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My Speyside Reboot

BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.

I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.

Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.

For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.

One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.

The stills at BenRiach.

Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.

'Under 25'? Hardly.

With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.

Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.

Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.

BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%

Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.

Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.

Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.

Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.

With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.

At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.

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A Pat on the Back for BenRiach & Co.

I make no secret of the fact that independent whisky producers have my approval. Independent whisky producers who capitalise on their minimal-strings business models to do something different are the subjects of my most blissful dramy daydreams.

BenRiach: showing the Speyside old dogs some new tricks.

The people behind the purchase of this Speyside distillery in 2004 have lifted the lid on this previously shy dame: there is a lot going on just off the main road between Rothes and Elgin. In 2008, GlenDronach joined the stable and dazzling standard together with bespoke bottlings have appeared in gratifying number. The BenRiach 12yo is as clean, soft and fruity as you could wish a Speysider to be, and its peated Curiositas 10yo takes peat in utterly new directions. I adore the complexity and power of the GlenDronach 15yo, and one of their single casks from a couple of decades ago is on the shopping list for next autumn.

From Batch #4 of the single cask releases, this highly praised specimen is out of my budget.

GlenDronach might stick to its guns with bruising, darkly fruity Sherry monsters, but the BenRiach portfolio is kaleidoscopic with triple distilled spirit having been produced since 2005. They have also reinstated the floor maltings. I can only imagine how extraordinary a heavily home-peated malt will taste like in a few years.

Of 2011, however, Managing Director for the two distilleries, Billy Walker said: ”we have been very fortunate to win a couple of top awards this year which reflect the passion our people bring to the art of whisky creation. They are also testament to the huge amount of time and energy we dedicate to our wood management programme.”

The awards he alludes to include the 2011 Malt Maniac Awards, the logistics of which I learnt from Keith Wood and that these are dedicated, passionate and discerning people singling out areas of the industry for special mention there can be no doubt. In addition to two gold, four silver and three brinze medals, the GlenDronach 1972 #712, from Batch 4 of the single cask releases, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

Praise came not only from the collective of the whisky appreciation world but one of its solo grandees. Jim Murray was especially complimentary about the company’s products. Billy Walker’s response was:

“Jim made a number of very kind comments in his new book, but the highpoint was his singling out GlenDronach as the distillery with the most consistently impressive output throughout 2011.

“He very generously concluded by saying: ‘If there was a Whisky Bible Scotch Malt Whisky Distillery of the year, GlenDronach would be it.’ That was very special.”

Between the pair of distilleries, they claimed nine awards at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge, two of which were top gongs and went to the BenRiach 12yo Sherry-matured. “For a small independent distillery like BenRiach, to win two trophies for the same single malt is astounding,” said Alistair Walker, Sales Director. “IWSC is the one every whisky producer wants to win.”

Congratluations, then, to the men and women behind these rejuvenated distilleries, whose products have always been recognised as distinctive, but are only now coming before a global audience.

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GlenDronach – New Releases

GlenDronach 1971 VintageIf the maxims of my single malt creed are not crystallised by now, I’ve no doubt the style in which I report the fourth batch release of single cask vintages hailing from the GlenDronach distillery, Aberdeenshire, will clarify a few items of my faith.

Independently-owned by the BenRiach Distillery Co., GlenDronach has for a long time been a cult make enthralling devotees with its bruising muscularity and rich fruitiness, enhanced by diligent sourcing and filling of prime sherry casks. Since new management introduced their singular philosophy to the range, beginning in 2008, this sub 1.5 million litre-per-year distillery has enjoyed resurgent fortunes. A veritable spate of special wood-finished malts in the 14/15-year-old region, though modest when compared with the quantity escaping from partner distillery BenRiach, conveyed diversity while the re-mixed 15yo in the core range garnered 90 points in the latest Malt Whisky Companion. Add to this innovative marketing ploys such as the Cask In A Van tours of Belgium and the revamped visitor centre with hand-bottling facilities and it is plain that those responsible for GlenDronach care passionately about reconnecting with pre-existing enthusiasts in addition to winning new fans for the brand. Their strategy for achieving this is simple but powerfully effective: invest time and expertise hunting out those stocks which demonstrate GlenDronach at its GlenDronach-y best.

Enter, therefore, six single casks which span the age spectrum from a formidable 40-years-old to an energetic, ebullient 17-year-old. All six were exclusively matured in either Oloroso sherry butts or Pedro Ximenez sherry puncheons. One of the latter housed GlenDronach spirit since 1971, endowing it with spicy notes, dark berries and coffee aromas with Mediterranean fruits on the palate.

There is something intoxicating about excellent single cask bottlings from Sherry butts. I would put this down to the increasing scarcity of the wood itself and how few spirits can withstand such highly-tannic attentions for a meaningful length of time. I must confess to being sorely tempted by the 1992 vintage with a nose which promises ‘complex toasted oak aromas with an almost earthy presence’, together with ‘treacle nuts and wild honey’. The palate is said to provide ‘a solid platform of sherry spiced fruit and toasted nuts with a surreal balance of vanilla and honey’. At 59.2% abv., there is enough depth to explore, too.

