Thanks to the generosity of Michael, we’re about to embark on a three-part exploration of the illustrious Rare Malts series. You know the one. These are currently rising in value at auction, featuring some classic distilleries showcasing a classic period in whisky—a marvellous gesture, and one that lets us to explore the past, and thereby put today into context, an environment where wood is king and the marketers rule.
Our first port of call is Benromach—a distillery, today, that I believe commonly unites whisky drinkers of all types. Combining a refreshing traditional ethic, natural presentation and (at the time of writing) a reasonable price for their whiskies, I put a time stamp on that sentence, as we’re seeing more distilleries up their prices to chase new money. Gordon & MacPhail have shown (with their independent range) that they are not averse to the lure of financial greed, so in some ways, I await with baited breath a change in direction.
That said, I have mixed thoughts about Gordon & MacPhail in general. How they’ve revived Benromach is textbook stuff and to be applauded, but their independent business has become less family and more corporate, as I’ve stated from various sources in previous articles. Malt isn’t the first, or last, in being chopped from their PR list for saying negative or even lukewarm things about their independent releases. The next time you read someone waxing lyrical about a G&M release, thus, think about where the sample came from, and whether the writer is trying to please the hand that feeds. We’d rather just source our own material and remain independent, with a Balblair 12 from their Discovery series next on the chopping block.
For now, we’re jumping into the Tardis and heading back to 1978, a fertile period for Benromach and the Scotch whisky industry in general, for sure, with plenty of exceptional whiskies produced without the need for terroir or the heavily focus on computerisation … right up until consumer demand deflated and producers were left with an oversized inventory of maturing stock—giving birth, in a roundabout way, to the Rare Malts series we know and chase today.
Whenever I’m faced with an old whisky from a bygone age, I like to place it in that era, surrounding myself in information and what was going on within the distillery at that time. The tail end of the 1970’s was the end of the twilight period for Scotch whisky. Consumer demand was set to plummet, and the force of overproduction was set to come knocking. For many distilleries across Scotland, it was the end game. Some had been expanded and modernised, whilst others had been left to limp onwards and fester. Such distilleries were expendable, and the cost of upgrading these producers was deemed excessive. The impending boom-bust provided a suitable opportunity to shut down these sites, and in doing so, removed local jobs, history and opportunities.
Benromach, which is located on the outskirts of Forres in Morayshire, has endured a history that mirrors many distilleries across Scotland. A variety of owners combined with sporadic periods of closure due to external factors, it eventually ended up in the hands of the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) during the booming 1960’s. As a powerhouse of Scottish whisky, DCL set the tone of the industry for many generations. 1983 was the great cull of distilleries with names such as Brora (yes that Brora), Glenlocy, Glenury Royal, Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor, Lochside, Port Ellen, all closing – many owned by DCL.
The sad fact is that Benromach was expendable. Never known for its single malt status, its closure was no great loss to the wider market, nor was it as efficient or a significant producer. When Gordon & MacPhail purchased the site in 1993, they inherited a fairly traditional distillery that paved the way for the Benromach we know today. It famously took G&M 5 years to get the internals right before the spirit flowed once again for Benromach’s centenary year.
This Rare Malts vintage was bottled in May 1998, making the contents 19 years old. A mighty 63.8% resides within the bottle and this no doubt will prompt another query – why so high? Well, towards the end of the boom, cost cutting was a major factor, so much so, that several distilleries did not cut down their spirit before filling it into casks. My previous Cadenhead’s 2009 Glenrothes-Glenlivet piece gives you the background to this and how it suits long-term maturation, which for some distilleries has been a beneficial accident, i.e. Brora and Port Ellen.
Our experiences with several official single cask releases from Benromach in recent times have underlined the quality of the distillate and cask. But what about a brief stop earlier in that journey? Let’s find out…
Benromach 1978 Rare Malts – review
Colour: golden honey.
On the nose: a fresh vanilla, varnish, almonds and honey. A little mosker adds seasoning followed by lemon peel and ginger. The longer you leave this standing the more the smoke and pine sap takes over. Toffee, white chocolate, wood chips and memories of rice pudding fresh from the oven. Water brings out more pepper, a sense of age, caramel, pine and a sticky toffee pudding.
In the mouth: not much initially with a kick of alcohol and a sense of closure. There’s vanilla and several of the wood characteristics noted on the nose, but this isn’t the full show. Water. This works wonders and brings out oils, smoke, meadow fruits, almonds, resin and it can take a decent drop. Do this and the show is on, with a wonderful balance.
A real Jekyll and Hyde whisky. Take this at face value and you will taste the wood and alcohol, but little else. More than anything, this reminds us of the power of just a few drops of water (or more) and what it can reveal.
With whiskies such as these, much of the intrinsic values are only revealed through time and patience. That’s part of their appeal. The depths that we as whisky explorers can dive to.
Photograph kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.