As are most distilleries in Scotland, the Isle of Arran Distillery is located in a particularly picturesque part of the world. I guess it has something to do with the need for a good water source being nearby, and good water sources are usually located in stunning mountainous areas. Arran Distillery is no different - it is nestled in amongst the mountains and surrounded by beautiful greenery, bubbling streams, and local wildlife (wild haggis included).
Often described as Scotland in miniature, Arran has all of the things that make England’s northern (better) cousin great: beautiful rolling hills, good chat, peaceful glens, castles, and beautiful fresh air. Three of those things are required to make excellent whisky, and make excellent whisky Arran does.
Founded in 1994, the distillery was the result of a conversation between Harold Currie and his friend David Hutchinson. Currie, who had always dreamed of opening a distillery, had served as the managing director of the Chivas Regal brand for Seagrams (and later Pernod Ricard), and as a result was quite well equiped to do so. He discussed this dream with Hutchinson, a skilled architect, who suggested the Isle of Arran as a location. And so, on the 16th of December, 1994, construction started on Arran’s first (legal) distillery in 160 years.
Now managed under the careful eye of James MacTaggart, the team at Arran have been producing spirit since the 17th of August, 1995, and have recently bottled their 18 year old single malt. MacTaggart is another veteran of the whisky world, having lived and worked at Bowmore since 1975. He started with Arran in 2007, shortly after the first commercial bottling of their 10 year old malt, and has seen the small, independently owned distillery through a period of significant growth. Under his watch, the Arran Malt has tripled production in the last few years, currently operating 6 days a week and producing approximately 650-700 thousand litres of spirit annually.
This growth is not a surprise however - the whiskies that make up Arran's core range have all (excluding the 18 year old, which was released a month ago - it is excellent) won numerous awards, including a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (their 14 year old release). Combine this with a variety of cask finishes, some single cask beauties, and an excellent peated whisky, it's no wonder the company is in talks to open a second distillery, focusing exclusively on (more heavily) peated malts.
I made my way over from Glasgow on a Sunday morning, eagerly awaiting the beautiful scenery and good dram or four. Suffice to say, things didn't go exactly to plan - but that was remedied quickly once I arrived.
The Visitor Centre
The Isle of Arran Distillery Visitors Centre is one of the best I have been to. Not being content with simple a gift shop selling bottles and glassware, the centre is home to a cafe, a gallery, and information about the Isle itself.
I started my distillery experience with a meal at the Casks Cafe, enjoying a burger a local beer brewed by the Arran Brewery. The food was lovely, using a variety of local ingredients, and the staff friendly and welcoming, as you would expect.
The cafe exhibits works from a variety of artists, rotating every few months. They are currently showing the work of husband and wife Don McNeil and Jean Bell in a collection titled "The Arran Collection", which will be on display until the end of May.
The ground floor of the centre, as well as housing the gift shop and tasting room, has an area dedicated to the production of malt whisky, explaining the importance of good water (which Arran has in plenty, sourced from Loch na Davie), and quality barley. It is here that the tour guides, who were all full of energy and passion for Arran and its whisky, commence their tour.
I have been on many distillery tours. Many. After a while, it's not so much about the information they share (although it can be interesting to pick up little tidbits about the history of a distillery and its practices) as it is about the character and charm of the guide. It is up to the guide to impart the personality of the distillery onto the tour participants, to give them an idea on what life is like at distillery, and what makes its product unique. Not all guides achieve this goal, simply taking the group around the distillery, citing explosions and quoting from a script. Others, like young Campbell of Arran, succeed, educating the group on not only the process of making whisky, but on the culture and heritage of the distillery in question, all the while maintaining constant laughter from the participants.
Campbell started the tour with a short video explaining the history of the isle and the distillery, as well as the basics of producing whisky. It was here we were introduced to James MacTaggart, and what it was that made the Arran Malt unique.
The video was shown in a small room, designed to replicate the sort of building you would have found on Arran during the days of illegal whisky production, some 200 years ago. As we watched, we were treated to a pour of Arran's lovely 14 year old malt - but only after Campbell informed us that one does not drink malt whisky, one tastes it. He also took the time to educate the room on how best to taste whisky, from nosing to adding a drop or two of water to help soften the liquid and bring out more nuanced flavours. Judging by the reaction to those around me, his advice was well received.
