Those of you who have read a few of our articles on The Water of Life will have noticed a trend. We have dedicated significant wordcount to examining the mash bills of the Irish whiskey we drink, understanding their impact and controlling our enthusiasm whenever we encounter something unusual or exciting. This has not been the case with our Scottish whisky reviews. In Scotland, barley is king, both in single malts and in blends. A Scottish Rye whisky would be unthinkable… wouldn’t it?
When the Stirling brothers set up the Arbikie distillery on their family farm in 2013, they were keen to point out that they were resurrecting a tradition dating back to 1794, the date of the first recorded distillation on the site. They have also adopted a traditional approach, sourcing all their ingredients from their farm, as their distilling ancestors would have had to. However, the final tradition is most interesting: when their stills started up in 2015, they were fed with a wash containing rye. They claim this is the first time this has been done in Scotland in over a century.
Arbikie has been keen to establish its sustainability credentials from the start. Its status as a single farm operation is a vital part of this, giving unbeatable control over the provenance of its ingredients. However, this is matched by a commendable long-term outlook: Arbikie is planting its own oak trees with the hope of producing its own casks. A glance at the Arbikie website will show you that this is far more than a gimmick: they are truly driven to create the most environmentally responsible product that they can.
It doesn’t look like Arbikie will be a one-trick distillery. It already produces gin and vodka (boasting impressive climate-positive credentials). The long-term plan also involves adding a single malt to the range. I say long-term: there is no plan to release it until it is at least 14 years old – we still have a while to wait.
So, to the whisky. Is Arbikie’s Highland Rye worth the hundred-year wait?
Arbikie Highland Rye 2021 Release
Arantes rye, Odyssey malted barley, Viscount wheat.
48% ABV, matured in new charred American oak casks.
No disclosure of chill filtration or colouring.
£ 85.50 (HighlandRyeWhisky online shop)
Nose: Lemon zest, honey, thyme, and gentle spices: a little pepper and cloves. There are also cereal and creamy notes: butterscotch and buttered ciabatta bread.
Palate: Honey and lemon lead the way once again. They’re met by a really complex array of spice and herb flavours: black tea, cardamom, cinnamon and thyme come through most strongly, but there’s also caramelised onion, rosemary focaccia, and toffee.
Finish: Cinnamon, lemon, and sticky lingering honey.
Opinion: Arbikie’s Highland Rye is unlike any other whisky I’ve tried. The complexity combines with its unusual flavours and aromas to create a dram that welcomes slow contemplation, with each sip revealing a new note. These flavours really shouldn’t work together, but somehow the outcome is excellent. One dram quickly turns into two, and possibly even more.
It’s hard to compare the Highland Rye to other whiskies at its price point as it tastes unlike anything else on the market. This is no clone of an American Rye whiskey. Yes, there are a couple of similarities: the slight sourness, and the notes of spice and caramel. However, the intriguing herbal and tea flavours set it well apart from any Rye spirit I’ve tried: it is at best a very distant cousin to any American offering
Speaking of price point, I have to acknowledge that £85 could seem a little daunting for something so different. However, I think the price is also likely to reflect the distillery’s sustainable approach: doing things the right way, not necessarily the cheapest way. For those debating whether a bottle is too expensive, becoming a member on the HighlandRyeWhisky website offers a 10% discount, which pushes the price to a highly competitive point.
I hope that this dram reflects Arbikie’s eventual single malt expressions: high quality and slightly out there. However, I will be more than content to continue drinking the Highland Rye while I wait. It’s interesting, innovative, and excellent.