Tuesday, 4 August 2015

How did you do in the sales? Arran 1997 Sherry Cask and Highland Park Leif Erikssen

As a result of paying for the bourbons I’d picked up on my Florida trip from my wages instead of using what I’d saved up in my booze budget, I started October with a significant surplus, which I had intended to use for purchasing an expensive vintage Japanese single malt. However, I quickly elbowed that out of the way when I arrived in work one morning to find an e-mail from Drink Supermarket about a clearance sale with up to 50% off. 50% off. I had to have a look, didn’t I? Yes, sure enough, the vast majority of the discounts weren’t particularly spectacular, but there were some interesting items in there.  And I was pleased to find the following.

Arran 1997 Sherry Cask 719 (56.3%) at nearly 50% off (£79.99 reduced to £43.49 + P&P).

This 14 year old Island expression forms part of the Premium Cask Selection range, which is presented on the premise that Distillery Manager James McTaggart sometimes discovers a truly outstanding cask, the contents of which may be approved as exceptional examples of the malt. Depending on your source, either 500  or 562 numbered bottles were produced. At this price point, it sits as my 6th priciest bottle ever. If I’d paid full price, it would have comfortably been number 1.

Arran has been on my wishlist ever since a tweet tasting in which I recalled enjoying a sample very much – I believe this was the same tweet tasting that inspired my friend David to buy a bottle of Aultmore – another one I’d enjoyed. So with that kind of discount and the aforementioned booze budget surplus… get in me basket.

I had a bit of a trawl of the internet looking for reviews and didn’t find anything specific – in fact there wasn’t much about Arran at all. Given that it’s single cask I was thinking maybe the reason is that everyone else that bought one is collecting it rather than drinking it.

Are you going to collect it?” asked Mrs Cake. No. I’m going to drink it.

It comes in a really nice presentation box that you can display by opening it and standing it up. It’s a pretty standard bottle shape, but the label is quite classically stylish and the colours complement the rosy tinge of the spirit. Cask and bottle number details are handwritten on the label – mine's 272 out of 520.

Next: Highland Park Leif Erikssen (40%) was reduced from £74.95 to £53.64.

Even with £20 off it still jumps up to 3rd priciest bottle ever, meaning HP occupy 2 out of the top 3. At full price, this is actually more expensive than the Harald that I’d considered buying in Orlando duty free, and had thought was the top of the range until this point – aside from the ones that come in wooden display cases of course.

It is aged exclusively in American oak bourbon and sherry casks, unlike traditional HP, which is aged in European oak sherry casks.

Online research revealed lots of displeasure among its various reviewers, though one or two sources gave hope with the suggestion that it can open up nicely over time. To be fair, I’ve found that even with the excellent HP12. Jim Murray gives it an 86, which isn’t bad, but you should really be scoring in the 90s at the price.

According to thewhiskytastingclub.co.uk, it’s “surprising in the same way as a child jumping out from behind a sofa and nearly giving you a heart attack is surprising”, which represents the first time a whisky review has made me laugh through humour, rather than scorn.

The reviewer goes on to say, “There is no sherry oak influence at all in this malt, so it’s the metaphorical equivalent of Highland Park running down the street with no pants on”, and that represents the second time – though what he says about sherry oak isn’t exactly true given that some of the casks were American oak sherry casks rather than European ones.

I expect it probably is overpriced – even at £20 off – but I wanted to try it and probably would have paid full price one day in any event.

On arrival it turned out the Leif was a bit dusty and battered and might’ve been acting as a display item for a while so it’s lucky I wasn’t looking for pristine packaging and that I’m just going to drink it and tell you about it. I’ll actually throw the packaging away once I’ve opened it and assigned it a place in my special booze cupboard – same with the Arran actually, though that display case is pretty special, and might find a use as Ruby the cat’s coffin one day – though she’ll probably have to be smooshed up a bit to fit in it. It is notable that a couple of hours after I made my purchase, the price of the Arran had risen to £59.99. I was half expecting (can you half expect something?) to receive a notification of cancellation of my order. But I didn’t.

I’d never seen a booze sale like this before and couldn’t help wondering whether there is something wrong with these products, though as I say, there was at least reason to he hopeful about the HP. Inability to find anything specific online in relation to the Arran could probably be considered as much a good thing as anything else.

Well I don’t go by what anyone else says anyway, so let’s find out for ourselves, shall we?

Tasting Notes – Arran 1997 Sherry Cask

I opened it as soon as I’d gotten my sense of taste back, following a protracted Christmas time cold. It was like awaking from a nightmare you were convinced was real.

Nose: sagey

Palate: really nice balance between sweetness and wood. Hint of peach. As ever with whiskies of the cask strength variety there is an optimum level of dilution. With this one, a couple of [what I’m going to call] long drops achieves a point where the woodiness just comes through and complements the sweetness.

Tasting Notes – Highland Park Leif Eriksson

Real missed opportunity for Highland Park here. I’ve made no secret of my love for the HP12, but instead of building on that with some impressive, expansive expressions, they’ve gone on to disappoint in every case. The HP18, I’ve written about already and yes, it was classy but at that price I want something better than I can get from the same distillery for £25.

Then there was the Einar which has ended up being derided on these pages. Now we find the Leif Eriksson which would probably have made me renounce whisky if I’d paid full price. Instead I’m just renouncing any further expressions of Highland Park (except the 12). And it’s a real shame because I can’t begin to do justice to how good the 12 is. It’s almost like, if they just switched the prices round, there’d be nothing to complain about. You’d pay £25 for the Einar and go, “yeh, that’s decent value”. You’d drink the HP12 at £75 and go, “totally worth it.” Then you could price the Leif Eriksson where the Einar was and… it would probably be a bit too expensive, but more realistic. Don’t get me wrong though, what is there is good, but the flavours just aren’t strong enough for my liking and there’s a disappointing slight sourness.

I suppose I ought to give you some kind of conclusion before I sign off. If I was being flippant, I’d say “it’s whisky, and I enjoyed drinking it”. If I was comparing, which (oddly) I wasn’t, I’d say the Arran was the pick of the two, though they didn’t have enough in common to make any direct comparison logical. If I was going to talk about value, I’d have to say that, at these discounted prices, I did all right. I certainly don’t feel cheated. The Arran comes out with reputation intact – there wasn’t a reputation as far as I was concerned before, but I certainly don’t think badly of this distillery now. The HP though is a bit of a disappointment against high standards that it has previously set for itself. And I think we can leave it there.

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