped strawberries. The mouthfeel has a degree of oiliness, but not the cloying kind. It’s also pleasantly, not overpoweringly, tannic. Medium to long finish, beginning with cherry stalks and ginger ale that transitions into tobacco before fading. A very subtle sensation of spice stays on the lips for a little while.
Let’s first get value for money out of the way. Currently, a bottle of The Bodega sells locally for around $70, which makes it a steal, so my score for the liquid will be bumped up by one. I’ve been hearing that Arran’s prices are also on the rise, but hopefully, with their preference for organic growth, these increases in price won’t be too rapid or drastic.
Now, think of all the adjectives and flavors that one would typically associate with “sherry bombs:” cloying, sticky, heavy, sulphur, orange oil, prunes, raisins, coffee, etc. Those descriptors don’t quite fit when considering this whisky. This isn’t a sherry bomb. Instead, there is a maintained distinct freshness to it that is accented well by the Sherry influence.
Clearly, Arran’s distillery DNA still has the front seat. The work of James MacTaggart shines in a different way with this release, communicating that a good wood policy is one that fits and augments the character of the distillate. I can’t help but wonder if the character of this whisky can be said to also stand in contradiction to most whiskies exclusively matured in ex-Sherry casks.