Benrinnes may be firmly set in the Diageo stable of distilleries but it retains an aura of its own. Speyside whiskies generally can be engaging, approachable and rather nice joyous affairs. Much like sticking on a Carpenters vinyl album and leisurely potting about the house one afternoon, lapping up the sweet sounds of Karen. Speysider producers are sculpted to be the all singing, all dancing malts of Scotland and are often the gateway to further whisky pleasures.
As with any herd, there are some deviants within the pack. The Tormore exists on a spectrum of its own and is the unicorn of Scottish whiskies. Allt A Bhainne continues to lurk in the shadows and like so many of its ilk, supports its master’s blends to an almost exclusive degree. Then there are the stars of the show that hog the headlines and paparazzi lenses in the form of the Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and the kings of the catwalk at Macallan. Speyside has almost everything you could desire whisky-wise in a nutshell.
Mortlach, formerly known as the Beast of Dufftown has been castrated and given a poodle perm. It serves as a reminder that not all change is good, or welcome. Fallen on hard times there is much to be mourned around its depleted exterior when visiting the town. Yet there remains Benrinnes, capable of offering a more robust style of Speyside whisky. When combined with a sherry cask, it can unleash a monstrous – almost unfathomable – style of whisky that divides opinion.
The distillery might be new to you and that’s perfectly ok. It’s not very often that we have the opportunity to write about Benrinnes here at Malt. The majority of its output goes into blends and the occasional Diageo bottling as part of their annual Special Release programme. However, I do have a couple of stories about the distillery from my own experiences so let’s dig up some memories for old time’s sake.
Several years ago now, actually I hate to think when it was. I found myself at a Benrinnes tasting in Edinburgh. For the record, I quite enjoyed the experience. Thing started off rather timidly and the bulk of the attendees seemed to be enjoying the vertical tasting. Then our host moved onto the more ferocious side of the distillery with some uncompromising sherry matured whiskies. The change in the atmosphere across the venue was quite noticeable. These drams did not take any prisoners with the reactions and comments reflecting this. Sadly, I’ve forgotten some of the most colourful quotes but nevertheless the general consensus was that these whiskies weren’t fit for human consumption and would be better served to varnish a weathered set of garden furniture. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the extreme nature of these whiskies. As Iggy once sang it they were all raw power and the dark side always has an attractive element. They were not for the faint-hearted or those more used to the approachable Speyside style of whisky. At least 1 bottling was an official release from Diageo that I’ve always meant to purchase but never quite got around to yet.
Now for the Radio 2 DJ link into my other story about Benrinnes. It actually takes place at Auchroisk distillery where after a spot of rallying across the rolling hills of Speyside, the Tormore4 had arrived fashionably late. Thankfully our hosts and other invited attendees for the Spirit of Speyside Festival had waited on the main attractions. We settled into our seats at the opposite end of the room after a series of hugs and handshakes. A brand ambassador kindly took us through some whiskies including the just-released – and overpriced – Lagavulin 8 year old. As a surprise, he had another whisky to experience and the colour of this dram was intimidating. The aromas, flavours and textures did not disappoint. For some of the congregated ranks of blogging wisdom it was a little too uncouth and forceful.
Then he turned the tables on the onlookers and asked for tasting notes. Mark began to squirm in his seat – rather noticeably I may add – as this was his worst nightmare. Trapped in a room of bloggers engaged in shouting out increasingly ass wiping tasting notes. It is a vicious circle that should be avoided, dear readers. I just took great pleasure in seeing Mark’s physical form trying to sink into the base of his seat and make a break for freedom. Tasting notes aside, the most dreaded of questions was delivered. Can you guess the distillery? It’s an annoying question as nowadays the distillery DNA has been set out on a spreadsheet for efficiency. The same yeast, the same barley, similar fermentation times and watered down to a consistent strength before going into the cask. Oh, and we should mention the soil here, but not forgetting the wood. At times I feel constrained by writing the same tasting notes or using a limited portfolio of descriptions. Except upon reflection, it has nothing to do with my palate – rather slowly but surely – the outer limits of Scotch are being redrawn in the pursuit of consistency.
The twist in the tale as some attendees decided to randomly should out distillery names, was that I had turned to a fellow Tormore4 member and whispered Benrinnes. Turns out it was the same Diageo bottling that caused an uproar at the Edinburgh tasting. Small world and the spectrum of whisky flavours is arguably following suit.
This takes us nicely to the whisky at hand. Forming part of the duo released in 2017 as the Cadenhead’s Club exclusive bottlings (the other being a 21 year old Glenrothes), its the reward for faithful members who endure the stream of releases from Scotland’s oldest independent bottler. And what a year 2017 has been. I’ve been savaged by the onslaught. Even now I dread the next monthly outturn and its pursuit. Still, these Club releases have always been of a very good standard so this was an ideal opportunity to check out Benrinnes via an ex-bourbon cask. Distilled in 1997, just 204 bottles were harvested at a robust 59.8% strength.
Cadenhead’s Club Benrinnes 20 year old – review
Colour: golden syrup.
On the nose: an initial burst of pleasing citrus followed by a creamy Caramac assisted by an oily quality. Apples laced in a sugary syrup that is broken up by a lemongrass sharpness and surprisingly some coconut. There’s a varnish quality that melts into caramel, vanilla, frankincense and right on the edge a floral aspect. I’m trying to resist saying Butterkist toffee popcorn! Water unleashes more of the fruits and caramels.
In the mouth: oh my that’s delicious. Initially there’s a storm of sweetness followed by a meaty savoury aspect, wine gums and the tinge of alcohol. A chocolate body interplays with ham hock, oranges, honeycomb and cinder toffee. It’s a really chewy and oily experience. The addition of water lightens the experience somewhat but propels the sugars up the chart.
I enjoyed the Glenrothes that was the other 2017 Cadenhead Club release, but this Benrinnes I’d place a notch above. Thank goodness the team listened to membership feedback and picked out an ex-bourbon cask, as to date the Club has been predominantly sherry orientated with its releases. They’ve picked a real doozy for the membership. A fitting end to 2017 and a lovely Benrinnes.
My thanks to David for the sample.