Arran has been one of my favorite distilleries, helped by the fact that the OLCC bought a large number of their whiskies around 2010 and were then unable to shift them, which resulted in hefty markdowns over the last year or two. I have been taking full advantage of this fact.
Some of the best deals have been Arran's Single Cask releases. I've previously reviewed one of the Sherry Single Casks, but this is the first Bourbon Single Cask I've tried.
If you live in Portland or can make it out here, I believe there are still one or two more bottles of this cask left at the 11th & Hawthorne liquor store for under $60, which is a steal for single cask, undiluted whisky these days.
The spirit was distilled on 19/07/1999, only a few years after the distillery was established, and bottled on 19/11/2010 at a hefty 57.0% from an outturn of 206 bottles.
Arran Bourbon Single Cask #77
Nose: distinctive Arran malt, green fruits (apples, pears, pineapple, grape), vanilla, floral (primarily rose), fudgy, brown sugar, a touch of residual new make character, cinnamon, very light oak, raisins, grassy.
Taste: sweet malt front and back, prickles of oak and apple/pear at the beginning, turning into sweet floral notes, pepper, caramel, and alcoholic heat close behind - with time there is a certain added thickness to the mouthfeel and a shift towards barrel influence.
Finish: sweet malt, vanilla, lingering alcoholic heat, hints of berries, peppery bittersweet oak
This is what I was looking for when I picked up the bottle. The roughly 11 years in oak have been just enough to round off the edges of Arran's spirit without overwhelming it, providing an exceptionally clear picture of the distillery's character. Given the light oak impact, I'm guessing this was a refill cask. I wouldn't say that it's particularly complex - more time might have helped on that front - but it's an engaging sort of simplicity.
I will admit that I have to be in the right mood for this one. Sometimes the alcoholic heat seemed overwhelming, which made it less than enjoyable. Time in the glass seems to mellow it out a bit, so waiting a few minutes before taking that first sip may be the key.
Following some previous posts, I've decided to make a habit of tasting cask strength whiskies diluted down to lower strengths to see how the spirit changes. Dilutions were allowed to integrate for several weeks before sampling.
Arran Bourbon Cask #77 at 50%
Nose: fairly closed, moderately green, cinnamon, vanilla, light caramel, creamy malt, perfume/floral, apple skins
Taste: rather green throughout, lots of sour floral esters and vanilla - kind of like low grade perfume, noticeable but not heavy oak, some sweet chocolate sauce (but not enough to counter the vegetal notes)
Finish: cheap perfume, creamy malt, vanilla, bitter oak and vegetation
While I generally find that floral notes are one of the better aspects of younger bourbon cask whiskies, at this strength they have taken a turn for the worse. There's something artificial about their character here that really does remind me of cheap perfume - they seem disjointed, unlike more the more balanced floral character in other whiskies. I'm beginning to see why this cask was selected for bottling at full strength - it shows more rough edges being watered down.
Arran Bourbon Cask #77 at 45%
Nose: very green - lots of malt and fruity (apples/pears/grape) esters, very little barrel influence, creamy cinnamon/floral notes, graham crackers
Taste: rather immature - lots of green malt and vegetal sharpness, creamy cinnamon/vanilla graham crackers at the back, malty sweet with a vague sense of grape flavors throughout, oak hits inside vegetal flavors near the back
Finish: vegetal/green bitter malt, freshly felled oak
More water seems to shift this whisky even more towards its origins, emphasizing the malt over the barrel. While it doesn't have the odd floral perfume notes found at 50%, the vegetal smells and flavors were even bigger. The accompanying decrease in perceptible barrel influence makes the whisky seem younger than its years.
In conclusion, I really do think this whisky is best at full strength. While dilution was an interesting exercise, I can't say that either 50% or 45% were better than cask strength in any way shape or form. It was educational, but I wouldn't want to drink the whisky that way all the time.
For another perspective on this whisky, check out Michael Kravitz's review.