I’ve been up in Scotland for the last week and, in traditional manner, had ‘wander around a distillery’ on my holiday todo list. I’ve been going up to the highlands almost every year for the last 25 years, staying in Aviemore a stone’s throw from the River Spey, and have visited a good number of the distilleries in the area. This time my first stop was the first place that I managed to find a leaflet for – Benromach.
Benromach isn’t a whisky that I’m familiar with, recognising its branding but not even knowing that it was a Speyside until I found the leaflet in the hallway of Aviemore’s Old Bridge Inn. The reason for its lack of fame became apparent within a few minutes of starting the tour – the distillery was closed and stripped bare in 1983, before being reopened, with completely new whisky making equipment, under the Gordon & Macphail banner in 1998. They’ve only recently started to bottle their 10 year standard release and as such are still a small name in the industry, although they have also been working on some slightly different whiskies which have a potential of carving them out a niche.
The distillery itself is quite compact and they run a mash a day during the week, producing about 1000 litres of whisky a time, about an order of magnitude less than the nearby larger distilleries dotted around the countryside near Elgin. The standard 10 year is slightly peated, coming in at about 8-12ppm, rather than the Speyside norm of 0-5ppm, and they are also currently producing their ‘Organic’ whisky with completely unpeated malt. They use fairly standardly shaped stills (the spirit still has a reflux bulb, which our tour guide said helped drop the heavier elements of the whisky back into the still while allowing the lighter to rise over the neck) and the washbacks and stills are all in the same compact room. From the main building we stopped first in the barrel filling warehouse and then in their number one warehouse, the only one surviving of the two that the distillery had before closure. With a dirt floor and low roof it’s a traditional warehouse, only stacking the barrels two high in each row as they stretch away into the darkness. The masturing whisky fills the cool room with the beautiful smell of the angel’s share (as the evaporated whisky is known), sweet and malty, and I could have happily stayed in their for a while.
Back in the visitor centre we were all presented with a dram of the 10 year, as well as being given on offer of a taste of anything else they had an open bottle of – unfortunately that didn’t include their higher end whiskies, including a rather intriguing looking Vintage 1968, from before the initial close of the disitillery, which had sat in sherry casks for all of its 40 years.
The 10 year old had a distinct note of linseed oil on the nose, which didn’t carry through that much into the taste. Along with the slight oily flavour, although not texture, there was a touch of hazelnut and a light hint of smoke at the back of the mouth. Water quickly knocked out the more delicate elements of the flavour and brought an icing sugar sweetness.
Taking up the offer of some further tasters we moved onto their Madeira cask finish, which didn’t make much of an impression – it retained most of the regular Benromach flavour with an added extra sweet richness. Again water didn’t do much to enhance the flavours.
I then tried the two whiskies that I was most interested in: the Organic and the new Special Edition Organic. The distillery was the first to get a fully certified organic whisky into production, including using new barrels of american oak rather than reusing bourbon barrels as is usual. These new barrels haven’t been seasoned by 4 or so years of maturing bourbon and thus have much more woodiness to give to the whisky than a regular barrel. The spirit for the original Organic is entirely unpeated while the Special Edition was a short lived run of peated spirit which has now been phased out in favour of the original unpeated variety. Stocks of the original are now running low but more will shortly be available when the cellared stock finishes maturing. Both Organics are given without age statement and have matured for 5-6 years. Due to the new barrels they have both taken on a lot of colour in that time, having a deep reddy brown hue. After that though the two whiskies barely resemble each other.
The regular Organic smells alarmingly like a bourbon, although with an underlying slug of maltiness. To taste it is woody and tannic, with a malty sweetness peeking through and reminding you that it is a scotch. Water quickly reduced the flavours, although brought out some vanilla from the woodiness. I rather liked it, being a bourbon drinker on the side, and quickly snapped up a bottle.
After the success of the Organic I was very interested to see how running a peated spirit through their process would go. As pointed out to me by one of my tour chums, I seemed to really want it to work, but was disappointed. On the nose it combined peatiness with sweet malt to produce something that resembled mulching cattlefeed a little too much for my liking. In the mouth it was strongly peaty but faded away to nothing very quickly, having a quick smoky sweetness and little else. Water deadened it to be a simple one noted smoky dram that was not particularly pleasant.
Hopefully they’ll get their regular Organic back into the shops soon and the 10 year production will settle down to allow Gordon & Macphail will be able to position them in their catalogue correctly. However, until then they’re a nice little distillery with a quick but informative tour and perfectly passable whisky that’s worth a try.
Benromach 10 Years Old
Benromach Madeira Cask
8 Years Old (4 years in Madeira casks)
No age statement, 5-6 years
Non chill filtered, no added colouring
Benromach Organic Special Edition
No age statement, 5-6 years
Many thanks to our tour guide, Sandy. Tours are £3.50, including a dram of 10 year old and a £2.50 voucher redeemable against bottles of whisky over £25. Tours run from 11am-3pm on weekdays and it’s probably best to phone up in advance and see what times tours are going to be.