It’s been a while since I visited Benromach and the thought crossed my mind as we passed through the town of Forres and drifted past the distillery itself. Since its rescue and subsequent revival by Gordon & MacPhail in 1998 when it restarted production, Benromach it’s fair to say has gone from strength to strength.
Whisky enthusiasts versed in the dark arts of the long-deleted bottlings and editions from the heydays of the 1950’s until the late 1970’s, revel in some certain characteristics. The peat layers in Islay whiskies were more majestic back then and let’s not forget the Speyside and Highland whiskies that offered a bountiful wheelbarrow of ripe and intoxicating meadow fruits. These juicy characteristics often propelled by a hint of smoke set a standard that has sadly departed from the whisky roads of today. It’s only through relics or the occasional single cask release that we can truly appreciate this lost style of whisky.
Benromach is of course setting out to revive this lovely style of whisky and bring it to a new generation. As much as they can internally, the concept is to maintain a hands-on approach and a characterful distillate with the best casks – yes those again – and a degree of patience. So far so good and the results are encouraging. Benromach isn’t the only distillery engaged in rediscovering and bottling this flavoursome style of whisky. Dornoch distillery has created a tremendous distillate that reeks of promise if you’re fortunate to taste a drop. And it’ll have to be that singular drop as given the scale of the operation at Dornoch every drip of new make is precious.
Occasionally during these review-articles or whatever you want to label them as – yes we need a buzzword – you feel the same drum is being battered once again Bonham style. Whisky needs to be full of character and flavour otherwise its run of the mill. Honestly folks, there’s an endless torrent of bland and mundane whiskies out there. Some whiskies lack flavour, others are the by-product of aggressive wood management. Whether its small casks, virgin oak or a saturation of wood finishes or influences. Sometimes you’re better dragging your tongue down a banister. At least that’s free and might give you a similar taste profile.
Thing being, its not just about the wood. Macallan and company will peddle you that nonsense as its suits their current agenda. What is it now? Around 70-80% of the flavour comes from the wood itself? It’s become dominant because you’ve let it become so. The figures quoted change more often than a Scottish weather forecast. Both are interconnected in the fact that you cannot fully appreciate, control or predict nature itself. I don’t want a bomb or a whisky that tastes more like a cheap pubescent sherry. The wood approach is nowadays heavily standardised and everyone is chasing those finest casks more than the latest Macallan release. Lets not go into the fact that many sherry butt’s have been more or less only rinsed in sherry or held such contents for a fraction of what they used to harbour. No, the real style and flavour arguably comes from the elements prior to the spirit integrating with the wood itself. That’s the key aspect and the ultimate differentiator that many overlook.
Back to Benromach and the 2 distillery releases we have here thanks to Noortje for the samples and the lavish photographs. The distillery by Speyside standards is pretty small with an annual capacity of around 700,000 litres. This has scaled up in recent years as more investment has been delivered on site. Sales are up as well, quite healthily from the last set Malt took in. The combination of a lightly peated style, that touch of smoke and patient maturation is proving popular and approachable across the globe. Maybe just maybe there’s hope for the whisky consumer yet.
First up is the 2005 distillery exclusive which is a single ex-bourbon cask bottled in 2017 at 11 years of age. A mighty 60.1% showcases that Benromach likes to fill their casks at a slightly higher strength than most. Just 209 bottles were born out of cask number 352. Our 2nd Benromach is a distillery exclusive, bottled in 2016 so quite a youthful and robust whisky on paper with a strength of 60.5%. Matured in a 1st fill sherry hogshead, cask #685, 326 bottles were released.
Benromach 2005 Distillery Exclusive – review
Colour: lemon rind
On the nose: a vanilla nougat laced with chopped nuts. Thankfully its not dazzlingly vanilla dominated there’s that touch of smoke to quell the storm and white ash. Toffee follows with caramelised apple, custard, lime juice, ground almonds and a streak of redness deep down complemented with a sprinkling of cinnamon and mocha.
In the mouth: now the smoke comes through strongly. It’s not a dominant forceful thrust elegantly mixing in with the other characteristics and enduring right through till the finish. Bitter dark chocolate gives way to cinder toffee, ginger, mace, lemon, a touch of ash and black pepper.
Benromach 2009 Distillery Exclusive – review
On the nose: a rusty metallic quantity initially, pleasing enough followed by bronze, walnuts and orange peel. A toasted vanilla quality, cherry menthol, fruit and nut chocolate, caramel and rhubarb. It’s quite cask full-on with a touch of smoke on the fringes, but to me its more cask than Benromach. Water reveals apricot and honey.
In the mouth: quite woody however its not forceful and the alcohol only is noticeable on the finish with a touch bitterness. More chocolate, some vanilla, honeycomb, cranberries and rubbed brass. Lets try water. Have to comment how cloudy this whisky becomes! Water highlights its tautness some cinder toffee and tobacco but no wow factor.
The 2005 edition is worryingly drinkable at cask strength. I just wish I had more of it as its certainly a smoky offering with some character beneath. Not the expressive fruit laden bomb we were hoping for but nevertheless a very enjoyable dram. The Distillery Exclusive is more cask than Benromach and I’m not blown away by it. Sure, drinkable and a good nose but the palate highlights the limitations of the sherry hogshead.