The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
Benriach: A World of Flavour
Benriach Distillery was originally built by whisky industry serial entrepreneur John Duff back in 1898 on a small hill (‘Ben’ means hill) that used to be the site of the old Riach farm, located in the north of Speyside.
Like most players in the spirits realm, Benriach has seen its fair share of ups and downs. A mere 2 years after it opened, it was forced to close due to hardships in the whisky industry (a large portion of blame going to The Pattison Crash), and remained closed for over 6 decades. During this time, while not distilling whisky, its malting operation was utilized for producing malt for its sister distillery, Longmorn. Fortunately, in 1965, it was reopened for proper whisky production by Glenlivet Distillers, Ltd. Since the reopening, it has changed ownership multiple times, seeing varying degrees of success. After being brought back to life by Glenlivet Distillers, the distillery was bought by Canadian whisky giant Seagrams in 1978. It was during this time that they began to peat some of their whisky, a curious move for a Speyside distillery, but one which, in the end, would play out well.
Benriach’s legacy truly began nearly 100 years after they first opened, with the initial bottling of their first ever single malt in 1994: a 10yr old whisky that would become their flagship expression.
But, if we know anything, it’s that nothing is certain and change is often just around the corner. In 2001, after some vibrant years of production and distillery expansion, Benriach saw more upheaval when Seagrams was acquired by French firm Pernod Ricard; a move which made Pernod Ricard the second largest spirits firm in the world, second only to Diageo. You’d think this could only lead to more success for Benriach, but immediately its production was scaled back to 3 months of the year, and eventually mothballed altogether.
Hope sprang anew, however, when The BenRiach Distillery Company Limited was formed (headed by Scotch whisky expert Billy Walker) and purchased the distillery in 2004. The following decade was filled with innovation (such as re-opening their historic malting floor to hand malt their barley for one month each year, a time known as “Malting Season”) and praise for Benriach’s award winning spirit, even receiving the high honour of being named Global Whisky Distiller of the Year by Icons of Whisky Awards.
Oft referred to as Speyside’s hidden gem, rugged Benriach has seen critical acclaim over the years and is known for doing things a bit differently.
They produce three styles of single malts: an unpeated, a Highland peated (the Highland sourced peat imparts a sweet and woodland smoke character to the whisky, versus the more medicinal note often found in the famous peated whiskies of Islay), and, a step away from the norm of Scotch whisky production, they even do a triple distilled, 10 year old single malt, offered once a year in small batches. They also use a four water mash, versus a typical three, with the mineral rich water taken from their underground aquifer. All of these details play an important role in creating their signature orchard fruit forward, smooth-but-complex style. The Benriach brand is still going strong under the new ownership of beverage colossus, Brown-Forman, who acquired Benriach in 2016.
Dr. Rachel Barrie is the Master Blender responsible for Benriach, a role she has held since 2017. “Benriach is special to me because it encapsulates all the flavours of Speyside in perfect balance.” She utilizes Benriach’s diverse range of eclectic casks (many of which date back to the 1960s) to recognize the full flavour possibilities available to create the unique, award winning single malts. Cask offerings include the traditional American virgin oak, bourbon, and sherry, but further exciting options utilized are rum, port, madeira, marsala, and French red wine casks.
Right in line with their unique background and production style, Benriach has just released a brand new, core range: The Original 10, The Smoky 10, The Original 12, and The Smoky 12.
Dr. Barrie, Keeper of the Quaich and Whisky Hall of Fame-er, drew inspiration for this dynamic range from Benriach’s storied history and the original single malt bottling of 1994: “The new range perfectly marries tradition and innovation that is central to Benriach’s story...I invite the drinker to join me on this creative journey, as we explore the lush rewards of single malt whisky.”
You’ll also note the updated packaging, which is reminiscent of the original 1994 packaging, but pays homage to the beautiful flora of Speyside.
Here, I join the illustrious Dr. Barrie in her offer of exploring this creative journey.
The Original 10 - Three cask matured: Bourbon, Sherry, Virgin Oak
43% ABV, $53.99 (750ml)
Nose: 84/100 Delicate nose with a yeasty dough quality at the front followed immediately
by honey and vanilla cream. Then come the ripe apple, pear, and apricot aromas, finishing
with just a touch of oak.