We then made our way through the distillery, with Campbell explaining each step of the process in great detail, as well as the craftsmanship that goes into making the various pieces of equipment used. Despite being a Sunday, the distillery was in full swing - helpful for conducting a tour. I've been on a number of tours when the equipment was not in use, and, well, it's much more interesting to see a washback being kept under control by an fast spinning switcher then to see one empty.
Once the tour had finished, we were taken back to the tasting room to sample some more of the distilleries product. For the majority of the group, that came in the form of Arran Gold, a Cream Liqueur made from single malt. For myself and one other however, we were treated a little more of what they had to offer.
We sat down at the tasting room bar with four Glencairns in front of us. Campbell ran through the selection on offer, and told us that we were able to pick four whiskies to complete our afternoon. We had the entire range to choose from: the core releases, cask finishes, peated malts, as well as some single cask offerings only available at the distillery. All in all, around 13-15 whiskies, give or take.
As you could imagine, picking four was hard, as they were all quality malts. My choices were as follows:
- Arran Malt Sauternes Cask Finish
- Arran 18 Year Old
- Arran Malt 19 Year Old Single Cask Sherry Finish (Distillery exclusive)
- Machrie Moor Cask Strength Batch 2
Now I didn't sit and take proper tasting notes, as it was not that sort of occasion. That being said, I scribbled a few things down between drams, and will post my notes for the four whiskies above plus the 14 Year Old shortly.
I would highly recommend a trip to the Isle of Arran Distillery. Whether it is the sole purpose of your trip, as it was mine, or a stop amongst a larger itinerary, you will not be disappointed. Get in slightly before your tour starts and enjoy a lovely meal from the Casks Cafe, and then wander around the distillery grounds and soak up the fresh air. Enjoy a few drams and good chat with the friendly and genuine staff that call Arran home before you take a tour and learn about the unique nature of the Arran Malt, and the skill and craftsmanship that goes into making it. You will come away with an appreciation of the product that is Scotch Single Malt Whisky, and for those that make it.
I caught the train from Hyndland through to Central, then out towards Ardrossan Harbour. It was a relatively uneventful train ride, I just sat and scrolled through Twitter or something, I don’t remember exactly what.
Once I got to Ardrossan, I caught the ferry over to Brodick, a small town (they’re all small, who are we kidding) on Arran. The ferry was a actually quite big, and really quite nice on the inside too. There was a restaurant, a cafe and a pub, and then multiple seating areas around the place, including some big leather recliners, which I sat in. I was really quite surprised - but I guess it’s a trip a lot of people probably make quite a bit.
The trip was quite dull really, there wasn’t all that much to see as it was quite overcast and cloud, so you had around 20 meters visibility.
I got to Arran, and it wasn’t raining. Thank god. This whole thing would have been almost for nothing if it had! I found the nearest Co-Op and got some chocolate biscuits as sustenance, and set up. I had previously looked up the directions to the Arran Distillery, and they had advised me that it was about an hours walk from the ferry terminal.
That was most certainly not the case.
I started walking in the direction that Google had recommended (I had to use the offline maps, which is driving only, as there was no internet on the isle), and came to a for in the road. Google told me to go left, the signage right. The signs had a picture of a bike on it, so I just assumed that Google had told me the driving directions, but that wasn’t safe for pedestrians, and the signage was pointing out the pedestrian/cycling route.
So I started wandering down the path indicated by the signage. There was a fair few other people along this route, so I figured I must have been on the right track. There was bits and pieces without footpaths, but largely there was a nice path along the coast to walk along.
Some of the scenery was amazing - I was literally walking along the coast of the isle. I would love to do it on a properly sunny day, it would be incredible.
I had been walking for about an hour (the time that Google said it would take), when I realised I was very clearly not heading in the direction Maps had said. I seemed to be going further and further north, when the distillery was supposedly in the centre of the isle, or east of where I landed. Luckily, I had picked up a tourist brochure on the ferry which had a map in it, so I pulled that out and had a look where it thought the distillery was.
It was in the north most part of the isle. Yep.
