The Victoria Whisky Festival – Quick Tastings: Benromach

My second tasting of the main day of the Victoria Whisky Festival was with Michael Urquart of Gordon & Macphail. While it was titled as a general G&M tasting it instead focused on a key part of their range – whisky from their distillery, Benromach. I’ve written about the Benromach before, way back in the long long ago when I visited, but I didn’t get to try much whisky. So here’s some notes on the drams that we had on the mat.

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Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section

The problem with combining the ever lengthening Christmas season with having two whisky squad sessions per month is that someone who works in whisky retail (me) gets a bit busy. As such this post has taken me rather a while to produce, even for a lazy drunk like myself. At least it should be appearing before the end of the month…if I get a move on and start writing about the whisky rather than myself…

Anyways, the first of November’s Squad meetups was to feature a topic that hasn’t really been broached since back in my first attendance, Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts. That session featured a range of whisky from the island, rather than focusing on the traditional peaty fare, so the chaps decided that a night for smoke heads was long overdue. Hence Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section.

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Whisky Hub #2 at Albannach

Following hot on the heels of my last post about Albannach‘s monthly whisky club is this more timely write up of February’s gathering. Shifted downstairs into a darkened corner booth of Albannach’s A-Bar due to a private party having booked the entire upstairs we had a few of us from last time and some new people and, in a happily shocking turn for a whisky event, even numbers of men and women. Hopefully whisky producers will continue to stop advertising seemingly solely to gentlemen of a certain age and whisky geeks, and the whisky community will continue its trend towards no longer just being the domain of bearded men with notebooks – I for one am happy to see less people who look like me at whisky events… Anyways, on to the whisky!

Inish Turk BegFirst up this month was Cat from Albannach with a bottle of Inish Turk Beg. It’s the first release of a new irish whiskey, limited to only 2888 bottles, named for a private island off the west coast. It’s a whiskey that’s covered in marketing and digging through their website doesn’t get much information about the spirit itself – the island is owned by Nadim Sadek who has set it up as a brand in of itself, encompassing food, art, music and now whiskey. According to the site it’s finished in poítin barrels that have ‘long lain’ on the island, cut to bottling strength using rainwater collected on the island and sold in handblown bottles made with glass that contains sand from the island. There’s no information about the whiskey on the web apart from a few reviews and some theories from people who haven’t tasted it that it’s very young Cooley spirit aged in former bourbon barrels. However, I reckon it’s had a little bit of time in the barrel and despite the marketing guff I thought it was rather nice – on the nose it was salty and floral (violets?) with caramel and a light woody smokiness; to taste there was vanilla up front, a spicy middle with a bit of gravelly minerality and a dry honeyed woody finish. Water dropped out some of the sugary sweetness, adding more honey and a little bit of woody tannin. It’s a bit pricey for my liking (at about £125 per bottle) but it’s not bad, despite the story around it seemingly being more important than the liquid. I have already claimed the empty bottle from Albannach when they finish, if Cat doesn’t get it first (which she will)…it’s very pretty.

Amrut FUsionNext up was Will Lowe, who brought along some Amrut Fusion. It’s one I tried, and have no memory of, at last year’s London Whisky Lounge festival and one that is sitting on my ‘tasting shelf’ (aka unused monitor stand that’s part of my desk) as part of my next Whisky Tasting Club box (that I’ve had for about a month…I should get onto that). It’s (mostly) from India and is probably the most well travelled whisky I’ve ever tried. The Fusion part of its name comes from the fact that it uses both Scottish and Indian barley in its manufacture, with the Scots grain being peated and the Indian not. The Indian barley is grown in the Punjab before being sent to maltsters in Jaipur. After malting it meets the Scottish barley in Bangalore at Amrut’s distillery, where it is distilled and aged. From there it makes its way to the UK – quite a trip. On the nose it had caramel popcorn, a bit of gravel and a hint of woody smoke. To taste it was universally described as ‘pinched’, with its stronger 50% bottling strength compressing the flavours behind an alcoholic kick. I got some more minerals and a bit of peaty smoke, but mainly it was hot and spicy and didn’t reveal much. Water tamed it to a sweet and stony dram with an edge of farmyard, showing it to be quite pleasant under the fire.

Glen Grant Major's ReserveThird came Cat’s colleague Carolina who brought a bottle of Glen Grant Major’s Reserve. Glen Grant is a highland distillery on the edge of the lowlands which, from my recent reading of Richard Paterson’s Goodness Nose, seems to make lighter spirits in a more traditionally lowland style. I’d not tried this one before but Carolina had chosen it as one that she felt was a good introductory whisky – working in a restaurant like Albannach she often gets asked for recommendations for non-whisky drinkers and this is one at the top of her arsenal. On the nose it was buttery, with butterscotch, apples, custard and a light spice. To taste it was quite sweet for with a nice chunk of wood to balance it. There was liquorice root, sour polished wood and a little hint of menthol at the end before a short sweet wood finish. Water brought out more candied sugar on the nose but killed the flavour, leaving it simple, sweet and sour. This was rather easy drinking and one of my favourites of the night – a very good whisky for someone who isn’t sure what they’d like.

