An unexpected side effect of COVID-19 in the world of whisky, has been the rebrand.
The lockdown has caused an A9 tailback of epic proportions. Seemingly most of the planned 2020 rebrands and launches, were paused, before arriving thick and fast after summer. Amongst this number is the Benriach, formerly known as BenRiach, now returning to just one word. Thankfully, without some godawful Flintstones style font.
It seems on paper that Brown-Forman is keeping things simple in some regards with Benriach. The restrained visuals hark back to older style Benriach’s and there’s nothing wrong with a nice marriage of grey and black, as Noortje will testify to. The previous core range from this distillery, in my mind, was more of a scattergun approach. There was an assortment of ages, cask types and finishes. It could create confusion and for all the benefits of a sleek new look, Benriach hasn’t completely shaken off that confused state.
The immediate reaction is why are there 2 10s and the same again for the 12 year old expressions? This is all due to the non-smoky and smoky approached adopted. Smoky of course means peated; I guess the marketing research showed that consumers are less inclined to pick up a bottle labelled peated and, instead, smoky might be more accessible, or at least forgiving?
The confusion will come from that single line on bottles and labels below that highlights the difference. In summary, watch what you click on, or pick up. In saying all of this, I’m additionally confused about the actual benefits of this approach. The differences in the 2-year maturation gap are slight. The triple cask approach seems interesting on paper, but are these full maturation or finished leftovers from the Billy Walker era? And the range doesn’t finish there with new arrivals at 21, 25 and 30 years of age. More information would have been beneficial and appreciated. For now, we’ll just dive into the twin releases…
Benriach Original Ten – review
This is bottled at 43% strength and has matured for 10 years in Bourbon barrels, Sherry casks and virgin oak. It’ll cost you £34.95 from the Whisky Exchange, £37.95 from Master of Malt, or £36.17 from Amazon.
Colour: a light honey.
On the nose: fresh wood, apricot, lemon jelly and wood chips. Soft barley drops, a hint of lime, dried reeds and apples. Adding water brings out Scottish tablet, more of those lemon oils and a touch of coconut.
In the mouth: initially bogged down in wood, this as you’ll see from the conclusions benefits from time. Vanilla, sawdust and the next day more characteristics with caramel, honey, an approachable softness and lemon. Adding water brings out a tangy nature, ginger and Rich Tea biscuits.
Benriach Smoky Ten – review
This is bottled at 46% strength and matured in a combination of Bourbon barrels, toasted virgin oak and Jamaican rum casks. Expect to pay £39.95 from the Whisky Exchange, whereas Master of Malt will demand £41.95.
Colour: dulled gold.
On the nose: a gentle, sweet, sugary smoke. Lapsang-ish in parts with just a hint of earth. Sweet cinnamon, butterscotch, malted loaf and fern. Water I felt wasn’t hugely beneficial here. Dried wood, flapjack and dried orange.
In the mouth: aye some smoke but again sweet with a touch of earth underpinning it all. Traditional features such as cardboard, black pepper are joined by brown sugar, more malted loaf and a black tea. Some soot on the finish with saline.
Benriach The Twelve – review
This release is bottled at 46% strength and has been matured in bourbon, sherry and port casks. This release is available from the Whisky Exchange for £41.95, or Master of Malt for £43.95, or £44.05 from Amazon.
On the nose: apricots, butterscotch, vanilla and zesty lemon. It’s more oily than the 10, buttery, pancakes and soft meadow fruits. Adding water unlocks apples especially, and wafers.
In the mouth: a mix of honey and caramel, chewy in parts thanks to that added strength providing more texture. There’s apples, more oils and butteriness. Water unlocks vanilla pod.
Benriach The Smoky Twelve – review
Bottled at 46% strength, this has been matured in a combination of Bourbon, Sherry and Marsala casks. This retails for £45.95 from the Whisky Exchange, or £47.95 from Master of Malt, or Amazon who are charging the exact same.
Colour: bashed gold.
On the nose: a barbeque residue, an old shoe, cornflour, brown sugar, pine needles and I’m just thinking about HP Brown Sauce when nosing this.
In the mouth: very one dimensional, smoky without saying and more of the BBQ flavours, driftwood and brown sugar, but nothing else beyond this limited profile.
All of these whiskies benefited from time. The first night of tasting, I felt these were too constrained by the wood. In some aspects, very unforgiving and uncouth. Then, the following day, a more Speyside nature stepped forward and the whiskies softened and opened up more.
The Original 10 is a solid offering, hence the score and we’d recommend you visit our scoring guide if you are in doubt as to what a 5 represents. It is affordable and I’m sure will please many as an easy-drinking, no thrills, end of the day affair. I can also see some value in it as a starter single malt for someone wanting to explore whisky. Perfectly pitched as the entry-level whisky to this distillery. The Smoky 10 loses some of the subtle elements of the Original. Depending on your mood, or the season, you could easily switch between them. Personally, the original has the edge as everyone is doing a smoky or a peated whisky nowadays, although the asking price is reasonable.
The Twelve isn’t a massive leap forward over the Original Ten. There is a nicer mouthfeel plus the oils, with the fruits coming forward a little more, but it is all softly done. As I said previously, there isn’t enough differentiation on the label or actually the contents. The 10’s and 12’s respectively are far too evenly matched.
The Smoky releases don’t offer much differentiation between them, if anything, they are even closer in standing than the unsmoked. The use of 3 cask types throughout gives everything a familiar feeling and I’m left a little bemused and confused at the decision to bottle 2 at 10 and 2 at 12. Less is more.
Bottom line is there are some solid whiskies on offer here from Benriach, but the execution overall feels confused and muddled. My own personal recommendation is the 10 Original – if this was bottled at 46%, I’d be willing to pay the 12-year price for the experience. It’d be a much better whisky and easily a 6 on our score. The other whiskies are just ok at best and in a market dominated by averageness, or visually in this case greyness; you need to do more to stand out.
Full sized bottled photographs kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange. Samples from Benriach. And there are commission links available if you wish to support Malt and explore these whiskies further.