Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Arran distillery managing director Euan Mitchell in Japan: a chat about what lies ahead

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

At the beginning of the month, Arran distillery managing director Euan Mitchell was in Japan for a few days. We caught up with him at the Park Hotel in Tokyo and – seeing as he had brought some cask samples of forthcoming releases – we started by asking him about the much-anticipated 18-year old…
Euan: It’s obviously designed to be the premium offering. As things stand, the plan is for the standard range to be 10, 14 and 18, with four years between each particular bottling. Longer term, we do have plans for older bottlings as well – 21 and 25 – as the stock profile develops. There’s a lot of excitement about the 18. It sort of cements Arran’s place as having come of age and it will allow us to have a portfolio that matches anyone’s now.

The first release [a limited edition] will be in the spring of next year. Then, the regular 18… we’re not quite sure yet: either the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016.

The 10 and the 14 have distinct profiles. What will the profile of the 18 be like?

The company primarily filled 2nd-fill sherry hogsheads the first two or three years, so that would be the profile. We’re going to prepare a vatting for the regular release shortly. If we feel it needs it, we would maybe re-cask it to some fresh sherry. But as things stand, it would be 100% sherry, principally 2nd-fill.
Is the process of creating a new release such as the forthcoming 18yo the work of one man or is it a team-effort?

We do have something of a whisky committee, but it's principally one man, James MacTaggart. He has the responsibility. What happens is: we discuss the initial concept and then we identify what stock is available. James then blends samples together of that stock. He will create a kind of mini-vatting – put a mini-blend together of the different casks – leave it for a bit of time. We then evaluate it. He gives his opinion, whether he thinks it’s good as it is or whether we need to look at maybe adding in some other stock, or changing the profile, or indeed if we need to do a little bit of re-casking just to kind of add something else to it. It’s ultimately James’ responsibility but he does value the input of others in the business, including myself.

You mentioned that the first few years, refill sherry wood was predominant at Arran. What is the situation like now as far as wood management is concerned?

Since 2005, we have principally filled ex-bourbon barrels. At the moment, probably about 80% of our casks are ex-bourbon, although we are bringing in more and more sherry wood to the profile as well. Our game plan, ideally, would be a 70-30 split.

Is it difficult for an independent distillery like Arran to get hold of good quality wood for maturation?

It has become an issue in the last year or two. In the US, in 2008 and 2009, the bourbon distillers cut production, so there were fewer bourbon barrels being made. There’s a four-year lead time so that’s meant that now there’s definitely a shortage in place and it’s going to take a few years for that to be adjusted. A lot of the cooperages laid staff off and cut down on production. They’re only now getting back to the stage where they’re able to meet the demand. So far – touch wood! – we’ve not been badly affected but as we look to grow, that may become something of an issue. In terms of sherry wood, we’ve made a lot of contacts with producers directly in Spain. We’ve built up those relations, going out there and setting out a program of our requirements so that we are getting a lot of good sherry casks into the system now. And also, if we are using these for re-casking for a period, we can then use them again to fill with new spirit. So, it’s a kind of constantly evolving process.

In the early years, Arran had a plethora of wood finishes. Is that still a priority?

We’re always open to new ideas, but principally we do the three finishes now as an ongoing part of the range: the Amarone, port and Sauternes. Those were the ones that we felt were the most successful combinations in the early years and, again, we’ve got good relations with suppliers of these products. In the early years, it was a way of bringing people’s attention to the brand, of experimenting with younger stock. It got to the stage where we felt we’d probably done too many of these and it was time to kind of focus more in on the core range of ages and styles.

I personally thought the calvados-finish was very successful. Is there any reason why that wasn’t pursued?

The principal reason is that the SWA [Scotch Whisky Association] don’t actually recognize the use of calvados wood as ‘traditional practice’. I think it’s quite unfortunate, because it did make an excellent product. We had a long discussion with them about it. Hopefully, they will change their mind at some stage. The SWA have pretty much allowed wine casks of any provenance to be used because they would find it impossible to narrow in on particular styles. So you could use a Zinfandel cask from California, but you can’t use a calvados cask from Normandy…

…even though it’s highly likely such casks were used ‘traditionally’.

Yes, the SWA say there is no strong evidence that they were used, but there is no evidence that they weren’t used either. We like to think they will change their mind at some stage.
Reports for the first half of the year seem to indicate that worldwide whisky sales, overall, have declined significantly. What’s your perspective on that, as managing director of Arran?

