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Master of Malt Blog

Category: MoM Loves

A world of flavour: Behind Benriach’s new look

Speyside Scotch whisky distillery Benriach has undergone something of a makeover, with a refreshed core range and revamped presentation. We chat to Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach master blender, to get…

Speyside Scotch whisky distillery Benriach has undergone something of a makeover, with a refreshed core range and revamped presentation. We chat to Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach master blender, to get the inside scoop.

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Benriach is a distillery with a storied history. It dates back to 1898 when it was founded towards the north of Speyside by a chap called John Duff. Over the following decades, and like many distilleries, it faced periods of closure and changed hands multiple times. Since 2016, Benriach has been part of the Brown-Forman’s family, marking the Jack Daniel’s- and Woodford Reserve-maker’s first foray into the world of Scotch. At the time, the deal made the whisky headlines. But now, with its new look, a refocusing on flavour, and a compelling narrative around innovative cask combinations, Benriach is making waves all on its own.

Dr. Rachel Barrie has developed the range

“I’ve been with the company three-and-a-half years now, and I’ve really got to know all of the whiskies,” said Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach’s master blender. We’re speaking on the day of the relaunch. The line-up has been unveiled to the world, and drinks social media is in a chatter about the news. And it’s been a while in the works. Even within six months of taking on whisky development at Benriach, Dr. Barrie said she was thinking ‘what’s next?’.

“I had thousands of casks,” she said, outlining the process. “I’ve described it like discovering all these paint pots; it’s like painting with flavour.”

She mentioned she’d always admired Benriach from afar. “I’ve always loved the balance of the fruit and the malt,” and this balance is at the heart of the new core range. 

So what have we got in the line-up? Dr. Barrie took it back to Benriach’s Speyside home (Did you know it gets 40 more days of sunshine a year than anywhere else in Scotland?” She quipped.). A key source of inspiration was the 1994 Benriach 10 Year Old expression, the first bottling that really cemented the distillery as a brand in its own right. It’s balance, body and mouthfeel underpin the philosophy behind each new expression.

All about the cask: the new core range lines up

At the heart of it all, there’s The Original Ten, The Smoky Ten, The Original Twelve, and The Smoky Twelve, all bottled at natural colour. Two fundamentals thread through the quartet: production (essentially peated versus unpeated), and the cask make-up. These are all a blend of three different cask maturations. Move higher up the range to The Twenty One, The Twenty Five and The Thirty, and you’ll find four different cask types. The entire line-up was crafted to offer accessibility to whisky newcomers, and established enthusiasts alike. And the clear positioning does just that.  

When it comes to the malt specification itself, it’s useful to look at the calendar. Each September is devoted to ‘smoke season’, where malt processed to 55ppm using local Highland peat prior to distillation tracks its way through the distillery. Then malting season (yes, Benriach has its own malting floor), takes place each spring. There will be dedicated Smoke Season and Malting Season limited editions to come in due course, too. 

“My job was to create this perfect world of flavour, a journey of taste, many different layers all perfectly integrated,” Dr Barrie continues. “There’s a rainbow of flavour as the spirit comes off the still, which you can then amplify with casks.” 

And why such an overt focus on smoke? “It’s such a sweet smoke with Benriach, it opens the door to new consumers,” she explained. “Just saying ‘peated’ is too simple, it’s a different character.” 

The core quartet

In the tasting glass first is The Original Ten. “It’s like sunshine on Speyside,” Dr. Barrie described it. “A fruit orchard, ripening peaches, a patisserie.” Interestingly, while it’s barely perceptible, there is still a wisp of that Benriach smoke running through. “It’s less than 5ppm,” she said, adding that it adds more of a depth, a textural quality, rather than contributing flavour as such. Going into the Original Ten is liquid from bourbon barrels and sherry casks, plus virgin oak. “It’s got layers of perfect balance,” she continued. 

Benriach is embracing its smokier side

Next up was The Smoky Ten with an intriguing cask mix indeed: bourbon barrels, toasted virgin oak, and Jamaican rum casks. She confirmed the latter previously held high-ester, pot still liquid. “It amplifies the esterification that happens with the maturation,” she got technical for a moment. “It brings out the vanilla, coconut, lactones, the sweetness.” The result? “Exotic fruits charred on a barbeque.” Delicious!

The Twelve is a “new to world” expression, Dr. Barrie continued. “Everything changes with maturation. You’re going to have more oxidation, and therefore more of those top notes.” She reckoned the esterification reaches a “sweet spot” at this age for Benriach. Plus the addition of Port pipes to the bourbon and sherry make-up “lifts and lengthens”, with a “dark chocolate note on the end”.   

Rounding off the four at the heart of the range is The Smoky Twelve. “This is unexpected in its cask combination,” Dr. Barrie said, referencing the bourbon, sherry and sweet Marsala cask recipe. “It’s a collision of the rugged side of Benriach with the sweet side,” she added. “Plus, I love Italian food, I love Sicily. You can see how I was drawn to this.”

An experimental approach

It’s true that there are some unusual cask combinations across the four expressions we explored. How does that come about, and will there be more experimentation to come?

