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The Isle of Arran Distillery was founded in 1994 by Harold Currie. He chose a location in the north of the island near the village of Lochranza because of its proximity to the pure spring water that ran from the surrounding hills. Construction of the site was famously delayed due to the discovery of a pair of Golden Eagles nesting on a nearby cliff-face. Once the endangered animals had completed their nesting cycle however, building work was able to continue and by 1995 the distillery was ready to go into production.
The decision to build a new distillery when the scotch whisky industry was only just recovering from a massive downturn was a bold one, and with plans to capitalise on tourism playing a central role from the very beginning, the project inadvertently laid down the blueprint for many of the new distilleries that are now springing up on a regular basis some 24 years later.
Isle of Arran distillers have dramatically expanded their distilling empire in recent times with the construction of a second premises at Lagg in the south of the island. Though it is the first time whisky has been produced in the area for many years however, the rugged countryside and craggy coves of the south are no stranger to the art of distilling.
Illicit distilling likely formed a significant part of the livelihood of many families on the island in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Particularly in the south of the island, where grain grew well, the production of spirit was a steady and reliable way to make money.
By 1793 however there were three legal distilleries on the island and the government were taking drastic measures to stamp out any illegal activity. Visits from the Excisemen were now commonplace and the risk of getting caught was becoming far greater for those in the distilling and smuggling trade.
On the 27th March 1817, some local men set sail for the mainland with a cargo of newly distilled whisky only to spy the Revenue Cutter on the horizon. Too late they turned for home for they had already been spotted. The Gaugers gave chase and caught up with the smugglers as they tried to unload their cargo on the beach. Angered by government interference in their private affairs the men defended themselves, and some locals came to their aid. A scuffle broke out that left a woman and two men dead and two children seriously injured. At an inquest, the captain of the ship was later cleared of any wrongdoing, adjudged to have taken the correct decision in order to protect the lives of his men.
It is a sobering tale that somewhat punctures the romanticised version of the smuggling trade we often read about. In the years that followed the tragic events of 1817, illicit distilling began to wane. It seemed it was no longer worth the risk for the majority of the hard working families of the island. Even the legal distilleries began to close, inevitably out-competed by more profitable businesses elsewhere.
Given such history, it is a pleasure to see two distilleries now up and running on the island, each of which will produce a distinctive style of whisky unique to the place it is made. With the original location now able to bottle well aged single malts of 18 and 21 years old, it seems that the long term future of distilling on Arran is secure.
The 18 year old Arran single malt was first unveiled in 2016. Bottled at 46%, it retails at around £70 a bottle.
Smell: Caramel and citrus orange. Peach. Chocolate oranges. Spicy oak. Pear drops. Toffee. Vanilla fudge.
Taste: Caramel and toffee. Honey. Orange. Dark chocolate. Bitter oak. Long and interesting development that shifts constantly. After a while some berries come through.
Value for Money: Fantastically priced 18 year old single malt that gets bonus points for the higher bottling strength.
The Arran malt is a dram I have held an affinity for, ever since my first visit to the island back in 2013. At that time, their 14 year old was the oldest version of the spirit available but this current 18 year old is a step up in class without a doubt. Fully flavoured and well priced, it is a dram that deserves a place in any cabinet.
For more on the Arran malt, click here.