I have tried a number of Arran Malt whiskies over the years, and find them generally decent enough, if not overly interesting (at the younger ages, at least). Of the ones I have tried so far, the best experience has been the 12 year old cask-strength, where the extra ABV seems to have really brought up the core Arran flavours.
I tend to enjoy most cask finished whiskies, so I’ve been curious to try the higher-strength cask-finished Arrans. In this review, I look at one of the more unusual finishes, the Arran Malt Amarone Cask Finish.
Amarone is a type of dry Italian red wine made from partially-dried grapes from the Valpolicella region (mainly Corvina). This drying produces a very rich and concentrated wine, full of fruit flavours. Apparently, in Italian, the name Amarone literally means “the great bitter”, which does differentiate these wines from more common sweeter red wines.
It is far more common to use fortified sweet wines (like sherry) for finishing whisky, so I was curious as to what effect Amarone barrels would have on the relatively gentle Arran base malt. Bottled at 50% ABV, it was $93 CAD when last available at the LCBO.
Here is how the various Arran Malts compare in my Meta-Critic database, first among standard bottling, then among wine cask-finished bottlings:
Arran Malt 10yo: 8.51 ± 0.29 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt 12yo Cask Strength: 8.65 ± 0.38 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt 14yo: 8.67 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt 17yo: 8.85 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt 18yo: 8.93 ± 0.13 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Arran Malt Bourbon Single Cask: 8.88 ± 0.20 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Lochranza Reserve: 8.07 ± 0.56 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt Machrie Moor Peated: 7.90 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Orkney Bere Barley: 8.82 ± 0.31 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Robert Burns Single Malt: 8.14 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$)
Arran Malt Sherry Single Cask: 8.55 ± 0.54 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt The Devil’s Punch Bowl: 8.89 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Arran Malt Amarone Cask Finish: 8.77 ± 0.34 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt Madeira Wine Cask: 8.67 ± 0.43 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Napoleon Cognac Finish: 8.72 ± 0.69 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Pomerol Bordeaux Cask Finish: 8.34 ± 0.66 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Port Cask Finish: 8.61 ± 0.38 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt Sassicaia Wine Cask Finish: 8.76 ± 0.17 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Arran Malt Sauternes Finish: 8.52 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt Sherry Cask Finish: 8.31 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Arran Malt Tokaji Aszu Wine Finish: 8.79 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
As you can see, the Arran Amarone Finish gets one of the highest scores for a wine casks-finished Arran, comparable to the moderately-aged Arran malts.
As an aside, Arran has really specialized in finishing their young whisky in a number of unusual casks types. Only a limited number of these are shown above, as I only track expressions that have received a reasonable number of reviews (and many are no longer available). But this strategy is one way to get your product on the market and garner attention, while you wait for batches to age. Of course, that’s assuming you have paired your product wisely.
My sample of the Arran Amarone Finish was obtained through a swap with the Redditor Throzen. Here is what I find in the glass:
Colour: An unusual pinkish hue, almost like a rose wine. I’ve never seen anything quite like it (Arran doesn’t artificially colour this expression).
Nose: Unsweetened raspberry jam, with cranberries, green grapes, ground cherries (gooseberries) and sour cherries. A bit of citrus. Sweet vanilla. Creamy. A bit of paint thinner and acetone initially, but these fade with time in the glass. Water increases both the sweetness and sourness of the fruit, but adds no new notes.
Palate: Unsweetened fruit compote in a glass, with a strong emphasis on the tart notes (sour cherries and citrus). Strong oaky vanilla. Earthy, with some mild nutmeg. A touch of chocolate adds to the character here. Hot on the way out, even for 50% ABV (i.e., fair amount of ethanol burn). With water, the top berry/cherry notes get sweeter. Water doesn’t seem to do much for the burn, unless you add a fair amount (i.e., takes awhile to get the sting down).
Finish: Medium. The fruit notes turn more toward dry strawberry paste, and the grapes pick up again. A noticeable astringent dryness comes in at the end, with some bitterness. The raw ethanol fumes from the palate persist here, even with water – making for a distinctive experience (but not a particularly pleasant one). Water is generally helpful throughout, and enhances the lingering sweetness (but doesn’t affect the bitterness).
Finishing the base Arran malt in dry, but flavorful, Amarone barrels makes for an interesting set of counterpoints (i.e., it’s sweet on the nose, but drying on the finish). I haven’t come across quite this flavour profile before, and it is always fun to experience something new.
That said, I’m thinking there’s a reason why most producers don’t use Amarone casks – the effect is a bit too tart and drying. The youthful aspects of the Arran malt are still coming through as well. In the end, I’m not sure how successful a pairing this really is – it might have helped to start with an older malt, with more inherent character. Or a sweeter one – see for example my recent review of the Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton. In any case, water is certainly called for here – a little bit helps bring up the fruitiness, without affecting the ethanol burn.
There’s actually a fair amount of variability among reviewers on this one. Jim Murray is a big fan, as are the guys at Quebec Whisky. In contrast, Tone of Whisky Saga and Josh the Whiskey Jug are among the most negative I’ve seen. Reviews are generally fairly positive on Reddit (see for example TOModera), although unclimbability gives it an average score. I am personally somewhere near the lower end of the score range, giving it a slightly below average score for the single malt class. I like the novelty, but I can’t see myself reaching for it very often.