A future classic from a modern distillery

A future classic from a modern distillery

John Lamond visits the Isle of Arran Distilleryy, a modern distillery that produces a whisky that may well have enthusiasts challenging their own perception of what is their favourite malt

Distillery Focus | 16 Apr 2001 | Issue 15 | By John Lamond

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One man’s vision can be a truly wondrous thing. Like a whirl-pool, an innovative idea pulls others into its thrall. Such a visionary is Harold Currie.Harold had been Managing Director of Chivas Brothers, a subsidiary of Seagram and the company which produces and markets Chivas Regal, and latterly Managing Director of Campbell Distillers. Harold’s vision was to establish a completely new distillery. On his retirement
from Chivas, he set about the realisation of his dream.He looked at several sites in the Scottish lowlands but decided to look elsewhere for his location. In the early ‘90s an architect friend, who lives at Whiting Bay on Arran’s south-east coast, attended the annual dinner of the Glasgow Arran Society and heard the guest speaker talk of the previous Arran Distillery, which had been located at Lagg on the south coast. This had ceased production around 1837. Harold’s friend was amazed to hear the speaker state that, in its time, “it was known as the best in Scotland.” He reported this tale to Harold, thus redirecting his quest to an unconsidered corner of Scotland.The Isle of Arran is often referred as ‘Scotland in Miniature’. It has an area of 43,201 hectares (106,750 acres) and, at the summit of Goat Fell, peaks at 874 metres (2,867 feet). Arran is regularly visited by students of geology as the island has been described as a “complete
synopsis of Scottish geology”. The south is composed of new red sandstone peppered with erratics – huge boulders which have been moved a considerable distance and deposited by glacial action: the west has glacial terraces, while the mountainous heart is an ancient volcanic
intrusion into the surrounding Devonian sandstone. The north is made up of limestone and has a large sandstone outcrop on its northern tip.In Gaelic, the word lochan means a small loch. The distillery’s water supply, originating in Loch na Davie, 1,000 feet up on the saddle between Beinn Bhreac and the high foothills of Goat Fell is, in reality, no more than a small lochan. Yet the small burn flows northwards and by the time it falls emphatically down the tertiary granite slopes of Gleann Eason Biorach, it is a reasonably-sized watercourse. All in all, it is no exaggeration to describe the island’s topography as stunning or dramatic.According to the Statistical Account for Kilmory, illicit distillation on Arran, even as late as 1845, was considered an honorable occupation. Therefore the demise of the island’s last legal distillery was not due to the unsuitability of the climate or water but because of the logistical problems and costs of getting its make to the main marketplace – Glasgow. The story goes that the last round in the battle between customs
officers and the illicit distillers was fought in 1860 and was won by the smugglers. Apparently three casks of whisky, on which no duty had been paid, were landed at the south end of the island where they were promptly seized by the gaugers. A friendly and open-handed local approached them as they guarded their prize and invited them to partake of some refreshment in celebration of their victory at the local hostelry. They unwisely accepted and upon returning to the casks, having slaked their thirst, they found that the whisky had been emptied into other containers and that they now contained seawater!Harold looked at nine sites across the island including the original one at Lagg, which was soon discounted when the water analysis came through. Years of intensive agriculture in the area meant that the only available water supply contained traces of fertiliser. Eventually, the site at Lochranza shone through as the perfect site, with a water supply which flows over granite and peat. All of the island’s earlier distillation had taken place in the more fertile southern areas of Arran – Lochranza had remained isolated. A more recent settlement with approximately only 4,000 years of history, Lochranza’s isolation had been caused by the fords at North Sannox and Catacol. These were not bridged until the 20th century. For a short period the settlement was a fishing centre with a harbour which was secure and safe from all potential invaders. The hills crowded in on both sides, so much so that the only suitable site for the building of the castle was on a gravel spit which jutted out into Loch Ranza. Immediately behind that there was shelter against the wildest of weather. Overfishing at the end of the 19th century all but wiped out the herring around Clyde, leading to the collapse of not only the local industry but Lochranza’s economy also. Since 1910, Lochranza has become a popular holiday and retirement destination for those seeking a quiet existence. The lodging of planning applications for the construction of the distillery caused some outcry from those fearing the tranquility of the area would be destroyed. They expected big chimneys, green sludge and large lorries thundering back and