By Gerald Glavota
Those who follow me on social media know that I am regular on the whisky tasting circuit. I take the time to take pictures of the scotch bottles that I sample and occasionally snap a pic with various Brand Ambassadors and Distillers. So when I was contacted by Authentic Wine & Spirits Merchants to meet with Stewart Buchanan of The BenRiach Distillery, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the brand and their history.
The BenRiach Distillery has a very storied past and in many respects, is lucky to be around today. It was established in 1898 in Speyside and closed after two short years in 1900. Whisky distillation resumed again in 1965 until a brief stoppage in 2004. During the onagain- off again periods of operation, the distillery had three owners: The Glenlivet through the 60’s; Seagrams through the 70’s and 80’s; and Pernod Ricard (current owners of Glenlivet) through the 90’s. Each of these owners brought their own and innovative flare to the brand.
The BenRiach goes something like this: The Glenlivet introduced peated whiskies to the brand by peating BenRiach with a small campaign in 1972. The intent was to give them a peated expression for blending and was never meant to see the light of day as a single-malt. Sadly, there are no peated expressions of The BenRiach available in Ontario, only in markets around the world.
Next, Pernod Ricard experimented with triple distillation that is characteristic of Irish Whiskey (yes, an “e” is added when it’s Irish) and also lends itself to being lighter. Since it was triple distilled, it took more time to produce. Again, this distillation process was utilized to see if it would add any character for blending purposes.
Finally, enter Billy Walker (former Burn Stewart Managing Director) who ultimately came to the rescue of the distillery and the brand. During his approach, a 10 year-old expression was available however, Billy was able to score a sneak preview of the warehouse and could see the bigger picture of what could be brought to market. Ultimately, there were approximately 25,000 casks going back to 1966, some of which were described above.
The end result, a 10-year-old BenRiach that is the spirit of whiskey’s with an exceptional flavour profile including the freshness of apples and lime zest. From the onset, Walker knew that they were making the “best spirit”. During distilling, the cask profile is also very important. The lighter BenRiach uses about 80% American Oak which keeps it clean and light, while the sherry gives it an expression.
The BenRiach 12 year old Sherry Matured that we tried used a combination of 50% Oloroso and 50% Pedro Ximenez Sherry Butts sourced from Jerez, Southern Spain. The PX gives off hints of chocolate; and since the sherry is stored in American Oak, you get a vanilla profile that you would normally associate with American Oak. For this offering, with the addition of the sherry – you get the toffee; chocolate; and then you get the fruits; the dates; and the sweet cherry flavour.
The Oloroso on the other hand, is the middle of the dram providing the crisp nature – so you get a bit more of that European oak spice: a slight pepper heat, almost like the grating of ginger. Here, you have the flavours of the sherry and the cask in your head while the tail is where the clean line of the whisky and the barley comes out. Add the orchard fruit note, not just sherry, and you get its progression and contrast.
So my fellow whiskey aficionados, I have given you the flavour description of two whiskies from The BenRiach and hope that I have done them justice. Now I would like to introduce you to Stewart Buchanan who afforded us this insight. Stewart Buchanan started out as a Stillman at the Tobermory Distillery in 1993, developing skills in production and overall distillery maintenance. He was invited by Billy Walker prior to purchasing the brand to join him at The BenRiach Distillery, where he became Distillery Manager in 2008 and Global Brand Ambassador in 2011.
The distillery should be 40% of the palate or taste, he reminded us – you do not want to stray off of the path. With 40% as the distillery, that leaves about 60% from the cask. When the cask becomes predominant – especially since many are pushing flavour cask – you have to put the anchors on and pull back a bit and taste the distillery in the glass. He expressed how important it was to them to have that BenRiach “taste” in the glass. I can see why. Beyond the taste, said Buchanan, it is also the tradition – “not just the craft, … that is for nectar and beers”.
BenRiach production has consistently stayed the same and has managed to stick with traditional methods of distilling. They are able to maintain the same production rate as a result of the distilleries technique. This includes taking water from a bore-hole which has high mineral content and allows them to run everything at a slower rate. They take their time and use lower temperatures with the barley which is clearly noticeable in the final product. Basically, the difference is that a shorter time is like a beer that is quite nice yet stringy, with no great complexity. However when left for a longer period, the complexities of the flavour start to shine through.
Just because BenRiach is traditional does not mean that experimentation or innovation is ignored. Remember there are casks with a deep history of innovation in their inventory and there are also casks of new innovation as well. What stands out for me is the 40% – remember, you should be able to taste the distillery.
One final thought before I embark on the tasting notes for three BenRiach expressions. The number 40 is close, very close and could be the number 42. Yes! The answer to the Life, the Universe and everything. Cheers.
The BenRiach 12 YO Sherry Matured is a rich, aromatic Single Malt Scotch Whisky that has been created by marrying together whiskies matured in Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez Sherry Butts sourced from Jerez, Southern Spain. Colour: Deep gold – bronze; Nose: Mocha, dark chocolate, sultanas and rich spices; Taste: The combination of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks imparts a wonderful balance of mocha and dark chocolate interwoven with figs, sultanas, vanilla, fruits and rich spices. LCBO Retail $66.95
The BenRiach 20 YO Heart of Speyside is a smooth single malt with an elegant full taste and aroma that captures fruity, floral, spicy notes, with fascinating overtones of honey, vanilla, apples, chocolate and nuts. Colour: Mid-amber, hints of gold; Nose: Spicy, nutty, honey, vanilla, floral, fruity with well-balanced wood overtones; Taste: Rounded medium to full bodied, rich honey, vanilla with hints of apples, spice, chocolate and nuts. LCBO Retail 149.55