The experts view.
Reviving the pure essence of field-to-bottle spirits, Scotland’s Arbikie Distillery has rocked the spirits world yet again with the recent release of its Highland Rye Scotch Whisky. Joining a line up of farm grown expressions that includes awarding-winning vodkas and gins, the rye addition bestows the brand with even more street cred as it is the first mature Scotch whisky made with rye in over a century. But historic recognition aside, the rye production provides even greater opportunities for showcasing the farm’s terroir as well as the family’s dedication to sustainable, single-estate spirits.
Overlooking a picturesque sea cliff along the east coast of Angus, records indicate distillation on Arbikie Highland Estate dating all the way back to 1794. Now tending the estate is the Stirling family, who arrived from the west coast during the 1920s, bringing with them generations upon generations of farming expertise. Now with over 400 years of family farming under their belts, brothers John, Iain, and David carry on the Stirling tradition of respecting the land by reviving the farm’s distant history of field-to-bottle distillation.
A concept often discussed with wine yet hardly with spirits is a distinct sense of terroir. But at Arbikie, terroir is king. Planted over rich soils along the North Sea and tucked away into the microclimate of Lunan Bay, the farm benefits from longer growing seasons kissed by plenty of sunshine. A rather unique situation for Scotland’s notoriously erratic climate, the Stirlings are able to grow a wide spectrum of crops – even difficult ones such as rye. That said, the estate remains true to its roots in that it’s often faced with the unpredictability of Scottish weather. Battling everything from dry summers to wet autumns, growing is certainly not without its challenges and differentiating vintages.
So why rye, and why now? It is a task the Stirling brothers looked to undertake. Aiming to
re-establish the country’s historic connection to rye farming and distilling, they’ve taken it from being Scotland’s lost art to the exciting spirit category of today. And in addition to benefiting the local community, the added perks of growing rye is that it strengthens their efforts to produce spirits sustainably, since gathering directly from the source minimizes the carbon footprint while the vigorous straw can be utilized for other purposes.
Working closely with agronomists and grain merchants, the brothers had searched for the best rye species for their farm and landed on Arantes – a spring rye harvested roughly four weeks later than winter rye. Further highlighting the grain’s unique characters, they stick with unmalted rye in order to emphasize the spicy and herbal qualities. Additionally, rye’s unmalted version produces less fusel oil and results in a cleaner spirit. But, as with the many beauties of Scotland, no two years are the same.
“Every year our rye growing conditions are different,” says Iain Stirling. “So, like wine, [the vintages] will be different.”
Luckily, with the right equipment in place, along with the renowned expertise of Arbikie Master Distiller Kirsty Black, the team can face each vintage with open minds and the know-how to produce the finest spirits year after year. With most other spirit productions, there are several steps of separation between the base ingredients and the bottle. But in furthering their commitment toward field-to-bottle traceability, the Arbikie team will continue to set a positive example for the spirits industry by minimizing the environmental impact of their production.
And as they touch each step within the process, the sky’s the limit for the future of their spirits.
It’s not everyday you get a whisky sample sent through the post – especially one as outstanding as Highland Rye Single Grain Whisky from Arbikie Distillery in Arbroath, Scotland.
To begin with, this is a farm to bottle operation. The grains used – barley, rye & wheat in this instance – are grown in the fields around the distillery.There is also no chill filtration nor added colouring to mute the fabulous flavours within. And it’s a rye. The first for many a year Scotland has produced. Rye at one stage was a common grain used in a mixed mashbill distillation by both Scottish and Irish distillers as testified by a certain Mr Jameson at the 1909 ‘What is Whisky’ enquiry. It happens to be a grain I’m very attracted to. It adds a bit of bite, a dash of dry peppery spice, a certain boldness, a touch of character and a degree of complexity to any whiskey. Rye has no legal definition in either Scotland nor Ireland. Yet in America – often seen as the home of rye – it must have a mashbillcontent of at least 51% rye to gain the title – which this Highland Rye does.
So what’s it like to drink? Absolutely fabulous! The nose captures the classic dry peppery spice augmented by elements of cherry sweetness from the PX cask finish.
The barley & wheat bring a silky smoothness to begin with, coating the palate in a warm snug of dark fruitiness before the rye makes itself known.The palate gradually dries off into a wonderfully prickly peppery spice with hints of cherries dancing around on the enjoyably long finish. The PX finish adds another layer of depth & complexity to this rye.