“There’s like a ‘eureka!’ moment with all of the whiskies,” she detailed. “It’s a constant quest. You have all the casks, you blend, you go back and think, ‘imagine…’. Eventually to get to the point where you’re, 80%, 90% there, and then you raise the bar even further.”

Announced alongside the new range was an intention to release esoteric limited editions in the future. Are there any experiments or cask types she’d like to play with yet but hasn’t?

“Oh, there’s so much experimentation,” she said, referencing what’s going on in American whiskey with mashbills and developments within wine. “And within our group [Brown-Forman], there are so many different types of spirit… Tequila with Herradura. Now, that would be interesting. Never say never!”

The range takes on the character of the distillery and the surrounding Speyside region

Other ongoing projects include working with the R&D team at Brown-Forman’s Louisville HQ to investigate the impact of different types of oak on flavour, another area of interest. It makes the whisky lover incredibly excited to see what might come next from Benriach as part of this new programme. 

“There’s plenty to try, and then different combinations to try!” There’s an energy to her statement that makes you long for a sneak peek around her blending lab, just to see what’s there. There’s lots to taste in the new range, and there’s certainly deliciousness to come. Dr. Barrie best sums it up: “There’s an everlasting world of flavour.” 

Benriach’s new-look line-up

The Original Ten, 43% ABV

Bourbon, sherry and virgin oak casks with a trace smoke level for orchard fruit, honeyed malt and marmalade on toast notes. 

The Smoky Ten, 46% ABV

Bourbon barrels, virgin oak and Jamaican rum casks combine for smoky sweetness with barbecued fruit notes. 

The Twelve, 46% ABV

Sherry rich maturation and layers of dark berry fruit encapture the flavours of Benriach in the autumn.

The Smoky Twelve, 46% ABV

Made with an unusual combination of bourbon, sherry and sweet Marsala casks for a rich smoky sweetness with dark chocolate, almond and charred orange notes. 

Plus coming soon, three older bottlings which we were given a sneak preview of:

The Twenty One, 46%

Bourbon, sherry, virgin oak and red wine cask liquids with elegant smoke. Lashings of orchard fruit, pinewood and honey smoke. 

The Twenty Five, 46% ABV

Sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and Madeira wine casks combine for an intensely rich mouthfeel with baked fruit, cinnamon spice and caramelised smoke. 

The Thirty, 46% ABV

The oldest peated Speyside ever bottled. Sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and Port casks result in chocolate raisin, smoked walnut and cinnamon cocoa notes. 

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MoM Loves: The Sexton Single Malt

If it wasn’t already on your radar because of its awesome bottle and delicious liquid within, The Sexton ought to be, seeing as the Irish single malt was created by…

If it wasn’t already on your radar because of its awesome bottle and delicious liquid within, The Sexton ought to be, seeing as the Irish single malt was created by one of the few female master blenders in the Irish whiskey industry, Alex Thomas! We chatted with her to find out more about her wonderful creation.

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The Irish whiskey industry has had something of a revival in the last decade or so, and with unique, modern expressions like The Sexton gracing our palates, it’s easy to see why! “I had a dream of creating a whiskey that everyone would enjoy and that paid homage to those who came before us,” The Sexton creator, master blender and distiller Alex Thomas tells us. 

The Sexton Single Malt

The wonderful Alex Thomas with her creation

Having worked at Bushmills before venturing to craft her own whiskey, there’s no doubt that Thomas is well-versed in what makes a classic Irish whiskey. But while tradition and history is important to her, there’s no way she’s stuck in the past. “I wanted it to be approachable for those who thought whiskey was not for them, and memorable enough for the whiskey connoisseur to enjoy the experience.” Sounds like an all-rounder to us! “As the Irish Whiskey category continues to rise, I wanted to introduce a liquid that could represent the changing face of Ireland – capturing the heritage and provenance of the past and the optimism and creativity of the future.” What we have here is a modern whiskey that’s not afraid to be mixed, while still paying homage to its heritage. 

The whiskey

The Sexton is distilled entirely from Irish malted barley, triple distilled in copper pot stills  before it’s matured in some very special casks. European oak from France is dried for a minimum of 16 months before it’s crafted into casks and toasted. They’re not filled yet, but seasoned with Oloroso sherry from Jerez over in Spain.

The Sexton Single Malt

Sherried Irish single malt, what more could we want?

Why sherry? “My grandmother inspired my love for sherry. I was always interested in why sherry was her secret ingredient in her fruit cakes,” says Thomas. “Ageing the liquid in these wine-soaked barrels results in the perfect balance of dried fruits and subtle oak notes, which helps achieve a depth of flavour.” We’d have to agree, with balanced but complex notes of oak spice, marmalade and dried fruit alongside dark chocolate and honey leaping from the glass. 

The bottle!

There is more to this wonderful bottle than just aesthetics, that’s for sure. The shape is inspired by the mesmerising Giant’s Causeway, found over on the North Coast of Ireland, which we’d have to say is rather original.  

The Sexton Single Malt

Giant’s Causeway, or lots of bottles of The Sexton?

