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September 22, 2011

Benromach – Behind the Scenes

‘Not every distillery in Scotland could work like Benromach.’

So much became obvious after a only few minutes at Speyside’s smallest distillery, and there was more than a hint of satisfaction behind this statement, made by its manager.

Keith Cruickshank has presided over the Gordon & MacPhail implemented apotheosis of Benromach from the very beginning, as some permanent marker on a wooden beam in the filling store corroborates. He describes with typical animation the unique, semi-paternal pleasure he feels when signing out casks from the warehouses to go for bottling, with the day they were filled clearly in his mind. It says much for Benromach’s dedicated output and Keith’s powers of memory, but chiefly underlines the personal credentials of this pint-sized whisky revolution taking place in North-west Speyside. ’I always say that Gordon & MacPhail own the distillery – but it’s my distillery, really.’

Overseeing production at Benromach.

My Manager’s Tour took place on a muggier, moister day than had my standard tour in April 2010 but the distillery was still as cutely dinky as I remembered it, and the smell of rich breakfast cereal still pooled in the road between the visitor centre and the operating buildings. Inside, 1.5 tons of malt was being mashed, many thousands of litres of wort were gently mutating into alcohol, and two stills were being lovingly polished. The production area at Benromach is a delicious place to be: the handsome copper-domed mash tun cannot contain the steamy aroma of malt mixing with water and there – yes, there it is – is the scent of peat.

In stark contrast to my experiences at Balblair, all wort is fermented for at least four days. Keith explained that they had tried 48-hours in the washbacks but it simply couldn’t supply the rounded fruity requirements for the final Benromach spirit. At 96 hours, the wash undergoes a secondary phase of fermentation as lactic acid begins to build in the heavily apple-scented wash with a bold malty character, too. At the stills, I learnt of the brief for Benromach of 14 years ago: a whisky that will age quickly but also prove itself over and above 25 years in cask. ‘Not an easy thing to achieve,’ I said. ‘Not easy at all…’ came the reply.

The correct interaction with copper is encouraged, with the stills allowed air rests between charges. Once again, it was a decision made with quality of spirit – and not litres per annum – in mind. Gordon & MacPhail wanted desperately to become distillers, but not just any distillers. At Benromach, two hundred years of distilling knowledge, every possible option and permutation, was considered prior to the first batch of malt passing through the mill. That being said, despite incorporating the very latest information related to the making of whisky, this is not distilling by numbers. As Keith happily revealed, they are still tinkering for just the right result.

A social time capsule.

Not content with fully organic whisky, heavily-peated expressions, single barley varietals and wood finishes, there is still scope to explore other aspects of production, with yeast perhaps next on the check-list. If those little critters are as important as the brewing industry says they are, we could be enjoying some very eccentric whiskies in a few years to come.

The Manager’s Tour procures you not just the time and enthusiasm of Mr Cruickshank, but an impressive tasting of Benromachs from pre- and post-G&M. Here are some of my thoughts on them.

Benromach 10yo

Some beautiful Benromachs.

Plenty of woodsmoke and gooey red fruits on the nose initially, before further investigation reveals this malt’s ex-Bourbon DNA: strong wood notes together with syrupy lemon and vanilla. The sherry ageing really shows itself on the palate, with more woodsmoke and satsuma. The finish is redolent with that gentle, complex smoke again, only with a green apple and caramel flavour tacked on.

Benromach Origins

Made with Golden Promise barley and aged in Sherry, both fruitiness and a bold maltiness show on the nose. Rich caramel and malt bins at first with sweet biscuit and jellied lemon peel. The palate is a Sherry bonanza, only not quite as I like them. Mouth-clinging tannins surge in, bringing a dark syrupy quality with it.

Benromach 25yo

A pre-1993 dram, this one, and unusual in the Benromach range with complete ex-Bourbon maturation. The nose was stunningly beautiful: creamy, with golden raisin and lemon. Banana-like malt, shortbread and coconut developed in the glass. The palate bulged with fruits: apple, apricot and white plum. For all there was a clinging sensation in the mouth, I could still find delicate floral notes, too. Soft, moist gingery oak accounted for the finish.

Benromach 30yo

This one was a deep, bold Sherry specimen, all leaf mould, oak, apple and cinnamon. It gradually became more floral, although it did become almost solvent-like: boot polish, if you will. Banana loaf appeared and chocolate. On the palate a Benromach signature began to emerge: plenty of fruity malt with a bit of cling, but primarily soft and toffeed. The finish was slow, gentle and lovely with rich toffee and blackberry.

Benromach 1968

What a venerable gentleman this is. Dense, imperious smoke erupts from the glass, together with soft, rich Sherry tones. Next it is oaky, lichen-covered and earthy, while a heavy menthol note develops with time. The palate was all Sherry, but in such a wonderful way: nutty, fruity with a drying herbal lift. It was malty, too. Peat returned on the finish with an impression of wood stacks. Syrupy and treacle-textured, red apple appeared at the end before the cask-derived richness and sweetness blazed once more, to sink gently below the horizon.

As enjoyable as the tour was, however, my Project was thwarted. I had arrived at Benromach entirely in the dark with regards to their bottle-your-own cask. I had no idea what to expect. For all I knew it could be a heavily-peated batch of organic Golden Promise barley finished in a Sauternes barrique but I was excited by the prospect of siphoning off my own hand-crafted and well-loved single malt. It turned out to be a 9yo Hoggie, and not quite the complex, rip-snorting whisky I wanted. Malty, creamy and zesty on the nose, it also boasted jelly sweets and squashed banana. Dry sweet cereal aromas and a bit of vanilla rounded out a quite tense and dour first impression. The palate was remarkably soft for the strength and youth of the dram with creamy malt and smoke. It started to dry once more, however with faint citrus notes. Happily, the finish offered up a slightly richer experience, with apples and malt. It was too short, however. Water certainly helped matters, the nose growing more biscuity, blending into pastries. I found bracken and heather, as well as toffee and intense floral touches. More vanilla was pulled out. The palate was a fraction bready, with more perfumy flowers.

Maybe in a couple more years this could become a buxom and enthralling whisky, but for now I had to concede that it was a little under-powered for my needs. I will be back, because there is plenty of promise as many separate facets of the Benromach personality mature. Right enough, not every distillery could operate as this distillery does. We should be greatful, therefore, that Benromach has been granted such artistic licence.

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