During the Spirit of Speyside festival, we were lucky enough to be treated to a tour and tasting of Benriach whisky at the distillery. Here’s what we learned.
Benriach is a distillery I’ve been meaning to see for some time. For one, you can’t really miss it when you pass through Speyside, with giant black letters on the side of a great white building on the Elgin roadside reminding you that this is whisky land. And that you need to visit, if you haven’t already.
But it’s also one of the most unique and enigmatic Scotch whisky producers in this region, which is really saying something when you consider it’s one of the fifty-something distilleries in this area.
The beauty of Benriach Distillery
Benriach ranks among the few distilleries in Scotland to still have operational floor maltings, one that was restarted in 2012 after it was closed in 1996. It also makes three different types of spirit, double distilled unpeated and peated as well as triple-distilled peated whisky. That’s not typical at all. Benriach could basically blend in-house if it wanted to.
A chequered history that began with opening just a year before The Pattison crash of 1899 followed by years of dormancy or changing of hands isn’t usually a recipe for success. But thanks to its large malting facility and the train line that connected it to the Speyside distilleries it supplied barley to, like Longmorn, Benriach clung on during the darker days.
That same patchy history means the distillery now boasts a medley of methods, as it became an adaptable supplier to blenders, a versatility and potential harnessed in its modern revival at the hands of industry veteran Billy Walker as part of a group with GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh, all of which then became part of the Brown-Forman empire in 2016. On a recent tour with Stewart Buchanan, global malts ambassador for Brown Forman, I got to see how Benriach makes whisky today and taste a few choice expressions.
How does Benriach Distillery make whisky?
The process, of course, starts with barley and I’m told the brand experiments with varieties from Concerto to Laureate and is always playing about looking for a healthy balance. The floor maltings are only open for eight weeks a year and give just one day’s worth of barley to distill, with master blender Dr. Rachel Barrie only getting just over 20 casks for the first malting season launch. But it was the first 100% floor malted whisky since Benriach opened.
Buchanan is also big on water, in fact, he’s incredibly detailed in every aspect of the process. He says the method here is all about generating a fruity, malty new make and that starts with unfiltered water containing calcium carbonate at concentrations around 180mg, which is defined as being “very hard” water by WHO. “That’s the first catalyst, a hard water that will let the mineralogy play in the fermentation,” Buchanan explains.
A stainless steel traditional mash tun mixes the grist with the water at different temperatures across four washes. The four water mashing system separates it from a fair amount of distilleries, who do three, as Buchanan says Benriach wants access to as much sugary water sweetness as possible and this method allows them to extract the most soluble sugars. Warm water is added to the grist and then the solution is drained off before water at a higher temperature is added in stages at 65.5 degrees Celsius, then 76, 84, and 93. Buchanan compares it to a gentle simmer as opposed to boiling the vegetable (that is barley in this case) to death. The resulting wort is high in clarity and retains very little cereal. Dave Broom remarked that it almost looks like black tea. Too many cereals in the wort can inhibit the copper contact in the still as they build a layer of flour, almost like fur.
Fermentation and distillation at Benriach Distillery
Onto fermentation, where eight 33,000-litre stainless steel washbacks installed in 1977 convert the wort into an 8% ABV beer-like wash, which is already sweet and bursting with green apple flavours. That’s because Benriach practices very long fermentations, sometimes as long as 100 hours, but on average it’s closer to around 85 hours. This is a day or two longer than the industry standard and goes beyond generating yield, giving the yeast time to form those bright fruity flavours. Buchanan says it’s all about finding your style. Laphroaig has short fermentation and an aggressive mash and that works for it. Benriach is all about high mineral water, low temperatures, gentle mash, a clear wort, and long fermentations.
It’s also focused on slow distillation with high copper contact. In 1985, slender, relatively tall pear-shaped stills (making pear-shaped spirit, Buchanan jokes) were installed. They don’t have or need any reflux equipment fitted, the shell and tube condenser is outside the building and the lyne arm hardly has a decline. The light, fruity spirit is instead generated by the profile of the wash going into the stills (30,000 litres split into two wash stills of 20.912 litres capacity), their shape, and the process itself, which is run low and slow, around six hours. This is possibly even slower than Glengoyne, says Buchanan, with a wide grin (the Highland distillery says it distills more slowly than any other malt whisky).