On a back to back tasting with its 2 year old sibling – which I purchased on first hearing Scotland had produced a rye – the youthful exuberance & freshness resulted in a cleaner, more classic peppery spice experience balanced with a barley smoothness.
The PX finish of the 3 year old – which is still a relatively unusual style of rye even in America – boosts that joyful youthfulness with richer, darker elements. Arbroath – more famous for stovies & smokies – can now add rye to the culinary & quaffable delights on offer.
My thanks to all at Arbikie for the opportunity to taste this gorgeous rye whisky.
There's been a huge increase in the number of "craft", "startup" or just plain "new" Scottish distilleries over the past few years, which is awesome (and I wish them all immense success),
but it's always nice to see someone doing something a little different.
...like what Arbikie Highland Estate have done, distilling the first rye whisky in Scotland in over 100 years. Single grain Scottish whisky is by no means a new thing, but when that grain is rye? That's unique.
Not only that, but they've done so using "Arantes" rye grown on their own estate (52%, along with 33% wheat and 15% malted barley also self-grown), for a truly "field to bottle" whisky. Distilled in copper pot stills, the spirit has been matured in charred 1st Fill American Oak barrels, finished in ex-PX barrels, and is bottled with no colouring or chill filtration. Those casks must have been fairly active, because the whisky gives off a lovely colour for only ~3 years old.
...but how does it taste? Well Arbikie, along with good friends Leigh and Dea from 15PL (who run the Whisky Ambassador course in HK and other parts of Asia) were kind enough to send a generous sample all the way to HK, so I could find out.
Arbikie Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky (46% ABV, 3yo (distilled 2015), Highlands, Scotland, Casks #9, #11 and #16, 998 bottles, £250)
Colour: Rusty golden-copper.
Nose: Spicy orange, paprika, flamed orange peel and cloves. It's young, there's no getting away from it, but some nice notes have developed in a few short years.
Palate: Wow...the youth is nowhere near as evident here. Big, jammy, orange marmalade and less spicy than the nose suggests (it's there - paprika and white pepper, but less noticeable). Sweet, with thick treacle, honey, maple syrup. I'm not exaggerating when I say this is an incredibly delicious and moreish dram.
Finish: Medium to long in length, initially sweet, then the spice returns, and finally a slight hint of oak tannins from the first fill American oak casks.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100. For a 3yo Scottish whisky, this is incredibly impressive. Flavourful, delicious, complex...congratulations to Arbikie Highland Estate for crafting a fantastic and unique Scottish whisky. If I wasn't saving the rest of this bottle to share with a few friends, it'd be empty by now.
Arbikie also have single malt on the way (in "a few years") and given the quality of this release, I can't wait to try it!
Estate producers Arbikie are liquor all-rounders, better known for producing vodkas and gins. How then, with no relevant credentials, do you get noticed on your first foray into an arena as crowded as Scotch whisky? The answer: do something no-one’s ever done before (or at least, not for a long time).
The Arbikie Highland Rye’s premise is that it’s the first Scotch rye whisky produced in the last hundred odd years. I guess that this makes it just a single grain in the Scotch Whisky Association classification, but unofficially I’ll happily concede that it’s rather unique and special.
Now let’s get the bad news out of the way upfront – this is a one-of-its-kind product, with a limited bottling of 998, factors driving a unit price of some R4.5k, which is clearly excessive for a young, barely legal whisky. Then again, there’s no pretence of value for money – that’s not the idea. There’s also lots of good news to even things out.
My experience of Arbikie Highland Rye left me with some striking impressions. Firstly, rye brings something to the Scotch party – there’s enough here to persist and forge onwards with this experiment, which I believe Arbikie is doing; Secondly, this is one of the richest, fullest three year old whiskies I’ve ever tasted. Whether it’s the rye, the casks, the small batch craftsmanship, or a combination that’s responsible can be debated, but the result is remarkable regardless. Lastly, rye and sherry do great bedfellows make.
This is an unusual combination, which I’d never encountered before. American straight rye whiskey is legislated to be aged only in new oak, and although the industry is increasingly breaking these shackles, variations are not commonplace. But they should be. Going by Arbikie Highland Rye – which has been “enhanced” in PX casks for 3-6 months – there’s evidence that this partnership works a treat. If you’re in the fervent niche that’s dedicated to exploring new whisky horizons you may just have to throw pecuniary caution to the wind.