Palate: 85/100 Warm and nicely spicy right off the bat. Vanilla and baking spices give way
to ripe red apple, pear, and a well balanced, toasty oak note. There is the faintest whiff of
smoke underlying throughout.
Finish: 84/100 A long finish that is balanced and smooth; a nice mix of fruit, sweet, spicy, and woody. Lovely smoke gives way to honey at the very end.
The Original 12 - Three cask matured: Sherry, Bourbon, Port
46% ABV, $59.99 (750ml)
Nose: 86/100 Rich and warming nose makes you want to lean into the glass and dig through the delicate layers. Deep maple and vanilla notes greet you; then there’s cinnamon and nutmeg spice with brown sugar and praline chocolate. Warm oatmeal gives way to baked apple and cherries, rich oranges, dried apricot, and then a very gentle wood quality.
Palate: 87/100 Full bodied with a touch of heat on the tip of tongue that quickly mellows out nicely. Prominent baking spices (cinnamon, cloves, pepper) and brown sugar give way to cooked fruits like apple, cherry, and apricot. Like the nose, the palate has delicate but beautifully complex layers just waiting to be discovered.
Finish: 85/100 Medium plus finish that is gently warming with some pepper spice and dried fruit characteristics, ending with a warm, chocolate woodiness.
Original 10 - 84/100
Original 12 - 86/100
Both lovely whiskies, I found The Original 12 to have more complexity and finesse than The Original 10. The 10 is lighter and sweeter with the honey and orchard fruits vs the deeper spices and rich baked fruits of the 12; although I found more length and nuance on the 10’s finish.
The Smoky 10 - Three cask matured: Bourbon, Jamaican Rum, Toasted Virgin Oak, 46% ABV, $59.99 (750ml)
Nose: 80/100 Immediate lovely campfire smoke, lightly smoked meat, roasted hazelnuts. Rather reminiscent of a honey baked ham, with brown sugar baked pears, currants, and raisins.
Palate: 81/100 The smoke flavour has a medium prominence, definitely not overwhelming, and is reminiscent of a dried, smoked ham, with some of that salted quality combined with a honey sweetness. Another sip reveals some great black pepper spice. Also a good dose of smoked wood.
Finish: 81/100 Long and well balanced, with medium smoke flavours that give way to a tame but meaty, lingering finish.
The Smoky 12 - Three cask matured: Bourbon, Sherry, Marsala Wine
46% ABV, $64.99 (750ml)
Nose: 84/100 A surprisingly delicate nose with sweet smoke, honey ham, and grilled peaches. Sugar roasted nuts and a burnt orange oil quality meld into a savoury sweet note - rather like a buttery cornbread.
Palate: 84/100 Soft and elegant woodsmoke and sweet roasted red apple start, followed by applewood smoked ham, toasted nuts, with a curious hint of smoky vanilla. Quiet dried fruits such as raisin, currant, and prune, then a solid yummy woodiness rounds things out.
Finish: 83/100 Deliciously full of soft smoky sweet notes with a touch of meatiness - I wish it would’ve lasted longer.
The Smoky 10 - 81/100
The Smoky 12 - 84/100
The Smoky 10 is much more vigorous and meaty. While it seemed more medium rather than full bodied, it felt I was chewing on it a bit, really digging in to that meaty aspect.
The Smoky 12 I found to be more elegant and subtle, which was tantalizingly intriguing. There were more gentle sweet notes on the 12 than the 10. Both would be excellent intros to peated whisky for beginners, with the 12 offering a softer, more refined start.
These are all excellent whiskies in their own right. They’re balanced with great aromas and a world of flavour. When taken next to each other, The Original 10 and Smoky10, and The Original 12 and Smoky 12, it's fun to recognize the similarities between them, and experience the influence the highland peat and different barrels have on the finished products.
These selections are available in the States beginning October 2020. Be on the lookout for their premium selections of 21, 25, and 30 year old single malts debuting in the USA in 2021.
And finally, in case news of some fantastic new whiskies wasn’t enough to perk us up this year, for the first time in their 120+ year history, Benriach will be unveiling their first official visitor centre later this year.
*While tasting samples were provided by Benriach, the reviews above are an honest assessment by the author.