By this point, I had flakey 2G reception, so instead of searching for Arran Distillery - which Google obviously had no idea about - I searched the town nearest to it, Lochranza. Google now kindly informed me that Lochranza was around 2.5 hours away. From where I was. After already having walked for 2 hours.
I was in Corrie at this point, and it was around 12.30. With my newly found internet, I looked up the bus service to Lochranza (which stops at the distillery), and of course, being a Sunday on a tiny island) found it ran every two hours.
So I had two options. I could wait in Corrie until the bus came about, or continue walking to to Sannox to kill time, and catch it from there. I had found a pub in Corrie (The Corrie Hotel, of course), so thought I would get some lunch (toasties and soup were the only things on the menu apparently), use their wifi, and wait for the bus.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I went into the pub, which was very quaint and exactly what you would expect of a small costal town, and there was no one in there but a dog (dug, and named Lottie), and some typical bar music. I walked around a bit, trying to find someone, but it seemed to be empty. Empty to the point I probably could have poured myself a beer, grabbed a bottle of whisky off the shelf and walked out, no one being any the wiser. I’m not that kind of person, so I gave Lottie a pat, and headed back out on my way, figuring I would walk to Sannox instead, and wait it out there.
By this point, I had about an hour or so until the bus would coming through. The walk to Sannox would take around 20 minutes, and I thought that there might be a pub there I could get a pint in and wait it out.
I wandered along my dangerously windy road (there were still signs everywhere insisting that this the path for pedestrians - some of the cars that passed me thought otherwise), until I reached the town of Sannox. I thought Corrie was small - I reckon there was all of 3 houses, a church, a tea room, and - of course - a golf course. There was a lot of golf courses on Arran - they must hope American’s get Arran and St Andrews confused and head there for a round on the famous course instead.
(I joke, the courses all looked lovely - why wouldn’t you have a golf course when you’re on the waters edge like that?)
I avoided the tea rooms. Unlike pubs, which you can always assume a certain level of quality and know what you’re getting yourself into, tea rooms are a bit hit and miss. The coffee will likely not be great, the cakes you don’t know, and the food probably expensive. Apologies to the Sannox Golf Course Tea Rooms, your coffee and cakes may be amazing and well priced, but I was not willing to take that chance.
Instead, I walked around some side roads and the like waiting for my bus. There was a walking path that took you up towards Sannox point (I think that’s what it was called), which would have been beautiful. Might even be worth the trip back to make that walk. The mountain range it self was as all Scottish mountains are - grand and breathtaking.
I ended up just sitting at the bus stop and waiting. The isle must have felt sorry for me because some glorious 3G appeared on my phone, a single bar of it, but 3G nonetheless. I don’t know why that was so exciting in hindsight - it wasn’t fast enough to really do anything with, and by this point I had only 10 minutes or so until my bus.
Or so I thought.
I don’t really know how people managed to do public transport before real time updates. There are very few things more frustrating, especially when under time pressure, than waiting for a bus. Of course, I have been catching buses well before real time updates, but it’s one of those things you take for granted now. Bus cancelled? There’s an app for that. Train delayed? No worries, Google knew before the train did and will factor it into your travel time accordingly.
The Isle of Arran bus system obviously does not have real time updates (I wasn’t expecting to, especially given the spotty data coverage), and so I stood waiting at my bus stop for 15 minutes after it was scheduled to arrive. Normally, I wouldn’t mind, 15 minutes is nothing, and makes very little difference in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t make much difference to me at the time either, really, but after having waited for an hour to catch this bus - and you could argue 2 more hours before with walking - that 15 minutes felt like an eternity.
I quickly became that person who was sitting there checking my watch every 10 seconds, like time would move faster if I did, and looking around impatiently. An older gentleman came walking down from the path to Sannox point, walking stick and all, and was looking for a bus back to Brodick. A typical Scot, he stopped and had a chat, before setting on his way down the road, content with there being no buses. As he walked off, the clouds parted and the sun shone down, further enhancing the beauty of the mountain range.
He must have been a sign for me to relax and enjoy the scenery - or that my bus was about to arrive, because about a minute later, it did.
£2.30 later, I was on my way to the distillery, after 3.5 hours of walking, waiting, and podcast-listening.