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Arran flying like an eagle

The Isle of Arran Distillery is 10 years old. Dominic Roskrow joined the celebrations
By Dominic Roskrow
When a majestic eagle rose up from the hills behind the Isle of Arran Distillery at precisely the time that it reached its 10th birthday it was either a remarkable coincidence or the result of some very clever marketing.The symbolism was lost on nobody. Exactly a decade earlier two of the great hunters had flown over the new buildings, and guests that day had taken their presence as a positive omen, a blessing on the new venture.This time, though, the symbolism seemed too good to be true. There were one or two whisky-fuelled dark rumblings about sales director Euan Mitchell lurking by the hill with a cage. One or two people suggested that Arran just happens to have a lot of eagles.But for the romantics among us, this was a totally natural and fitting moment. For if ever a distillery has cosied up to its environment and made itself so quickly at home, it’s the one on Arran.Heritage counts for a lot in whisky, and your average distillery tour will talk about how long the distillery has been producing its whisky, and recall the generations that have gone in to perfecting it, emphasising the history of the region and the brand.Of course Arran can’t do that. Rather than hide the fact that it’s a newcomer, though, it celebrates it. From the moment you sit down in the purpose-built mini cinema to watch an introductory film, you’re aware that Scotch is heading in a new direction here.The film itself gently (very gently) mocks the clichéd babbling brooks and rugged rock imagery that is so prevalent in many whisky promotional videos, and goes on to celebrate the fresh approach of the newish distillery.But it has a point. And that’s because the distillery benfits from this modernity. It was designed from scratch and is perfect from a visiting point of view. Beautifully laid out and in pristine condition, it has managed to create for itself a relaxed, functional and friendly atmosphere which has as much in common with an exhibition or art centre as it does with a working distillery.The tour here is as good as you’ll find anywhere, because the distillery has been designed with the tourist in mind. Your route through it is in totally logical order and the whole process is explained with intelligence and clarity by the guides.Best of all, though, is the whisky. And Arran finds itself in the strange position of being a juvenile in the world of whisky but already being looked up to by a new generation of younger siblings. For many of those distilleries now in the first years of production, Isle of Arran must stand as a shining beacon.According to the distillery’s affable managing director, Douglas Davidson, it has succeeded by producing good whisky and by being prepared to try new ideas.“We have built up a some strong friendships over the years,” he says. “We have worked closely with French producers with some of our finishes, and we have welcomed a number of enthusiastic retailers across the world as brand ambassadors.“And we have produced a product that has regularly won awards and earnt accolades from whisky enthusiasts.” The company’s willingness to experiment has been a hit and miss affair. The Isle of Arran bottling has been getting better as the whisky gets older, but not all the special finishes have worked. Whatever your view on them, though, you can’t help admire the company for its pluckiness. Some of the whisky has been exceptional.Having a 10 year old for the first time is a little bit like a coming of age, and it opens up a number of markets to the company where age is everything. It’s a robust 10 year old, too.Rich, creamy and with a sweet chewiness, it is distinctive and impressive. Whisky writer Jim Murray predicted a decade ago that the whisky would mature fast and full, and it has done, and then some.It’s been a big year for Isle of Arran. The 10th birthday celebrations were rounded off by the presentation of the Queen’s Award for International Trade by the Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire, Major Richard Henderson (with Douglas Davidson above).And as the flag was raised and the whisky flowed, it was hard not to be caught up in the warmth and exuberance of the distillery and all its staff. And who wouldn’t want to be?After all, the distillery’s success is a healthy pointer for the whole industry’s future. It was an honour to share such a special day with a group of people who are making a major contribution to the island they live on. And there are few more impressive environments to do it in.With or without the eagle.