forth. In short: environmental pollution disturbing their peaceable life. Fears they discovered to be unfounded.When you first drive across the island from Sannox to the village of Lochranza, you follow the road down Glen Chalmadale and look down onto the ruins of Lochranza Castle. You then see the homes out towards Newton Point before scanning the area for the first glimpse of the distillery. Suddenly, the copper-topped pagoda roofs loom large in front of you as you round a hillock very close to the foot of the glen. And then they suddenly disappear, before the squat, white-painted walls of the distillery gleam at you in the sunshine a few metres further down the road. The distillery is very cute. This is not meant disparagingly – whereas most other distilleries have grown organically over the years, this distillery is purpose-built with everything positioned just so. The mill, lauter tun, four washbacks and two stills are all to be found within the same large open space and, even within this space, there is potential for expansion. An extra two washbacks could be installed as, conceivably, could another pair of stills should the need ever arise. The washbacks are of larch, the rich browns of the wood being echoed in both the stills and the roof timbers. The company decided on the traditional wooden washbacks because of the better insulation they afford. The gleaming stills have quite tall, slender necks without a reflux ball and with quite a narrow pot. Their output is potentially 750,000 litres of alcohol per annum and the company has already had to build a further storage warehouse.The construction of the distillery in the mid-1990s was not without its problems, the main problem being the transportation of the stills from the ferry terminal at Brodick along the narrow, twisting road around Corrie. A pair of golden eagles nest on Creag Dhubh, the hill immediately to the south-east of the distillery. Building work had to stop in the spring of 1994, to permit them to nest.The distillery’s visitor centre was officially opened in August 1997 by the Queen when she visited the island on the Royal Yacht Britannia’s final tour. The visitor centre now attracts 42,000 visitors each year. Many of these would be visiting the island in any case, but few of them would be visiting Lochranza and spending money in the village were the distillery not there. Distilling is also helping some of Arran’s other industries – their distributor in Japan, David Croll, also distributes other Arran produce including oatcakes from Paterson Arran Ltd. whose sales manager had tried for years to break into the Japanese market. He, however, came up against the brick wall that’s the Japanese belief that oats should only be eaten by horses.Isle of Arran Distillery began production in May 1995 and half of the first year’s production went to their bondholders. Distillation is a long-term industry. The stock laid down today will not be drunk for an absolute minimum of three years and often 10, 15, 20 or even more years. Thus cashflow is a major problem: there are bills to pay and no income for at least three years. Harold’s son, Andrew, dreamt up the idea of selling bonds to raise the necessary capital to build and run the distillery during these lean years. Original bondholders paid £450, for which they received five cases of the company’s Loch Ranza blend in 1998, when the original spirit had achieved the status of ‘Scotch Whisky’.Gordon Mitchell has been the manager at Isle of Arran Distillers since day one. A small, quietly-spoken individual, with an infectious enthusiasm for his work, he had previously worked at Inver House in Airdrie and, latterly, been manager at Cooley Distillery in Ireland’s Riverstown. Gordon is responsible for pulling out the casks which are to be bottled. In 1998, when the spirit had passed its third birthday, the whisky which was to be offered to the visitors had come from a first fill sherry cask and was showing not just amazing colour but amazing maturity for such a youthful spirit. Gordon’s excitement was inspiring, he was as giddy as a schoolboy and yet he has been doing this job for some 35 years!The new make is sweet and very soft with a faint touch of oregano and a remarkably slight cereal note. The palate it is very sweet with good body, while the finish is clean and sweet with a salty tang and a hint of chocolate. When I first sampled the new spirit, I was amazed by how soft it was and thought then that its optimum age would be eight to ten years. With maturation, it is gaining backbone and structure and now that it has passed its fifth birthday I have revised my initial thoughts.The current bottling is just under five years old and it is fresh, sweet, rich and malty on the nose with a touch of citrus. There is also a slight hedgerow, herby greenness, an apple fruitiness and a gentle, but solid, peat note. The palate is quite sweet, fresh and gently peated. The finish is long and sweet with quite a solid backbone and a fresh, green touch on the tail.On the subject of sherry casks, Harold Currie said: “The Macallan was always my favourite malt until Isle of Arran came on the scene!” I have a feeling that, in a few years time, more people will say exactly the same thing.
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