BenRiach is a distillery that doesn’t get much credit or focus. Overshadowed by the more illustrious and desirable GlenDronach within the Brown-Forman stable. Even here at Malt, we haven’t pursued much BenRiach in recent times, including the Billy Walker period, when releases were more plentiful than face masks and came in a variety of ages.
And, when we talk about age and variety, BenRiach, has it all to offer. Few distilleries in recent times can bottle the array of releases from 1970s upwards and in a peated or unpeated format. Then, the cavalcade of casks and some dubious finishes from the Walker clan that was to be expected. At the heart of it all is this gorgeous distillery that has a unique history. Yet it is an outpost we drift by at retail, as much as when we’re on the road to Elgin: blink and it’s gone.
The persisting fashions in whisky right now are for peat and cask strength. Bring these two institutions together and you have a combination that will sell. Over the years, I have been a cask strength lover as much as anyone else, but I also acknowledge that some whiskies are bottled at a strength that doesn’t do them justice.
For instance, there’s been an array of young whiskies from the Malt Society with strengths above 60% and in reality, many of these benefit from a splash of water. I’m still dumbfounded by those who just don’t even try to add a drop. Instead, sticking vehemently to their guns that cask strength means that the whisky should be best savoured in its most natural guise. Heck, I’d expect that if the bottle contained chunks of cask these chewy nuggets would be seen as an appetiser to some.
At the end of the day, a whisky is your drink and you can add lemonade for all I care. The focus on such a natural state can be unhealthy for your palate that is shot when the alcohol and burn takes control. Congratulations! You’ve had that 8 year old at 64% and proven what a robust whisky drinker you are – but have you truly appreciated what’s in the glass?
The cannier drinker will adopt a try and see approach. The same applies to independent bottlers who appreciate the power of water and its benefits. You might think you’re picking up something at cask strength because the quoted abv is around what you expect. However, I know of a handful who actually water down their releases prior to bottling just to enhance the contents. Sure, from a business aspect it stretches out the juice and makes things more profitable, but those that I’ve talked to on this subject are doing it not for financial gain. They see the tangible benefits for the consumer and as far I as know, there’s never been a complaint received about such an approach. If anything, think of it as a bonus service and a premixed whisky. They know in advance from their time with the cask, that water brings a benefit whether it is unlocking new flavours or aromas, softening the harshness of the cask or alcohol and they’ve made their product better straight out of the bottle.
So, we have a couple of official cask strength releases from the distillery. I’ve also taken the opportunity to liberate an old SMWS BenRiach review, which comes from the deepest darkest corner of the Malt drafts. Ages ago, or April 2019 to be precise, and apologies for this, I started a BenRiach vertical and hit a brick wall after 2 releases. As the other isn’t cask strength, it’ll have to wait patiently for a while longer. But come in number 12.17 Punk’s Not Dead, your time is up.
Benriach Peated Cask Strength Batch 1 – review
Bottled at 56% strength, this release features a mix of Oloroso Sherry casks and bourbon barrels. Currently available via Amazon for £59.30.
On the nose: peat, wet moss, lemon, sunflower oil and hemp fabric. Vanilla without question, some cereals and white chocolate. Water isn’t greatly beneficial here.
In the mouth: peat, peat and yet more peat. It suffocates any nuances that might have existed. On my palate, the peat overrides everything from start to finish. The sherry casks? Must be a token gesture as they don’t seem to have an influence here. Let’s try to dig a little. Used chalk, some sea salt, apples and wet cardboard, but that’s your lot.
Benriach Cask Strength Batch 2 – review
Bottled at 60.6% strength, this release is comprised of bourbon, sherry and virgin oak casks. You can purchase this via Amazon for £58.23.
On the nose: a buttery caramel, soft vanilla and crushed almonds. Cocoa, honey, hazelnuts and mace. Some sweet ginger and marmalade give this whisky a real sweet edge. Water softens things bringing out a floral aspect, parma violets and a peppery nature.
In the mouth: more sweetness with the virgin oak and sherry casks running the show. A sticky honey, more marmalade, vanilla nougat. A youthful and limited whisky driven by casks. Adding water unlocks some oils, oatmeal, orange and cherry menthol.
SMWS 12.17 Punk’s Not Dead – review
This is an 8 year old distilled on 29th September 2009 and resided in a 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel. 210 bottles were extracted at a robust 59% strength and this would have set you back £49 from the Society.
Colour: A light honey.
On the nose: Vanilla toffee and stale white bread. Sugar puffs give us some cereal basis and sweetness moving into popcorn. White grapes provide freshness and there’s a touch of vinegar on the edge with a gentle, buttery crème brûlée vibe.
In the mouth: Simple but drinkable. Traces of caramel, hints of vanilla with marzipan and almonds. A touch of spice on the finish but little else.
Well, if you pick up the BenRiach peated looking for just peat, you’ve scored. This is a modern whisky; all peat upfront and little else. I prefer a little more complexity and restraint. And it is of questionable value, as I can walk into a nearby supermarket and pick up a white label Islay retailer exclusive, which pretty much gives me the same experience for a much lower price. Or even looking at the wide range of releases BenRiach offer, you can purchase the Birnie Moss Intensely Peated, bottled at 48% and 35ppm for just £36.34 via Master of Malt – it begs the question why pay almost double for less complexity?
When I was having the Cask Strength Batch 2, it took me back to the Glenglassaugh Revival and funnily enough, the Glenallachie Cask Strength. The limitations of the respective whiskies, their shallow nature and being driven by cask rather than distillate. After this particular whisky, I’m left questioning what is the character of BenRiach? Where has it gone? This could be in reality from one of several distilleries. Albeit the price is ok and it is naturally presented, but I’m paying money to experience BenRiach and not virgin oak from America or European sherry oak. It feels overly engineered and orchestrated.
Punk is never dead as we all know, but this release is more the Sid Vicious solo period, than anything memorable. Snatched before its time in the cask? I believe so and while drinkable, you cannot shake the sense that it is filler.
So, not a great trio by any stretch of the imagination. I know that BenRiach can do much better than this. However, I have noted that all of these releases have mainly sold out, which shows you the desire for cask strength and peat whenever possible. From that perspective, these are successes for their owners, but how many punters would return for a second purchase?
Photographs from The Whisky Exchange, excluding the SMWS snap. There are some commission links within this article, excluding the Society link. Such options don’t influence our opinion or score, but we just like to point out that they exist.