#13 A weekend on the Isle of Arran

Arran, the beautiful


Back in 2019, when you didn’t have to sell a kidney to rent a car, we organised a last-minute weekend on the iconic Isle of Arran. 

The Autumn of 2019 was a very different time. Thinking of that period makes us feel a bit naïve and unaware, a bit like pigeons pecking on the road before being run over by a bus.

Things were different also regarding our whisky journey. It had started, but it was still at a larval stage. We had already visited a few distilleries in the US back in 2016 and 2017, in Campbeltown (a year earlier) and up in the Highlands (a few months earlier). We were still in our first year of SMWS membership, and we had barely just found out about their awesome tastings in the city venues. A few months earlier Gianluigi had found out about Mark Gillespie’s WhiskyCast, which became the soundtrack for his runs on the Pentlands. The idea of starting a blog wasn’t there yet. So, we were getting there, slowly but steadily. Things were definitely moving at a much slower pace with respect to the pandemic first wave when, ironically, our knowledge and awareness sped up quite a bit.

Ready to go!

It’s in this context that one day, we decided on a whim to book a mid-November weekend on the isle of Arran. At the time renting a car was much cheaper, so we got a compact (we are quite compact ourselves), we booked one night in a B&B (it wasn’t exactly high-season) and, more importantly, the tours to two distilleries: Lagg and Lochranza! These distilleries are both owned by the Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd. While Lagg was very new at the time, we were already familiar with the Lochranza’s Arran 10yr, having tried it once or twice in bars before. To be completely honest, we hadn’t connected with it right away. We think it was (past tense, very important!) because, as beginners, we were chasing big and bold flavours such as peat or heavily sherry influence, rather than gentle and balanced drams like Arran or Deanston. Nevertheless, it sparked enough curiosity to jump in a car and get to see them!

Teresa studying Ardrossan Castle’s ruins.

The drive from Edinburgh to Ardrossan on a Saturday morning was easy and smooth, not too much traffic. We stopped briefly to check out the Ardrossan Castle ruins (not much is left, to be honest), before getting to the pier. On the boat, we got that melancholic feeling of visiting an off-season tourist destination. And indeed it is, as many people from the mainland, Glaswegians in particular, choose it for their holidays.

The Isle of Arran is called “Scotland in miniature”, because of the very different landscapes in the north, resembling the Highlands, and the south, more similar to the Lowlands. It is roughly shaped like an oval and its main roads draw an “8”, which we intended to drive all along to explore the island. So, as we landed in Brodick, we drove first north, then west, then towards the south-west corner of the island where Lagg is located. This distillery was very new at the time, they had started producing only a few months earlier. They focus on peated spirit, and while their single malt was not available of course (it still isn’t at the time of writing), the available peated range Machrie Moor was produced at the Lochranza distillery.

Inexperienced whisky enthusiasts at Lagg distillery.

The building is beautiful, with the shop on the ground floor and a good café upstairs from which we could see young orchards (we found out later that they were planning to produce cider). Before starting the tour, we admired old pictures showing how life on the island used to be. Then the guide welcomed us and, after covering the history of the distillery and the island, made us try the new make – that was a nice surprise! The tour of the production was good and fairly short, mostly because everything was in one large room, one of the first (but definitely not last) times we had seen this.

Lagg stills.

From the big window behind the mashtun, the view on the sea was just stunning. In the tasting room, we tried some Machrie Moor (the main expression and the cask strength), but the guide also kindly gave us a wee sip of the sherry-finished Fingal’s Cut.

Sorry you can’t see the sea behind the mashtun!

Tired but happy, we took the south road to Whiting Bay, had dinner and, finally, a couple of drams in a bar before going to bed.

It was very sunny when we woke up in the morning. This and a generous breakfast with sea view put us in a very good mood, and we were ready to explore the island! We decided to take full advantage of the nice weather and go for a short hike. We first drove along the coast to get to a car-park where we could take the path to Machrie Moor (yes, it’s not just whisky).

Encounters on the path to Machrie Moor.

The walk was easy and the landscape just beautiful, and at that stage it was so warm that we took our jackets off (who said that the weather is always bad in November?!?). It was fascinating to walk around the archaeological site dating to between 3500 and 1500 BC and admire the circle and standing stones.

Circle stones…
…and standing stones.

Back in the car, we headed north towards the last stop of the day, Lochranza distillery. Formerly known as the Isle of Arran Distillery, it can be considered the trailblazing distillery in this new golden age of Scotch whisky, dating back to 1995. Other than being the first to open on the island in a very long time, it was built in a period when, elsewhere in Scotland, some distilleries were still being decommissioned or demolished following the whisky loch of the 80s.

The same inexperience whisky enthusiasts at Lochranza distillery.

The visit started with a short video about the history of the distillery, its connection with the location and a bit about production. While watching the video, we enjoyed a dram of Arran 10yr. After that, our guide Richard gave us a very entertaining, informative tour. He also spent some time in the courtyard to show us the variety of casks they use, thanks to which we finally started to understand the difference between barrel, hogshead, butt, etc. (again, it was the early days of our whisky journey).

Washbacks at Lochranza distillery… and a wee guest!

At the bar, we were given a sip of their cream liqueur (great gift for non-whisky drinkers), but then we separated from the rest of the group to do a more in-depth tasting. We enjoyed having the tasting room all to ourselves while Richard talked us through an excellent selection of drams: Amarone and Port finishes, Bodega (sherry finish), the Bothy (ex-bourbon quarter cask finished), 18yr….

After the tasting (and the purchase…), we sat at a table outside the distillery for a bite (Italian salami, cheese and bread), with Richard joining us for a few minutes. We would have stayed more, but it was time to get the ferry back to mainland.

And there it happened, we connected with Arran whiskies, confirming how a good distillery experience can make a difference: now we always have an Arran on our shelf! The quarter-cask expression also made us realise how good bourbon-matured casks can be, a type of flavour that since then we have been chasing more and more!

Beautiful Arran, we’ll be back.  

Links :
(No distillery box because we visited these distilleries more than two years ago.)



Author: Dramming Around

A pretend-to-be-young Italian couple on a quest to discover whisk(e)y distilleries and their golden nectar

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