Two Special Malts: Arran Malt 10 and Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition

22 Apr 2010

Original Blogger tags: Arran Malt 10, Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition

I’m not going to formally review these tonight or give them numbers, but I wanted to type up a few notes on a couple of special bottles I picked up today. We are closing on a house tomorrow. I will probably shortly have to put a moratorium on any new whisky purchases, or at least drastically curtail them. I’m going to have to put my dollars towards things like a new furnace. Fortunately, though, I go through these bottles very slowly, and so the bottles already on hand could probably last me upwards of a year!

The Lagavulin 16 was the whisky that inspired me to start writing reviews. My original review’s permalink is here. I was pretty new to Islay whisky, and my palate was fascinated, but also a little bit overwhelmed, by the amazing “peat bomb” that is the Lagavulin 16 — it is even smokier and richer than the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, and so occupies a position by itself on the Classic Malts flavor map.

Because I enjoyed the Talisker Distiller’s Edition so much, I was very eager to taste the Lagavulin version. I did not pour myself a full dram, but just a few sips to taste and nose. The buzz is that it is 16-year-old Lagavulin, given a little extra aging in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks (sadly, I don’t know very much about sherry, but I do know that the types of sherry vary a great deal: I’ve had Amontillado as a very nice dessert wine; we use Marsala, another fortified wine, for making Spanish Torta crusts; and I used a Manzanilla in my French Onion Soup, but it tastes pretty nasty by itself. According to Wikipedia, Pedro Ximenez is a dark and “intensely sweet” dessert wine).

The color of the finished whisky is quite dark, and it has a very waxy cling to the glass, leaving a sort of ridge, with hardly any noticeable legs.

Unlike some other sherry-finished malts, this one does not remind me of maple or honey; it is not extremely sweet. The notes are more of dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots and even papaya, fig newton cookies, and blood oranges. It also has perhaps the faintest hint of sulfur. The flavor is very rich, and has a bit of mellowing biscuit maltiness that is very pleasant.

It seems to me that a lot of those big, beautiful Lagavulin medicinal and seashore notes have been muted more than I would have expected, so at least initially I am just a bit disappointed. I’d be a little frightened of the prospect of a cask-strength standard Lagavulin 16, but maybe a cast-strength version of this one would be more exciting in the mouth?

I’ll do a fuller review in the near future, but for the moment I will just say that the complexity and richness here is amazing, and I am especially impressed by the finish; five minutes after finishing my last sip, I’m still tasting kumquat peels, a dry lingering driftwood smoke, tamarind, and peppered beef jerky. In fact, my impression of this whisky keeps going up as I experience the finish, and sniff the empty glass!

And now for something completely different — ever since reading about Arran Malt in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, I’ve been looking forward to tasting something from the young upstart, the Isle of Arran Distillery. Stadium Market had only one bottle from this distillery, stashed up on their top shelf, and the box was very dusty, which tells me that this one is not selling like hotcakes.

Arran Malt 10 is entirely unpeated, and as a result on the nose it immediately reminds me of an Irish whisky, such as the Knappogue Castle. This one is very different, and so my nose is initially a little confounded, and I find myself thinking “wow, that smells good, and vaguely familiar — but what is it?” So far I’ve got: nilla wafers, toasted coconut, lemon peel, honey, cinnamon-topped sweet bread pudding and something like creamy peanut butter fudge. (Really? yes, really!)

In the glass the Arran Malt 10 is a beautiful, rich gold, and has short legs. On the tongue the flavor startled me — remember that peanut butter fudge? It’s hot and lemony in the back of the throat, but on the front of the tongue there’s a whole complex set of raw or lightly cooked barley flavors — like steel-cut oats, couscous, buckwheat (kasha), and cracked bulghur wheat. (These seem to be what produces that nutty nose.). These barley flavors are not unique, but in most other distiller’s bottlings they seem to be very faint, and they lean more towards malted, baked flavors: sweet shortbread or wholemeal digestives. This difference may have something to do with the distiller using a wide “cut” — that is, using more of the original distillate, and the lack of chill filtering. At 46% ABV it is a fairly hot whisky, and my wife Grace finds it a little bit unpleasantly raw in the throat, but yet those barley flavors are so smooth. It wouldn’t be a crime to cut this one with a little water.

This is very good stuff. The Isle of Arran Distillery is producing a number of special finishes, but the 10 is proof that you don’t need a long aging and fancy woods to get very fine flavor out of barley and water!

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