A rant and review; Arran St-Emilion Cask

Small batches and limited editions are all the rage at the moment, you can’t throw a stone in a whisky shop without hitting six of them and severely annoying the people who run the store (I recommend crying “its for science!” as you flee the large Glaswegian man). Normally I post on Wednesdays, previously I’ve posted on Mondays and Fridays, sometimes months can go by where I post nothing at all, but I thought to myself when I saw this bottle in the shop window as I fled for my life “hell, I’m just gonna start posting at random times”.

20200127_201034~2.jpg

So lets start by discussing the whisky. The Arran Malt, Small Batch, matured in St-Emilion Red Wine Casks and specially bottled for the Netherlands. I bought this in Belgium, so take from that what you will, and the bottle run was limited to 1920, each at cask strength (cask strength referring to no addition of water to the whisky when the casks are emptied) of 54.9%, with non-chill filtration and no added colour. The bottles do not have individual bottle numbers, so I couldn’t tell you what bottle I am drinking from here.

Now Arran has bottled a few Small Batches previously for the Netherlands, this being the 3rd small batch release for Netherlands exclusivity. Distilled in 2009, the whisky was bottled in May of 2019, released in the same year, though I cannot find a definitive age statement on the bottle itself, only a mention that it is just under 10 years old. I mentioned earlier that there is no added colour, so everything in this bottle is down to the St-Emilion Red Wine Casks.

So, what goes into a whisky such as this? On the back of the bottle and tube we find the usual dribble from distilleries, nothing regarding the barley, the malting. We know it to be a Single Malt Scotch Whisky so that can tell us a touch;

  • Single malts are whiskies comprised of 100% malted barley, yeast and water, distilled at a singular distillery
  • Scotch is an appellation given to whisky distilled, matured and bottled within Scotland
  • Scottish regulations, as well as past rulings state that to clarify as a single malt it must be distilled in copper pot stills

However regarding the casks used, something that adds such a huge amount of flavour, quality and character to the resulting whisky, we find next to nothing. Only that they are St-Emilion. I said earlier that they are Red Wine casks, although that is not on the bottle. I’m just taking a stab in the dark there based on the fact that St-Emilion wines are for the vast, if not whole majority red (namely Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in that order). I’m also making the assumption that this whisky is matured exclusively in those St-Emilion Casks, though I have found nothing to make me think otherwise. There’s just not a lot of information to go on.

So what do we know? We know Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Small Batch, Arran, and we know Red Wine Casks. Now those Red Wine casks are where we want to narrow in. Saint-Emilion is an AOC (French term, APPLELLATION D’ORIGINE CONTROLEE, or protected designation of origin, similar to Scotch) for wine from the region of Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux. The Saint-Emilion region sits an odd 25KM east of Bordeaux itself, registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, due to the microclimate and soil consisting of sand, gravel sand, clay and loam. Grapes grown and wine made within the region are considered of a high quality, particularly the aforementioned Merlot.

20200127_200931~2.jpg

So what happens in between the whisky being filled and then bottled? What happens to the whisky during the maturation phase? I’v brought this up because the bottle (and something I’ll be speaking about later this week) are good examples. See, when you fill a cask with any liquid it starts to seep into the staves, drawing out flavours and colours that reside within the wood. That’s maturation, but some of that liquid that is held in the cask will reside within the staves. This is wood retention. Now, when we fill that cask with our new spirit, in this case new make whisky spirit, that wine that was previously held within those staves starts to fall back in. Hence why a cask that once held red wine will give the resulting whisky flavours of the red wine. The same is true for port, sherry, rum, and can also attribute to the colour.

It may seem odd that I am explaining this, but I notice that the history of the cask can be lost on some people, consumers and brands alike. Something important to remember as well is the lifespan of a cask; an oak of European or American variety generally needs to be at least 80 years old before it is cut and dried into staves (for Japanese oak it takes a bit longer), and the resulting casks can be used two or three times in their life before the compounds within the wood that helps flavours and colour our spirit are used up. A rejuvenation of the cask, where the insides are scrapped out and recharred, can occurs once, but you’ll find by the most generous estimates that a cask is only useful for 5 fillings, including the rejuvenation, and also dependant on fill strength (that is the alcohol percentage that a cask is filled at).

