The Whisky Dungeon Re-introduction and Review of the Arran Malt 10

Original Blogger Tags: Arran Malt 10, A-

So, I’m moved into the new family house – sort of. Right now it’s just me and one van-load of stuff, with many more loads to come, and the family, books, with furniture to arrive later. In this load I brought up a few crucial and fragile items. Here is a picture of one of those crucial and fragile items: the Arran Malt 10 (isn’t it pretty?)

So, here’s how I’m going to roll in this blog.

First off, I’m going to de-emphasize color in my reviews, unless the color of a whisky is particularly striking. I think too much emphasis is placed on the color, with the general idea that a darker or richer color will mean a darker or richer flavor. This is not strictly true; I’ve seen very young whisky with a mahogany color, and very aged whisky that was quite pale. The compounds that impart color are not the same as those that impart flavor, and color does not directly correlate to strength of either alcohols or flavor components. Fixating on color seems to lead to distilleries using caramel to darken their bottlings. I’d like to see that practice end, because I think it can have a detrimental effect on the flavor. In a similar vein, I don’t want our need my whisky to be chill-filtered, and personally I’d like to taste them all at their original cask strengths. After all, you can always dilute a dram with a little water, and this sometimes improves the flavors and aromas, but you can’t distill it at home to remove water. If I am tasting a whisky with a higher alcohol level (say, 46% or higher ABV), and want to keep my head clear to write a review, I’ll simply take a smaller glass!

I’ve also been giving some thought to a scoring system. Jim Murray uses a 100-point scale, and this gives the impression of great precision; he even scores some whisky by half-points, in order to make very fine distinctions in quality between bottlings. But no whisky has ever reached 100, in his system, or 1; in actuality, if you browse his guides, you realize that for all practical purposes, his “spread” of points for actually good whisky covers only about 18 points (80 to 98). Another point about Murray’s system is that it is effectively logarithmic, like the Richter scale; there are a lot of 85s, and a handful of 90s, but the number of whiskies that come in at 95 and above drops off dramatically. And in the high score range, a difference of a single point can mean the difference between good and incredible, mind-blowing, spend-an-hour-nosing-it-before-you-even-take-a-sip. So, not to criticize Jim Murray and his authoritative reviews, but I’d rather expend my effort telling you why a whisky is good than trying to decide if Ardbeg Uigeadail deserves to be a half-point higher or lower than Ardbeg Supernova.

In earlier reviews, I’ve been using a 1-10 scale, allowing for half points. I considered using a 5-star system, but that isn’t fine-grained enough. I think for these reviews I’m just going to use a simple, traditional letter grade scale: F, F+, D-, D, D+, C-, C, C+, B-, B, B+, A-, A, A+. Everyone should be familiar with that system! And I’ll tell you right now: by the time I’ve purchased a whisky, it should be at least a C+. If it was expensive, it had better be a B+ or better, or I just wasted some money. On the other hand, I will try to avoid “grade inflation” – only the very best should get an A+.

I think the purpose of this kind of review should generally be to promote and celebrate quality, not attack a lack thereof; we all know that mediocrity is as common as hydrogen in the universe; I’m not really interested in spending a lot of effort reviewing whisky that is only so-so. I’m interested in the great, delicious, fascinating, luscious stuff, whether simple or complex.

So, speaking of delicious, let’s begin with the Arran 10, shall we?

The Isle of Arran distillery is one of the newest distilleries in Scotland; it opened in 1995. They operate only one wash still and one spirit still. While they have produced a number of special wood finished released, it seems that we can only get the standard 10 year old in Michigan. My favorite liquor store, Stadium Market in Ann Arbor, had only one bottle stashed on their top shelf. The box was very dusty, which tells me that Arran Malt 10 is not selling like hotcakes.

This dram is entirely unpeated, and as a result, on the nose it has some similarity to an irish whisky, such as Knappogue Castle. If you’ve been drinking a lot of pungent Islay whisky, it may seem a bit startling – a little like switching to a Chardonnay after tasting a lot of tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. This one would, in fact, be a pretty good starting place for someone new to single malt scotch.

On the nose, I get: vanilla wafer cookies, toasted coconut, lemon peel, honey, cinnamon-topped sweet bread pudding, and something like creamy peanut butter fudge. Interestingly, I don’t taste any cocoa or chocolate notes at all, and very little in the way of fruit. This one is mostly about malty flavors.

On the tongue the whisky is hot and lemony in the back of the throat, but on the front of the tongue there is a whole complex set of raw or lightly cooked barley flavors: like steel-cut oats, couscous, buckwheat, and bulghur. (The barley seems to give it that peanut-butter note on the nose). These barley flavors are not unique to the Arran Malt, but in most other distiller’s bottles, barley notes tend to be a bit more faint, and they lean towards malted, baked flavors like sweet shortbread and wholemeal digestive biscuits. This difference may have something to do with the width of the “cut,” something to do with the type and quality of the barley itself, and something to do with the youth of the Arran Malt.

This is a fairly “hot” whisky at 46% ABV. (I always find it baffling how some whisky can burn your throat at 40%, and some is as smooth as soothing as egg custard at 50% – the relationship between alcohol content and “heat” is an indirect one!) Anyway, my wife finds the Arran Malt 10 a little bit unpleasantly raw in the throat. It wouldn’t do this whisky any harm to cut it with a little water. In fact, I prefer this one just slightly watered.

This is a nice, light, summery whisky, and as single malts go, it is quite inexpensive. I give it an A-, because another year or two might smooth out that heat just a bit, giving it a slightly more balanced flavor. The 10 is proof that you don’t need long aging or fancy woods to get fine, enjoyable flavors out of barley and water.

Saginaw, Michigan
May 31, 2010

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