Cleverly Packaged Single Cask Whisky from Arran
This past year, we attended a whisky event at a large retailer here in Chicago. Among the stalls, we came across The Arran Single Malt. We had tried drams from Arran before, but we were on a mission to expand our tastes ever further beyond our Islay comfort zone so we stopped and tried the range on display. Impressed by the core range, we noticed a prop on the table.
If you’ve ever been to a large whisky tasting event, you are familiar with all the branding tools distilleries bring: tons of booklets, the occasional brick of peat, wellington boots, containers of malted barley, and even large barrels. But this was a large, purple, old-looking book with the Arran logo across the cover. Intrigued, we asked the brand representative. Beaming with mirth the brand rep replied, “It’s the box for this,” and pointed to a special bottling of Arran. He opened the book and to our surprise there was a bottle shaped cutout used to conceal the whiskey inside the book. He said that this was the perfect whisky, because it could be hidden from one’s wife. Upon hearing this, Cali interjected that perhaps the wives needed it to hide their whisky from their husbands and the brand rep poured each of us a dram.
Arran Distillery was founded in 1994, however the isle of Arran has a long history of whisky production. Much of Arran’s past distilleries were illicit and sought to hide from the government, much like American bootleggers during the 20th century. The Smuggler’s Series was a limited edition run of three bottlings that Arran produced over the last few years to play off of the island’s storied past. According to the Arran website, the Smugglers’ Series “pays tribute to the exuberant character of those striving to outwit the Government’s representatives in the pursuit of the production of the famed Arran Waters.” Along with the hideaway packaging, each bottling has been aged in different casks that were more conducive to smuggling, such as port pipes or bourbon quarter casks.
Arran Distillers Smuggler’s Series Vol. 3 The Exciseman
The ties that Arran evokes to the island’s smuggling past extend beyond the packaging of The Exciseman. According to the company, the smugglers of the past aged whisky in small format casks to make transportation (and concealment) easier. For The Exciseman, Arran has aged the spirit in a combination of bourbon quarter casks and Madeira drums. The Madeira casks are larger (about three times the size of a standard bourbon barrel), however the smugglers would have access to a steady supply from counterparts bringing goods to Arran from Spain.
On the Eyes: The packaging is the most unique we’ve seen, with the bottle hidden in a large book. The whisky is pale gold, similar to the color of a freshly poured pilsner. The liquid has a medium body with long lasting legs. Not very thick, nor viscous.
On the Nose: (Full strength) The first scents we picked up were of a citrus rind, lemon or grapefruit. Beyond the citrus we detected notes of soft, sweet honey. (With water added) A few drops of water brought out aromas of fresh cut wood, cereal grains, and wet grass; the dram is still citrusy, but lighter.
To the Taste: (Full strength) At first we tasted a heavy malt character, with a lot of heat mid-palate. There is a delicate sweetness that balances the heat throughout, but the spiciness is distracting. Overall the taste is complex but not overpowering or too rich. (With water added) The water brought the citrus to the fore—think limoncello. The heat becomes more warming, with flavors of baking spices, than the intense burn of the cask strength palate.
And the Finish: (Full strength) The finish leaves a strong taste of candied grapefruit. Not straight tart, but balanced. We also tasted fresh baked bread, specifically a toasted english muffin. (With water added) Like the palate, the water brought the citrus centerstage. More candied citrus, but this time with an undercurrent of vanilla.
We appreciate clever marketing efforts, but we rarely buy a bottle for packaging or narrative alone. This was a bit of an exception (how many bottles are stashed away in the cut out pages of a book?), but the whisky lives up to the hype. A very delicious dram, more hearty at cask strength and very delicate with a few drops of water added. The madeira influence is present but not the primary flavor driver. Most importantly, though, the Smuggler’s series has ended and it might be hard to find, we sampled the entire Arran range and can vouch that the Exciseman resembles the ‘house style’ of Arran Distillery. Expect balanced, citrus and malt forward whisky that is pleasant and approachable even at cask strength.