We’re still growing. If you narrow into these figures, the single malt sales across the industry have still grown by 5%. So, as you say, it’s whisky sales overall… and I think a lot of that is driven by the big companies, like Diageo and Pernod, who’ve seen sales dropping in markets like China. I don’t think it’s a true reflection of what’s happening across the industry. Because the industry is so dominated by the big players, if there’s any slippage there, it tends to then impact across the whole industry, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s in the same position. The first half of this year, our sales were up 20% so, again, we’re kind of bucking the trend albeit from a smaller base.

Growth in the whisky business is less straightforward than in most other fields, since it needs to be backed up by the availability of stock laid down many years ago. Are there certain vintages that you don't have much stock of and that you have to guard closely?

Yes, some of the early years are starting to get a bit scarce now. It’s quite scary. The production was very, very low in 2003 and 2004 – there was virtually nothing made those two years. We had a cash flow issue at the time. The business was 7, 8 years old and had incurred a lot of costs over the years. It's very expensive to be continually laying down stock and the sales at that time were comparatively low. In hindsight, now that we’ve grown so quickly, it's a bit of a problem, but it's common across most distilleries: there are gaps for certain years and you just have to manage your way around that.
You’ve just released several follow-ups to some popular limited releases from the past couple of years…

Yes, we've just released the two new Machrie Moors – it’s the 5th release of the Machrie Moor at 46% but this is the first time since we increased the peating level to 20ppm. [The early ones were all around 14ppm.] We’ve also done a release at cask strength this year, which is just over 58%. Those are both very nice. In the cask strength one, in particular, there’s a real concentration of the classic Arran sweetness and fruit but with some lovely peat in there.

Is 20ppm the highest peating level you’re working with?

No, since 2011, we’ve been doing a batch every year at 50ppm, so that’s just turned three years old and we have plans to release that in a few years’ time under a different brand name again. It’s already tasting very nice… but, against our instincts, we’re holding it back until it’s a bit older.

There’s also a new Bere Barley release on the horizon…

Yes, that goes back to stock we produced in 2004, in conjunction with the Agricultural Institute in Orkney. At that time, we filled 40 barrels produced from bere barley. We did the first release two years ago and this is the balance of the stock. This time, it’s 10 years old, and also, this time, it’s been bottled again at cask strength instead of at 46%. It's got a much stronger cereal, malty, gristy note to it than regular Arran. It seemed to do very well last time, so I think, this time, at cask strength and being a little bit older, people will be even more interested in it.
And then there’s the final chapter in the hugely popular Devil’s Punchbowl trilogy, which was a big hit. How scary is it to have to come up with something that can trump that?

It’s definitely a challenge, but you know, you’ve got to thrive on these things. It was very successful. The third release produced a level of Arran-mania which we hadn’t witnessed before. A lot of people phoning up, chasing us for stock. I think, probably the third one is the most consistent.

Does it contain some peated malt, like the 2nd chapter?

No, it doesn’t actually. We would have liked to have done but we have very low stocks of older peated casks available, so we decided not to this time. We used some Arran which has been matured in ex-cognac casks and the French oak seems to have added something a little different to it.

What does the future hold for Arran? Expansion?

Yes, that’s certainly on the table. This year we’ve placed an order with the coppersmiths Forsyth’s. We’ve got two new stills on order – exact replicas of the original stills, which they made. They still have the original blueprints so we asked them to completely replicate the wash and the spirit still. Same size. There’s a bit of a lead time – they’re very busy at the moment creating stills for all these new distilleries around the world – so we’re probably going to have them ready for installation in 2016, just in time for our 21st anniversary. So that would allow us – if we wish – to take production over a million liters a year and to ensure that there are never any stock issues in the future. It’s an exciting time. The distillery has changed a lot in the 11 years that I have been there. Our aim is to make the same great spirit – we don't want to mess around with that – but just make more of it.

Fans of Arran in Japan can look forward to two new store-exclusive single casks this month (or next), one for Shinanoya and another for Isetan in Shinjuku. Watch this space for further details!


Scott said...

Nice interview. I would love to see a Calvados finished Arran again, as I completely missed that offering!

Stefan Van Eycken said...

Thanks for your kind words. The Calvados Finish was fantastic - if you see a bottle of it, don't hesitate.

Anonymous said...

Nice interview.
Interesting to hear about the sherry casks.