What comes to mind when you think of Speyside whiskies?
Now, when I say Speyside, I am of course referring to the region (rather than the Speyside distillery and their range of whiskies under the Spey banner, which are starting to turn many a head of those in the know). As one of Scotland’s five whisky regions (six, if we separate the islands), Speyside has a reputation for light, delicate, elegant whiskies that perhaps suit the more cautious – or newer – whisky drinker, who doesn’t want any big, impactful flavours that may put them off for good.
It is fair to say there is some basis for that perception, with the likes of Glen Moray’s Elgin Classic and Glenlivet’s 12 year old front and centre on our supermarket shelves flying the banner for the region. That’s not to say I think there is anything wrong with those particular whiskies, along with some of the others that fit into the budget supermarket category, but most Malt readers will know that we only need to dig a fraction deeper to see there is much more to Speyside.
As examples: Mortlach, Benriness, and Cragganmore, with their notably “meaty” characters, are far from being light and delicate. They very much go against the stereotype we are all introduced to at some point early in our journey with whisky. Of course, you won’t see those distilleries represented as a single malt in your average supermarket here in the UK. There is a huge amount of Speyside whisky that we have to work harder to find as a single malt, and for that we turn to the specialist retailers and independent bottlers.
I love Speyside whiskies; even the lighter style whiskies can be packed with interesting and subtle flavours worthy of our attention. I have reviewed Glenlossie, Tomintoul, and Mannochmore in my fairly short amount of time writing for Malt. However, I do think the pigeonholing of regions is responsible for putting some whisky drinkers off exploring further. There are a number of distilleries in the region that would rather be labelled as Highland, and Aberlour seem to switch between the two.
When it comes to heavily peated whiskies, Islay is the first place that comes to mind, but other regions are now putting some of the big names over there in the shade. Just a stone’s throw from Islay on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory distillery produces Ledaig, which is one of my favourite peated whiskies right now, above pretty much anything Islay is giving us. The 10- and 18-year-old are a triumph, in my eyes, and very much priced for the drinker. Then there’s Springbank’s Longrow and Kilkerran’s Heavily Peated range, which are fabulous also.
Speyside is certainly not a place you would think of when it comes to the heavily peated style of whisky, but there are some, and Tomintoul produce one under the Old Ballantruan name. I reviewed the non-age statement version a few months ago, and thought it was pretty damn good.
All this leads me to the subject of today’s review of a far-from-typical-Speysider: Benromach. Purchased back in 1993 by the famous independent bottler Gordon and MacPhail, the distillery was finally brought back online in 1998.
Benromach is much bolder and fuller bodied than the Speyside stereotype. It’s a fairly small and very old-fashioned sort of distillery; everything is done manually and without the assistance of computers. All the whisky is matured in dunnage warehouses and the sherry casks have been coming from the same Bodega for more than a hundred years. They have just one wash and one spirit still, which are half the size of those you would see at many other distilleries. Cloudy worts, long fermentation times, and the use of both brewer’s and distiller’s yeast all add to the character of the finished spirit. Only a small fraction of their production is dedicated to the heavily peated style, with the rest at a much more restrained 12ppm.
The spine of their core range is presented at 43% ABV, which has put me off exploring their range more thoroughly, although the 10-year-old is still a good whisky despite the low strength. I do wish they would give us the natural presentation we all want these days, but they do provide a small selection of malts that meet our 46%-or-above, un-chill filtered and natural colour criteria, including the one I am reviewing today.
Benromach Contrasts: Peat Smoke comes in two versions. There is one matured in 100% first fill ex-bourbon, and then there is this one, matured in 100% first fill Oloroso sherry casks. We don’t get an age statement, but we do get a distillation date of 2012 and a bottling date of 2021. Therefore, it is safe to assume this is either eight or nine years old. It’s peated to 55ppm, which, for reference, is similar to Ardbeg. It is available from Master Of Malt, priced at £46.95.
Benromach Contrasts: Peat Smoke Sherry Cask Matured – Review
On the nose: Rich, creamy toffee, demerara sugar and bonfire smoke, with one of the biggest smoked bacon notes I can recall in a whisky for some time; rub a little on your hands for the full effect! Judged blind, I could easily think we were trying a sherried Caol Ila. There’s a bit of a medicinal nature to the peat influence, with deep heat and sticking plasters. It’s not all sweet toffee and smoke, it’s fruity too. I’m getting peaches, which I did not expect at all, along with caramelised banana and sour yuzu citrus. A hint of rubber and damp hay.
In the mouth: More of the rich toffee from the first fill sherry, with a luxuriously thick mouth feel. It’s a very fatty, estery spirit, and the addition of just a few drops of water turn the whisky lovely and cloudy. Bonfire smoke and ash, which builds in its ashiness through the development. Sour cherries, red apple, charred barbecue meats and peppery spice, which soon moves to warming ginger and winter green. There’s also cinder toffee and a stony pebble earthiness. An increasingly ashen finish, with toffee apple, vanilla cream and salt.
Funky and a little bit dirty, which is a fantastic combination when it comes to sherry and peat. It’s sweet, but not as sweet as you may expect on the palate from the first fill sherry, with the sour fruit, meaty flavours, and the salt giving it a nice balance.
Previous incarnations of this under the old branding have been bottled at cask strength, and many will be disappointed that we are now only getting 46%, which I can understand. I would say: don’t let it hold you back from buying a bottle,= if that is the only reason. This is a very good whisky at the lower ABV, and – at less than £50 – it’s priced right, too.
Pull up a leather wing back chair in front of the fireplace, pour yourself a generous measure of this, and you’ll be as happy as can be. Either that, or just sit in your pants in front of the TV; it’s your dram after all. Needless to say, I really like it.