The other issue concerning sherry-matured whiskies is their asking prices. While not excessive in anyway, that 1992 is £80 and therefore on the farthest reaches of what I personally am prepared to pay for a whisky right now. The 40-year-old is £430, however, which is altogether very reasonable indeed (if you aren’t me). The other vintages are the 1972 (£385), the 1989 (£89), the 1990 (£83), and the 1994 (£70). Single casks are by their very natures finite entities, and the 1971 puncheon yielded a respectable 582 bottles. The 1971 butt coughed up just 464. Available internationally, each market can offer only a percentage of those totals and Loch Fyne Whiskies, in the UK, are expecting their contingent soon.

I have still to visit the GlenDronach distillery, but their commitment to releasing characterful, individual drams means I am very much looking forward to what I might find when I finally get there.

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GlenDronach

      Awaiting an official visit by me, this is the first of the other nine distilleries throughout Scotland offering tours for whom I haven’t any official details but shall be amending in time for the distillery-touring season. This Highland distillery has experienced quite a ‘Revival’ in recent years since it was taken over by the folk behind BenRiach. Their range of single casks and special releases are impressive and their 15-year-old was one of the most sensuous drams I tasted in 2010.

*      *      *      *      *

A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.

A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.

Forgue, Aberdeenshire, AB54 6DB, 01466 730202. The BenRiach – GlenDronach Distillers Co. Ltd. www.glendronachdistillery.co.uk

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. A tour of the distillery, excluding warehouse visit, although there is a viewing window in the VC. A dram of the 12yo is included.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. An in-depth tour of the distillery, followed by a tutored tasting of the GlenDronach range in the company of Frank Massie. Mondays and Wednesdays only, booking essential.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Distillery Manager’s Cask: a bottle-your-own facility from a single cask chosen by distillery manager, Alan McConnachie. The particular cask on offer will change as each is emptied, but to gain an insight into the calibre of whisky on offer, current as of October 2010 was an Oloroso sherry cask from 1993 at 58.4% abv. £54. There is also a 1996 single cask (no. 197) priced at £52.

Distillery Manager's Cask

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Seventh Release of Exclusive BenRiachs

BenRiach_1976_Single_Cask[1]If the subject wasn’t whisky, I would consider the recent concentrated exposure to the BenRiach Distillery Co. and its products a haunting. A tasting of the GlenDronach 15-year-old, details of the forthcoming Cask In A Van tour, press releases on What Does John Know?, prominent bottlings in the bar of the Scotch Whisky Experience when I visited last Wednesday and now another press release. This one concerns Batch 7, a 10-bottle release of rare and exclusive expressions from the revitalised distillery just south of Elgin. They commemorate the sixth anniversary of the BenRiach take-over and the subsequent spate of bottlings matched only by Bruichladdich in their profusion and variety.

This release, in much the same way as the whisky lab on Islay, offers a variety of malts of different ages, strengths, wood finishes and peating levels.

BENRIACH’S LATEST AND VERY LIMITED BATCH OF SINGLE CASK BOTTLINGS NOW AVAILABLE

AWARD-WINNING BenRiach is issuing its latest batch of single cask bottlings this week. Available worldwide, Batch 7 maintains BenRiach’s reputation for encapsulating both perfection and rarity in a glass.

The new release celebrates the sixth anniversary of the first bottling of BenRiach under its new independent owners. Back in August 2004, its ‘Heart of Speyside’ core range of 12, 16 and 20 yo malts became available for the first time.

Fast forward six years, and Master Distiller Billy Walker has selected ten highly distinctive casks from 1976 to 1993 for BenRiach aficionados. These vintage malts are immense and full of character – from pineapple, coconut, honey, and spicy vanilla to treacle toffee, cloves and chocolate coated fruits.

And the range of exceptional vintages is enhanced by their prolonged maturation in different casks – from a Virgin American Oak and a Gaja Barolo Finish to a Tokaji and a Peated Tawny Port Finish.                                                

The ten, in ascending chronological order, are:

Year     Number        Strength       Age          Cask Type             Style

1976     8795           53.2%          33yo     Hogshead                              Classic Speyside       

1977     1033           52.2%          33yo     Pedro Ximinez Hogshead     Pedro Ximinez Sherry Finish

1978     4417           50.4%          32yo     Tokaji Hogshead                Tokaji Finish                                      

1979     7511            47.9%         30yo     Bourbon Barrel                  Classic Speyside   

1980     2532            51.1%          30yo     New Wood Oak Barrel     Virgin American Oak   

1981     2589             51.6%         28yo      Bourbon Barrel                 Classic Speyside                                

1984     493               54.1%         25yo       Hogshead                            Classic Speyside                               

1984     4052            51.7%         25yo       Tawny Port Hogshead    Peated/Tawny Port Finish

1991     4389             54.9%         19yo       Virgin Oak Hogshead      Virgin American Oak Finish

1993     7420            56.7%         17yo       Gaja Barolo Hogshead   Gaja Barolo Finish         

Bottled in July 2010, the ten are all bottled at cask strength, with natural colour and non chill-filtered. They are individually numbered by hand and presented in a gift tube.

 

I think the whisky gods are trying to tell me something. I need to try BenRiach.

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