The name, Sexton, is derived from the Medieval Latin word sacristanus, meaning custodian of sacred objects, used to describe the man who prepared the grave. “The Sexton challenges you that before you meet the man that will lay your body to rest, to make choices every day that will add up to a life story worth telling.” Well, that explains the skull and top hat on the front of the bottle. We guess you could call Thomas a custodian in her own way, a guardian of her own brilliant Irish whiskey. Too far? Never…

The Sexton Single Malt

It’s all in the detail

We had to ask Thomas what’s next for The Sexton, and as is usually the case with these kinds of questions, her answer was as exciting and cryptic as we hoped! “As a master blender and distiller I am always experimenting, and dream of expanding The Sexton family in time,” she tells us. “But watch this space.” Consider our eyes peeled.

How do I drink it?

Thomas is far from a purist here, and while she herself enjoys it neat she encourages drinkers to try it in a whole range of cocktails. We’ve got a couple of serves here for you, recommended by the master blender herself!

When you treat yourself to a bottle of The Sexton on MoM right now, we’ll (carefully) throw in a branded Sexton Highball glass too! We love it when our bottles match our glassware, so you can sip on Sexton cocktails in style.

Love It To Death

50ml The Sexton

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Top with soda water

Serve over ice and garnish with a lemon peel.

The Sexton Single Malt

It’s all sherry and whiskey in the Laid to Rest cocktail!

Laid To Rest

25ml The Sexton

10ml Pedro Ximénez sherry

20ml Manzanilla sherry

20ml spiced claret syrup

Serve over crushed ice and garnish with mint leaves and dried spices.

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MoM Loves: NÜTRL Vodka Soda

A cocktail in a tin made by actual distillers with the same attention to detail you get with spirits? We’re intrigued. It’s high time we checked out NÜTRL’s shiny new…

A cocktail in a tin made by actual distillers with the same attention to detail you get with spirits? We’re intrigued. It’s high time we checked out NÜTRL’s shiny new range of Vodka Sodas.

Paid partnership 

Visit a distillery and you’ll get a tour of all the kit: tuns, fermenters, stills, the full works. Chat about drinks in a tin and – as a general rule – the production story, the obsession with technicalities, the meticulous focus on how process affects flavour, kind of gets replaced by… fluff. One of the most striking things about NÜTRL Vodka Sodas (aside from how refreshing the collection is), is the transparency around how each variant is made.

NÜTRL

Vodka plus soda plus flavour plus friends (at a social distance, of course)

Vodka. Soda. And then the natural flavouring for each. That’s it. Super straightforward. Gorgeous in its simplicity. Goodridge & Williams Distilling, the folks behind NÜTRL, are passionate about keeping things precise, straightforward and delicious. No carbs, no sugar, no preservatives. A hastily made pre-mixed beverage this is not. And we’re fascinated by the back story.

But before we get too geeky, here’s the quick version of events. Goodridge & Williams opened its distillery doors in 2013. Located in Delta, British Columbia, the craft, small-batch site makes its award-winning NÜTRL Vodka (it picked up a Gold medal at the 2019 Sip Awards, natch), and its range of Vodka Sodas have just touched down in the UK. Here, we’re being treated to a range of flavours and ABVs. At 3% ABV you’ve got the ultra-refreshing White Grape and Green Apple expressions, while at 5% ABV there’s both Lemon and Red Apple options. Highly ideal for summer sipping. But if you’re after something a smidge boozier, or a bit of an autumnal feel (let’s face it, the great British summer doesn’t last forever), then the 7% ABV Black Cherry and Black Raspberry should be right up your street.

NÜTRL

Just add beach.

All about the vodka 

So what’s the deal with the production story? For Goodridge & Williams, it’s all about crafting the best vodka, and then building the sodas from the best base possible. There’s no point having a vodka soda, where you want the simplicity of the spirit to shine, if it’s not impeccably crafted.

The team kicks things off with local grains from the BC area. These are fermented, resulting in a classic wash. It’s then over to the distillery’s 38-plate copper column still, which is used twice for each batch. While that seems like an awful lot of plates, you still get subtle grain flavours, most notably a gentle hint of rye. Crucially, it’s a slow, temperature-controlled distillation run. It’s all about getting the perfect cut, keeping the grain character alongside an undeniable crispness. This keeps things wonderfully balanced, with the smoothest of smooth mouthfeels. The team also produces a BC craft gin, a pair of craft whiskies, and, intriguingly, a European-inspired Amari. Making great spirits is at the heart of the production philosophy.

NÜTRL

Beach trip drinks: sorted

Authentic, natural flavours

We’ve got the base NÜTRL Vodka. Now what? Time to craft the classic Vodka Soda! The team pays close attention to the all-natural flavours, choosing fruits that give maximum refreshment and enjoyment. The finished cans are perfect for enjoying with friends at picnics, barbeques or on the beach (or even at sporting events… hopefully again one day soon). Basically, if you’d automatically reach for a beer, you’ve got a lower-calorie alternative right here. NÜTRL Vodka Sodas aren’t sweet. They’re not heavy. What they are is deliciously simple. An alfresco at-home staple this summer! 

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