Little did I realize that when I signed up for a whisky tour at the Isle of Arran Distillery that my baby boy would end up being part of the attraction.
“Is his name Jack Daniels?” joked one of the German men from a tour group. They loved him, so much so that I saw quite a few people grab sneaky (or not so sneaky in some cases) photos of my kid gumming away at his carrier while his mother sampled whisky.
It’s a hard life.
I wanted to learn a little bit more about how this award-winning whisky is made. Our guide, Billy, gave an incredible tour with just enough information to not overload the brain, plenty of humour and a welcoming spirit.
We started off with a quick introductory video on the background of Arran Whisky and the history of the distillery. For years, islanders were making their own bootlegged versions. Illegal, sure, but it was fondly referred to as Arran Water, to be shared with the best of friends and family.
In 1997, the distillery at Lochranza opened its doors. It must have been quite the occasion with Queen Elizabeth opening the distillery, and Ewan McGregor opening the first cask of single malt a year later. In tribute, the distillery have special casks for Ewan, Prince William and Prince Harry waiting for just the right time to be bottled.
The reason for the two eagles on the Arran Whisky branding? Well, in the hills behind the distillery live a pair of golden eagles. Throughout the building of the distillery, the team went to great lengths so as not to disturb them, ensuring environmental responsibility for wildlife in the area. On opening day, the eagles soared over the crowd, a good sign if any for a new distillery.
As we toured the actual production area, it was fascinating. Barley arrives at the Arran Distillery already malted, and is then it is ground very coarsely on site. The grist is then added to the mash tin where it is heated with water three different times before it can move to the next stage. It was here where Billy opened the doors to the mash tun so that we could see (and smell!) the ‘future whisky’ bubbling furiously.
Next you move onto fermentation. Ah, more interesting smells. This is where you’re now looking at the wash backs, which are these enormous wooden vessels that I actually think look like giant casks. Yeast is added to the liquid, mixing with the sugars from the wort, and if I’ve got it correctly, this is where we’re becoming alcohol.
We then move to distillation, the enormous copper stills. Arran Single Malt is distilled twice, which lends to its distinctive and delicious flavour. I’m not going to pretend I caught all of this part (Jack decided to start fussing a bit).
I had no idea that the shape and size of the still has a huge effect on the flavour of the whisky. On the wall in the production area, you’ll see a gallery of photos from each major distillery across Scotland. Not one the same, but each entirely custom-built. Am I the only one that was in the dark on this?
As the whisky ages in the cask, a small amount will evaporate over time. It’s not an exact science, there’s no set percentage that will go, but it’s called the “Angel’s Share”. There’s a Scottish movie of the same name where a group of questionable characters plan to siphon off whisky from some might expensive barrels to sell at a private auction. Don’t get any ideas!
One of my favourite parts was visiting what I like to call the “whisky library”. Make sure you sign up for the Warehouse Tour, so as not to miss this experience. Thousands of casks sit in a particular warehouse, which you can visit only on the warehouse tour. It’s quiet in there, with signs that read “shhh, whisky is sleeping.” There is quite the reverence for the product lining the shelves. Cask after cask is waiting for the exact maturation date, to be determined between the owner and the master distiller. People even come to visit their casks, signing the lid. This is a place for collectors.
Anyone can have a special blend made, just for them. The average cost of a cask is about 2,000 pounds, which seems pretty reasonable. That said, that’s 2,000 pounds before it leaves the lot. Once it passes the driveway, add in tax, bottling and delivery charges and your cost will rise. Then again, it’s only the true lovers and collectors of whisky that are going this route. In the way that I will pay more than I should for a book or my daily coffee fix, collectors buy this whisky for the love of it.
Production is only going up at the distillery. Arran Whisky will soon be adding another still in order to increase production from 600,000 litres to over a million per year. A second distillery, by the same owners, is in development for the south of the island. Based on the success of the Machrie Moor peat-flavoured whisky run, this second distillery would focus primarily on peat lines.
The bonus of any tour is that it starts and ends with a tasting. But, for those more serious about sampling, I recommend the Tutored Tasting Tour! You’ll get a card with four squares, each offering three options. Your guide will run you through the characteristics of each option, letting you select one from each square, giving you four drams of whisky to try out. If you think a whisky is a whisky is a whisky, think again. The tasting tour gives you a true appreciation for the entire distilling process, including the casks used. One of my drams was from a port cask (I’ve been known to love a glass of port!), and you really can taste the difference. No wonder the Arran Whisky Distillery takes such care at every stage, including the casks they age the whisky in.
I do hope you get the chance to visit this stunning distillery, and if you do, I highly recommend ending your visit with a trip to the restaurant upstairs! All the food is made with fresh, local produce, so you really are getting a taste of the best Arran has to offer. If you’re not feeling a full meal, well, I certainly hope that you at least try a slice of the Arran Gold cake! Did I not mention Arran Gold? It’s the distillery’s whisky liqueur. Think Baileys, but better! As an aside for readers, I’m going to be attempting to recreate this recipe for a future post. It’s too good not to have at home!
The Isle of Arran Distillery, and the island itself, is perhaps lesser known to those outside the U.K., but it’s a true gem that shouldn’t be missed.
Big thanks to the Isle of Arran Whisky Distillery for hosting me. As always, opinions are one hundred percent my own. I honestly believe this is an incredible distillery to visit, and it’s one of the closest to Glasgow.