Benromach OrganicNext was me, with a bottle of Benromach Organic that I picked up from my visit to the distillery this time last year. I’ve not tried it since the tasting I did last March, but I remember being rather keen on it at the time. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky, although a number have appeared since release, and is unpeated and aged exclusively in new wood casks. When I first tried it I assumed the choice of new wood was due to the difficulty of obtaining organically certified refill barrels, but it looks like other distilleries have managed it so I’m no longer sure of the motivation for the cask choice. Since I last mentioned the whisky it has now pretty much sold out everywhere, with its replacement, the peated ‘Special Edition Organic’, not going down anywhere near as well – hopefully the unpeated version will reappear soon. On the nose we got an interesting gluey smell (although a table of people arguing of what type of glue it smelled of hints towards a number of mispent youths) which in the end we settled on being wet papier mache (although PVA glue and primary school paste both came up) along with tea and bananas. To taste there was much more wood than I remember, overwhelming the palate with dry and dusty oak, and new wood spiciness a bit like an unrefined bourbon. Along with that there was the expected vanilla and some red fruit. Water tamed it a little bit, although while it brought out some sweet butter it did also soften some of the wood to damp cardboard. Not as much of a favourite this time as I remembered from before.

Ballantines 17Next was Melanie, who had a bottle of Ballantines 17. While the earlier Amrut Fusion had been respectably scored as Jim Murray’s 3rd best whisky in this year’s whisky bible this Ballantines came in first, even if it has caused a chunk of mumbling amongst the whisky community. I’m naturally suspicious of scoring things like whisky, especially when Murray admits that the 17 is one of the reference whisky that he uses to set his palate before tasting, as well as one of his favourite whiskies. It’s a difficult thing to blind taste when one of the things that you are tasting is something that you know you like and also know the smell of rather well. I used it as part of my last whisky tasting and it’s still not one of my favourites – on the nose there was acetone and apples; to taste smoke, sour wood, cinnamon, bits and pieces of fruit, and a good chunk of wood; water knocked out a chunk of the wood, bringing out more sweetness and woody caramel. Far from unpleasant I just find it to be quite uninteresting, although I assume that’s just me being biased without reason. The mind is a difficult thing…

Ledaig 10Last up was Lucas with a bottle of Ledaig 10. This comes from the Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull, where their unpeated spirit is named after the distillery and their peated Ledaig, it’s old name. It’s got a bit of a reputation for unevenness, with good whiskies at one end(such as the 5 year old Ledaig that Berry Brother’s bottled last year, which picked up various accolades) and filthy whiskies at the other (such as the Tobermory 15 that was tasted at Whisky Squad #3) but not a lot in the middle. They seem to have had a bit of a rebrand recently and I was quite keen, although apprehensive, to try the Ledaig. On the nose it had black junior school plimsolls (fresh from the box), tinned sardines, wet leaves, damp soil and a hint of lemon. To taste it had coal and tar, a bit of unscented soap, lots of minerality and salty preserved lemons. Water killed the interesting flavours, leaving just a wet and smoky mess. Despite the non-traditionally appealing flavours I list above this one was my favourite of the night – totally different to the rest of the whiskies with a very different smokiness to that which you normally get from peat. The harsh rubberiness of the spirit is not going to be for everyone, but if you like a sensual assault it’s worth a try.

With the whisky gone the evening broke down in what I assume will become a traditional fashion with random conversation appearing. I had to run off quite quickly due to a) impending drunkenness and b) an appointment with Gatwick airport to find a plane to get me to Porto in Portugal, where I had a further appointment with a lot of port. The things I do for this blog…

Hopefully there’ll be more Whisky Hub shenanigans next month – many thanks to Cat for throwing it all together again. As with last time, let me know if you are interested in coming along (probably the last Wednesday of the month) and I’ll see if there’s space.

Inish Turk Beg
Irish whiskey, no age statement, 44%. 1litre bottles available for £125 from Harvey Nichols.

Amrut Fusion
Indian whisky, no age statement, 50%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Glen Grant Major’s Reserve
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, no age statement, 40%. ~£20 from The Whisky Exchange.

Benromach Organic
Organic Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, no age statement, 43%. Sold out, but was about £35 from Master of Malt.

Ballantines 17
Blended Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Ledaig 10
Single malt Highland Island Scotch whisky, ~£30 from Master of Malt (although I’d check that is the new edition, as the image on the page isn’t and the tasting notes are quite different from the rubbery punch we got).

New Wood

Barrels
I like big butts and I cannot lie…

My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.

I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.

While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.

Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.

I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky LiveCompass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree. First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.

It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.

Benromach Distillery

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

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.

Benromach Visitor Centre

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.

Benromach's ChimneyThe 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
43%

Benromach Madeira Cask
8 Years Old (4 years in Madeira casks)
45%

Benromach Organic
No age statement, 5-6 years
Non chill filtered, no added colouring
43%

Benromach Organic Special Edition
No age statement, 5-6 years
43%

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.