“A lot of people ignore first distillation, but the slower you run that distillation, the more volatile alcohols are driven out and the more copper contact you encourage,” he explains. “First distillation is usually vegetal and oily, but go here it’s full of apple pie”. He also goes into details on the middle cut, which Buchanan reckons is the widest in Speyside at 13 minutes. They want a number of foreshorts to drive more high ester compounds so they cut the spirit lower than most and also dip a little lower for the peated spirit to encourage a slightly sweeter cereal note. Just that 1% or ten minutes more distillation time makes that difference. The peaty version of Benriach is produced for one month a year and then over a week is spent cleaning all the equipment thoroughly.
Onto Benriach Distillery’s warehouses
We then move on to Benriach’s six warehouses numbered eight to 13 because Longmorn has numbers one to seven. With thick stone walls, low ceilings, and earthern floors, these are dunnage warehouses, and my god if you could bottle that smell you’d be a millionaire. Buchanan is giddy as he shows me around, pointing to a cask of 50-year-old highly peated malt (“I don’t know any other Speysider with that!”) or revelling in the over 40 different cask styles found here, all filled with one of four spirit types: classic, peated, triple distillated, or floor malted barley spirit.
The warehouses have number codes to distinguish what’s inside, so for example 001 is the classic spirit with full-term cask maturation, 002 is peated spirit with the same cask profile, then 003 is for classic spirit with a secondary maturation and 004 is peated with secondary maturation. That’s a key term here, Buchanan says Benriach isn’t about finishes, but proper long-term secondary maturation, spending years in other casks, not simply months, and explains the distillery was an early adopter. Speyside Cooperage isn’t involved anymore as the Brown-Foreman connection means The Louisville Kentucky Cooperage now supplies great casks in-house, which allows more money for the always expensive sherry cask bill (especially at Glendronach).
Buchanan describes the warehouses as Barrie’s larder and the casks are stacked to give her accessibility for assessment and experimentation. Historically, Benriach was a blending whisky, a fruity style in demand, but Buchanan also says that Benriach spirit has broad shoulders, so even though it has plenty of delicate, fruity flavours, there’s a rich, cereal core that means it can stand up to casks while still being an elegant spirit. We move on from here so I can taste it for myself, concluding one of the most comprehensive and enlightening distillery tours I’ve ever had. Do get yourself up there, especially during the Spirit of Speyside.
What does Benriach whisky taste like?
The tasting starts with the second edition of Malting Season, which celebrates the distillery’s renewed historic malting floor and was made with concerto barley hand malted and slowly kilned in the autumn of 2013. It’s pure bourbon cask matured to bring out all that grain character and it works. It’s beautifully creamy and very sweet, candied barley with boiled orange sweets and custard. You wouldn’t have guessed the 48.9% ABV strength because it’s so graceful but thank god for it because you then notice that weight of texture in the finish, which has an orange chocolate Maltesers vibe.
Onto Benriach The Sixteen, a good one to try because the distillery reopened in 2004, meaning this has the oldest spirit from the modern age in every bottle. Buchanan compares it to a real 80s Speysider classic, a spirit that’s not cask dominated but is full of orchard fruit in the front, barley or biscuity character in the back, and a ‘click’ in the middle, this almost spent match element that gives it that old school feel. I really enjoyed this and, while 80s Speysiders were before my time, there is a hint of sulphury complexity that adds a beautiful depth among notes of nectarines, honey-roasted peanuts, and green apples.
To get the full impression of Benriach you do need to try some of its peated whisky too and Smoke Season is the distillery’s smokiest whisky to date. It’s always nice to be reminded that Speyside can go for smoke and there’s no effort to tame it here, instead a combination of bourbon barrels and virgin oak casks complement the core flavours of Smoke Season. It has a big beautiful smoked toffee note supported by cooked apple, porridge filled with brown sugar, dry peat, fresh lemon, and charred tropical fruit.
Benriach Triple Distilled 2008
Finally, I got a bonus taste of a distillery exclusive, a 2008 vintage triple distillation whisky. I’ve never had triple-distilled Benriach so I was really intrigued, and what’s interesting here is that it doesn’t lighten the spirit, but alters the dynamic of the fruit and cereal flavours. There’s more fleshy white fruit rather than orchard fruit and the cereal element is heavier which can stand up to casks like Pedro Ximénez (PX), which this was matured in. There’s plenty of unctuous, rip-roaring PX goodness here with dried fruit aplenty and a creamy nutty quality as well as a generous slab of gingerbread where the spice outweighs the sweetness, then a long orange chocolate note on the finish.