When we heard that Benromach had released a 21-year-old expression, we were intrigued to see how the brand’s distinctive brand of whisky matured over the years. So, we had a taste. And we liked.
Back in May 2018, I had the good fortune of visiting two Speyside distilleries on the same day. One was the giant Glenfiddich, a sprawling campus of creation and enterprise which makes the world’s best-selling single malt whisky and more. The other was Benromach Distillery.
The contrast was stark. Benromach is a small-scale, manual distillery. Every process is carried out and monitored by a small staff and its production capacity is 380,000 litres of whisky per year (Glenfiddich makes 13,000,000 litres in that time). The humble approach and rustic charm is no accident, however. After purchasing the site back in 1993, Gordon & MacPhail’s goal was to create traditional handcrafted single malt influenced by the kind of whisky that would have been produced in Speyside in Scotch’s 19th century heyday.
“Since the distillery restarted production, we have used traditional production methods, and each stage of the process is designed to give a spirit character that is traditional, lightly peated and handcrafted,” says Keith Cruickshank, Benromach’s distillery manager. “Our small team of distillers has long relied entirely on their expertise and senses to make the finest handmade whisky and that’s something that hasn’t changed since the distillery reopened 22 years ago.”
The distillery had passed through a number of hands after it was first established in Forres, Scotland in 1898, sadly closing in 1983 before it was revived by Gordon & MacPhail. By 1998 production had restarted using locally-grown Scottish barley which is malted with a little peat smoke, recalling the Speyside tradition of topping up fires with cuts of peat when coal ran low. The barley is ground into grist in a 120 year-old four-roller Boby Mill over a 90 minute period, before it’s mixed with water drawn from the nearby Chapelton Spring in the Romach Hills, the same source used by Benromach since it first opened.
The aim is to create a medium-bodied spirit suitable for variable lengths of maturation, which explains the long fermentation process, which lasts between three and five days in larch washbacks that Cruickshank says creates a rich, complex, fruity new make. The brand also takes the unusual step of using two types of yeast: brewer’s and distiller’s yeast. “We feel it creates a more complete fermentation – this all contributes to the development of more complex flavours”.
Distillation takes place in a 7,500-litre short and squat wash still and a 5,500-litre spirit still. Cruickshank explains that the former has an almost horizontal lyne arm to create more copper contact with the alcohol, which lends to the desired medium-heavy spirit character and that the latter has a reflux ball which pushes back down the very heavy vapours, allowing lighter vapours to travel up the still. Once the spirit is distilled, it’s hand-filled into first-fill casks exclusively and rolled into traditional dunnage style warehouses, which provide “consistent temperatures and the ideal conditions for maturing single malt whisky,” according to Cruickshank.
This process has enabled Benromach to establish an impressive core range in a short space of time. For my money, the 10 Year Old is one of the finest bottlings available at its price point and the brand has demonstrated an ability to experiment and innovate, with limited-edition cask strength expressions, organic bottlings and intriguing wood finishes. Its latest release is what has taken our focus today, however. Benromach 21 Year Old is the oldest permanent addition to its core range. It was matured in first-fill sherry and bourbon and bottled at 43% ABV, ready to be launched just as the distillery announced a redesign, inspired by the hand-painted sign that used to adorn the roof above the kiln, along with the distinctive red doors around the distillery and the red brick chimney.
Its release caught my eye because the dram should provide a window into how ‘new’ Benromach matures over a long period of time. Is the distillery character preserved? What effect does the commitment to first-fill casks have? For Cruickshank, the 21 year old represents a progression of the brand’s signature style. “It perfectly embodies the decades of hard work, pride and passion that have gone into recreating that lost character of Speyside whiskies from the 1950s and 1960s. As an older whisky which is still grounded in our commitment to using only the finest first-fill bourbon and sherry casks, it provides a unique take on the classic Benromach style.”
It’s a take I thoroughly enjoyed. Since the late nineties, Benromach has demonstrated the story of revival can be understated, patient and methodical, and the 21 Year Old is just rewards. It’s a dram of variety and vibrancy. The melding of sherry and bourbon casks is measured and graceful, pairing plenty of distillery character with a subtle and understated maturity. It’s got tremendous clarity and style. Take your time and savour this one.
You can purchase Benromach 21 Year Old here and the full tasting note is below.
Benromach 21 Year Old Tasting Note:
Nose: Deep Oloroso sherry comes through, with stewed plums, raspberry jam and juicy sultanas initially followed by hints of Pinot Noir, orange peel and dried apricots. Vanilla, toasted brown sugar, milk chocolate and aromatic ginger spice appear underneath with sweet peat warmth throughout.
Palate: Notes of stewed orchard fruit, chocolate-covered raisins and Seville orange marmalade are followed by hints of set honey, praline, red berries and gingerbread. In the backdrop, there’s cracked black pepper, tangy oak and smoke from a smouldering bonfire.
Finish: Sherry tones lead the finish, with a hint of buttery toffee apples, oak spice and fruitcake.