Monday, January 13, 2014

Whisky Tasting: Arran Bere Barley, 16 Year, 12 Year Cask Strength & Machrie Moor

After touring the Isle of Arran Distillery, I decided to sit down in their cafe to try a few of their whiskies that I hadn't had the chance to sample before. These pours are a bit smaller than I'm used to, at 30 instead of 50 milliliters, but it was still enough to get a good sense of what was going on in them. They were tasted in the order presented, which I hoped would present the least interference between each.

Arran Orkney Bere

Nose: strong malt complimented by citrus, just a hint of new make character, peanuts?, digestive biscuits, oats, cinnamon. After adding a few drops of water, it became even more malt-focused but with less of an edge, porridge, a little salty.

Taste: sweet malt up front, a hint of new make, fruity/floral/citrus in the middle, fading out with very light oak tannins and something like sherry fruitiness. After dilution, it became sweeter throughout, fruit/floral notes give way to a hefty dose of pepper, the pepper hooks up with the oak at the back, very creamy with citrus in the background throughout.

Finish: incense, baking spices, malt, lemon peel, mild oak tannins

Especially in comparison to Bruichladdich's Bere Barley whisky, I really enjoyed this one. While both are bottled at 46% without chill filtration, the Laddie only had six years in comparison to the Arran's Bere eight years in oak, which was just enough to polish off most of the new make character without obscuring the unique character of the bere barley. Fundamentally, this is a drinkable and enjoyable whisky instead of a novelty. I hope Arran can do this again because I'd like to drink more of it.

Arran 16 Year

Nose: sherry with a vinegar edge, creamy vanilla malt underneath, floral, alcohol is fairly noticeable, oak undertones, shifts back and forth between malt and sherry with time. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry became much richer with a hint of burnt sugar, and there was caramelized malt, jammy, a bit of heather honey, and almost earthy.

Taste: ethereal fruit notes with an ester edge (especially isoamyl acetate - fake banana flavor), sweet malt foundation, thin oak tannins with sherry at the back, with pepper building alongside. After dilution, it became much more coherent - everything comes together with bourbon, sherry, and heather honey sweetness throughout, a smoother transition to pepper and oak, and a less ethereal quality.

Finish: light bitter oak tannins, malt, ethereal sherry

This is the oldest standard bottling that Arran has released so far, dipping into stocks distilled only a few years after it was founded. While there were things to like about this whisky, it didn't quite come together for me, especially in comparison to their 14 Year, which is at least as good, more coherent, and significantly cheaper. It will be interesting to see if they maintain this expression or shift to a more standard 18 Year in future.

Arran 12 Year Cask Strength

Nose: noticeable sherry influence in a drier mode, unsweetened chocolate, floral malt, and coffee beans, growing maltier with time. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes lighter and more floral, shifting towards bourbon barrel notes of caramel and vanilla, while the sherry recedes and rides underneath, more oak comes out, alongside jammy fruit and a ton of malt.

Taste: lots of cask strength character - rich with a rolling burn throughout, sweet sherry and malt up front, incredibly creamy, oak comes in at the back but interrupted by another wave of sherry, hints of tropical fruits in the middle. After dilution, the flavor doesn't lose any intensity but the burn fades a bit, amazing honied malt sweetness, becoming nutty further back, oak tannins stay very mild, sherry hits even harder with the oak at the back, slightly peppery.

Finish: bittersweet sherry, oak, malt

This was easily my favorite of the bunch. A rather new release, it is, like the 10 Year, from 100% ex-sherry casks. This compares favorably to the fantastic Arran Sherry Single Cask I reviewed a couple of years ago and portends well for future releases. At the time I described it as 'an enjoyable savaging'. The flavors are simply massive and I appreciated how well they held up under dilution. I've since purchased a full bottle and look forward to digging into it. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys sherry bomb whiskies like Macallan Cask Strength or Aberlour A'Bunadh. It's a few bucks more in most places, but well worth the money for having an actual age statement and an accompanying increase in refinement.

Arran Machrie Moor

Nose: a very rubbery sort of peat, sweet malt, green bananas, a little new make character, salty/maritime, olive oil, plastic, rotting tropical vegetation, creamy, mild oak, a touch of fruit. After adding a few drops of water, there is less peat but more plastic, a remaining hint of fruit underneath, maltiness with a hint of wood smoke, and even more green character.

Taste: sucrose sweetness throughout, slowly fades into rubbery peat, char, and oak. After dilution, it becomes less sweet and more green/herbal, the peat is slightly diminished, and it becomes fruitier and salty.

Finish: brittle rubbery peat, sweet malt, new make, fading into bittersweetness

I like almost everything I've tried from Arran, but this just doesn't work for me. The character of the peat just rubs me the wrong way. I'm not sure if it's where they're sourcing their peated malt from, some interaction with their yeast, or their stills/distillation process. There are some very discordant notes that time has yet to wear away. It might get better if there was some sherry cask influence in there to massage the rubberiness of the peat, but as is I can't get behind this one.

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