Benromach distillery was initially founded in 1898 in Forres, Speyside.
Like many others, it went silent during the ebb and flow of whisky’s popularity in the 20th century. The distillery was mothballed by United Distillers’ subsidiary J&W Hardie Limited in 1983. According to Philip Morrice in his Schweppes Guide, the output from Benromach was regarded as one of the finest Highland malt whiskies. It was occasionally bottled by Gordon & MacPhail and Wm Cadenheads, but largely went into blends such as the Antiquary Deluxe Old Scotch, which was a brand also owned by J&W Hardie.
In 1993 the distillery was purchased by Gordon & MacPhail and underwent an extensive refurbishment. Benromach reopened to produce spirit in 1998, exactly 100 years after the founding. As the first new spirit ran off the still George Urquhart (Mr George) was sat next to the sprit safe and tasted the new make from their new distillery, celebrating a long held ambition of the Urquhart family to distil whisky as well as mature and bottle it.
The decision to reopen a distillery was quite bold in 1993.The whisky loch was still very full, and the popularity of Scotch had yet to reach such giddy heights as today. The only other significant distillery development at the time was Isle of Arran. Perhaps that contributed to the conservative size of Benromach: just a single wash and spirit still produce the whisky. Output was increased in 2013 and 2017; although no changes to the stills were made, additional washbacks were installled and a warehousing for the maturing whisky was constructed. The output of the distillery is still only around 400,000l up from 150,000l when it reopened.
The additional production will likely begin to filter through to new markets – such as the US and Asia – from 2023. That year also marks both the 125th anniversary of the distillery itself, as well as the 25th anniversary of the reopening by the Urquhart family.
There is limited information currently about a forward plan for 2023, largely because the business has been focussing on building the Cairn Distillery 23 miles further South at Grantown-on-Spey. Current estimates are that the Cairn will be due to open around September 2022. The Cairn will owe a lot to the lessons learned at Benromach over the last 24 years, and particularly those hard lessons learned by Keith Cruickshank who has been Distillery Manager throughout the revival period.
Earlier this year during a distillery visit it was rumoured that production and visitor centre staff would move South to The Cairn to get things up and running and allow for a period of refurbishment at Benromach prior to reopening for the anniversary. It is unclear if this remains the plan given the delays in completing the Cairn.
When Benromach reopened, the distillery targeted at a forgotten style of whisky: the smoky Speyside whisky that was usually lightly peated, yet still light and fruity. By the 1970s and 1980s Speyside distillers had abandoned peat in favour of the sweet smooth style of whisky which remains the ‘character’ of Speyside today. Benromach is typically lightly peated to 12ppm, but has used malt between 8ppm and 30ppm for various special editions. In line with Gordon & MacPhail cask policies, the casks at Benromach are generally of high quality.
In mid 2020 Benromach rebranded to a modern bold typeset and clear age statements. I understand this approach is driven by consumers in the USA who appear to appreciate the bold signposting, or who don’t respond well to tiny text on whisky labels. The colours of the distillery whitewash and bold red painted woodwork inspire the colour scheme.
So, what of the output of the distillery that is finally coming of age? Well, I have a review of three distillery exclusive casks below, and will hopefully get round to reviewing the core range in due course. In the meantime, Andrew has reviewed the Contrasts: Peat Smoke favourably , though Mark P was less enamoured with older batches of the Cask Strength; prior to that the last time Malt visited the distillery was as long ago as 2018.
Benromach 2006 to 2022 Distillery Exclusive Polish Oak – Review
Hogshead. 58.1% ABV. £140.
Colour: Builder’s tea.
On the nose: Perfumed oak, polished mahogany, wax crayons, Derwent Artists Pencil shavings, BBQ peaches, bruised read apples, vanilla poached rhubarb, dusty baking spices. Water brings out more fruit, raspberry and redcurrant. Really complex like the best American Bourbons.
In the mouth: Sweet and smooth oak character, followed by gorse flowers, tropical muesli, heather smoke and dried pineapple. Fresh ginger, Scottish macaroon, lovely oily spiced finish that clings to the tongue. With water it mellows and allows the complexity from the nose to become easier to enjoy. A great funkiness from over ripe fruit develops too.
Really interesting; something different from Scotch. Unusual, inviting whisky that would no doubt develop and offer something new each time you revisit the bottle.
Benromach 2003 to 2021 18 Years Old – Review
First-fill ex-bourbon cask. 57.4% ABV. £110. Distillery (and Distillery website) exclusive.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Initially quite tight on the nose, slightly spicy from the oak and peat, the fruit is very restrained. With water it becomes more biscuity, malty, dusty slightly smoky vanilla, a fruity funk developing.
In the mouth: Thick and oily; the peat gives a rich robustness. Some smoke. An effervescent bright white fruit and more gently tingling spicy peat, oak, and remarkably drinkable at full strength. With a few drops of water, it is much more lively, fruity and the funkiness of the fruit really comes out. With a slightly bitter finish.
The funky fruit notes are a real feature here; the peat is almost imperceptible beyond the richness it provides. Great body and complexity.
Benromach 2010 to 2021 Fresh Sherry 11 Years Old – Review
59.8% ABV. £74.99.
On the nose: Heavy rich sherry, dark fruit, plum, blackberry, boiled caramel, some new leather, sticky toffee pudding, almond pralines prepared over an open fire in a copper pan. Sweet toffee popcorn. With water, a whiff of marmite, treacle toffee and more butter.
In the mouth: refined sherry, oak spices prominent before gentle spicy peat and an antiseptic bitterness. Slightly simple but a great balance and integration between forceful peat and sweet sherry. Water helps dilute the sherry and let the spirit through.
For me the peat is a little too medicinal here from an otherwise refined dram. Great whisky, not overly complex.