The best way to explain this is the tea bag analogy; you get a tea bag, make a cup of tea with it and finish the cup. You can then fill that cup and use that tea bag again, but each time you’ll have less impact from the tea bag on the tea itself, resulting in less flavour and colour. I bring this up because on this bottle, the tube, and as far as I can find online Arran are not stating the fill number of the casks used. This may be because they have a large number of casks, all of different fill numbers that are used in the maturation of the whisky, but it can play into the taste of the whisky (and importantly for brands, how the whisky is perceived when you see First Fill, Second Fill etc).

This may all seem a touch ranting and a bit off topic, but its important to have this information available, maybe not on the bottle, or the tube, but somewhere on line. But mostly its important for someone such as me, a Whisky Nerd, when writing something like this. And all of this is made more annoying by the fact that while I found precious little information online regarding the whisky, when you finally drink it, its bloody good.

20200127_201326~2.jpg

Artful photo #1

It’s a good looking whisky, the colour of burnt grass, and kinda reminds me of parts of the Australian deserts in its ruddy hue. And that cask strength doesn’t hurt the nose at all, rather expands it if we’re being honest. What do they say about it?

Nose; Plum, peaches and cream, fudge and spearmint

Palate; Black cherries, chocolate and cocoa powder

Finish; A lingering finish with hints of fig, dark chocolate and dried herbs

What does Somewhiskybloke think?

The nose is expansive, a lot of growth here. Hot hay, black forest gateau, there’s a lot of tobacco coming through as well; soaked in the juices of plums and raspberries with a small bit of cloves coming in. After that it hits that fudgy note very well, but brings in almonds and a soft, spongy punch of marzipan that carries itself well. Then we get to a rain of red apple skins, wafer biscuits, Lindt dark chocolate. After that it carries itself away with vanilla ice cream melting under the hot chocolate sauce that’s been poured over it. The whole nose is hot, not heat from the alcohol but from the flavour, full geared and ready to go.

The palate takes that heat and narrows it to a fine jet flame; aniseed taking the front spice and giving a resounding prickly mouthfeel before conceding the stage to its backing chorus of cardamom and black pepper. Then we’re away from the theatre, and start to see caramel, floral roses in full bloom, and then into the red apples skins again, lightly fried though it doesn’t have the chorus of red fruit I was think, rather its content to reside where it knows it works best; chocolate, dark, peppermint, strawberries and then on to a bit of cabbage.

The finish is all in the mouthfeel of this one, that aniseed up and at it again prickly the mouth all the same, and as the taste dies off the prickly sensation remains, with a bit of the chocolate from the palate coming up once again but happy to let the mouth zing. This is a whisky you’ll taste tomorrow.

20200127_201303~2.jpg

Artful photo #2

Yes, I ranted, I raved, and hopefully you learnt something (on a side note, if I’ve gotten anything wrong please email me. I do read my emails, will make appropriate corrections, and am always eager to learn). But I ranted because I want to have more whisky such as this, well made, good flavour, good balance and a damn affordable price, but with more information. Trawling the internet, blogs and forums for bits and pieces here and there could be much easier if the brands and companies simply supplied the information themselves, and I hope in the future brands are more open and transparent about this information, even if it’s a little section on their website titled “for the nerds”. Not that they’ll ever read this, but if they do, nice job guys. The Arran St-Emilion Small Batch is a damn good whisky and worth checking out if you find yourself a bottle. Now I simply have to find a way to placate the Glaswegian man and I can drink in peace.

Please note this review/rant was not sponsored or endorsed by any brand or distillery, Arran or otherwise, and is completely the words and view of the author Somewhiskybloke.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s