Posted by: Ted
The other night I grabbed my crutches (see here for that particular whisky-fuelled drama) and hobbled down to The Chapel Cafe in Burnie for a spot of whisky tasting. While my wife was still suspicious of my ability to stay upright after a few cheeky drams, I on the other hand was confident and keen not to miss out on sampling the range of Arran whiskies being offered by Destination Cellars that night.
Destination Cellars is a family-run business based in Hobart, offering a huge range of whiskies (and other drinks) and regularly holds tasting nights showcasing various products. Todd Morrison from Destination had made the trek up to the North West, glad to leave “the monsoonal conditions in Hobart” behind. Todd revealed to the crowd of 20-odd attending the tasting that Burnie had been the site of a certain important life event for him. It was at the ‘luxurious establishment’ (his words) called the Burnie Caravan Park that a young Todd tried whisky for the very first time. In town as part of a sporting tour, the weather was poor, so a bottle of Grants was procured to liven up the night. A game of spin-the-bottle ensued and a wretched Todd didn’t touch the golden spirit for another 20 years. Luckily he’s cured now apparently.
Also along for the ride and to share his knowledge of the Arran was industry stalwart, top bloke and bona-fide Scotsman Craig Johnstone. He’d been to Burnie before, but was a little surprised at the current municipal decorations littering the streets, quipping “what’s with all the trollies everywhere?” (Answer: probably ships’ crews coming into town from the port to do their shopping and dumping the trollies afterwards). Craig mentioned that the drive up had made him again appreciate the similarities between Tassie and Scotland, although apparently “the mosquitos here are much worse than the midges back home”.
On offer that night were six drams from Arran Distillery (as well as Andrew’s excellent peated ale, definitely worth a try if you visit The Chapel). Craig whipped up a hand-drawn map to show everyone the location of the Isle of Arran, down off the South West coast, using handy references to help us home in on it, such as: “Edinburgh, here, is where all the best people are from, while Glasgow, here, is where all the idiots live” and “if the Campbeltown region is the bell-end of Scotland, then the Isle of Arran is the nut sack”.
First up was the Lochranza Reserve 43%, Arran’s basic workhorse, a NAS marriage of 1st- and 2nd-fill ex-bourbon casks. Named after the distillery’s home town on the north of the island, the Lochranza was sweet and grassy on the nose, while the mouth was buttery, with citrus, red jelly and a chewy caramel finish. Nothing really to write home about, but serviceable as a basic dram.
Before we got stuck in too much, Craig led us through some whisky drinking basics with his five step assessment. First up we eyeballed the glass and took note of the colour, which “nine times out of ten means bugger all, but holding the glass up to the light really makes you look professional!” Next we sleazily checked out the legs running down the side of the glass, which apparently “some people reckon they can use to tell the maker, cask type, age and what the distiller had for breakfast. If you meet someone like that, don’t get in a car with them because they’re definitely pissed.” The remaining steps, nosing, tasting and the finish, were completed studiously and without incident by the crowd.
Next up were two wine cask finishes, the Amarone 50% and the Côte-Rôtie 50%. Both are part of the Arran ‘Cask Finishes’ range, with the Lochranza used as a base before being finished in various wine casks (others include Sassicaia and Sauternes) to create limited edition releases. While both are red wines, the Amarone and the Côte-Rôtie imparted very different flavours on the spirit. The Amarone was dry and earthy on the nose, with a hint of grapes and damp moss, while the Côte-Rôtie was sticky and jammy, with quince paste and arrowroot. On the mouth, the Amarone was fruity, almost like Starburst chews and had a finish reminiscent of Cognac, while the Côte-Rôtie was very sharp, with almond paste, maraschino cherries and a salt water finish. Craig noted that Arran goes for wide, shallow flavour in its spirit, then uses the finishes to create depth.
The fourth dram on offer was something a bit special, the limited edition Master of Distilling II: The Man With the Golden Glass 51.8% (the releases are themed – last time was Hitchcock apparently). Created by Master Distiller James McTaggart (who Craig knows and apparently likes ‘shit beer, great whisky and fine wines’) to celebrate his 12th anniversary with Arran, the 12yo whisky is finished using rare Palo Cortado sherry casks. Craig was quite enthused about the unusual finish, noting “this isn’t a thermonuclear sherry bomb missile, but it is one of the weirdest sherry cask whiskies I’ve ever had.”
The flavour was indeed interesting, with hazelnuts, damp leaf litter, ginger snap biscuits, chocolate brownie, oiled metal and raisins on the nose. The mouth was biscuity with salted caramel, sultanas, and liveliness that ran right across the palate. The sherry finish was very distinct, with Craig commenting that it was “the most honest sherry-influenced whisky I’ve ever had”. It’s something that’s definitely worth a try if you come across it.
After we had finished dissecting the Master of Distilling II, we were ordered by Todd to “get your pipes and smoking jackets, because we’re going to slip into some peaty whiskies”. Machrie Moor, a peat bog on the western side of the island, gives its name to Arran’s range of peated whiskies. Todd admitted that he wasn’t always the biggest fan of peaty whiskies: “There’s warnings in nature – colours, smells and flavours that say ‘stay away!’. That was peated whisky to me.” These days he’s a convert and was keen to get stuck in.
The two Machrie Moor expressions on offer were essentially the same, but one was bottled at 46% while the other was a cask strength at 56.2% (to appeal to the French market apparently). According to Craig, back in the day most of the distilleries on Arran were illicit and made heavily peated whiskies as peat was the only fuel source, but now the style is the exception.
The smoke in the 46% was soft on the nose with a medicinal/rubbery texture and a hint of metal and smoked fish. In comparison, the cask strength was oily and resinous, with an intense aroma of freshly sawn timber, almost like Huon pine, followed by vanilla milkshake, home-made marshmallow and sea stones. On the mouth, the 46% was sweet and light, with raspberries on the fore and a curl of smoke on the finish, while the cask strength was hot and bright, with smoky bacon and smouldering green coastal vegetation. Both were very moreish, and the delicate 46% would make a great whisky to start a peat novice on.
At the end of the night the hosts took a vote to see what everyone’s favourites were, with Todd drily commenting that “this is going to be a somewhat North Korean voting system. The end result doesn’t actually matter, but we’re going to make you do it anyway”. Despite voter confusion and some potential rigging, every dram got some love, but the runaway winner was the Master of the Distilling II, with the cask strength Machrie Moor the runner up.
The night was a great success, particularly because I managed to get home again without breaking my other leg. Thanks to the enthusiasm shown by the local whisky fans, Destination Cellars will be back at the Chapel again on September 21 with a new range of whiskies, potentially lining up a selection of sherry bombs. Big thanks as always to Andrew at The Chapel Cafe for supporting whisky events in Burnie, to Destination Cellars for inviting me along as their guest, and of course to Todd and Craig for being damn fine hosts.
See you all next time!