A recent Patreon poll of Malt supporters called out for more readily available whiskies for us to review, which got me thinking about how I would define this for myself, and then procure bottles to review over the next few months. “Readily available” is a relative term which can vary from country to country, or even state to state within individual countries.
Another associated and equally ambiguous term I hear whisky fans talking about is “entry level” whisky. Sometimes it’s mentioned in complimentary tones; other times dismissively, referring to the lower end of the core range. From all the various accounts of people’s entry into the world of whisky I’ve yet to hear of somebody who had a taste of something like Chivas 12 and whose life was permanently altered, becoming a lifelong whisky fan.
Whisky brands know this too, hence why there is such investment in cocktails and sparkly-launch events featuring more cocktails. The Johnny Walker experience in Edinburgh heavily features cocktails and mixed drinks in the standard tour. Cigarette companies do not rely on cheap, lightly flavoured cigarettes to lure people into the taste of tobacco. In reality, both tobacco and whisky are acquired tastes. Ultimately, I believe we should stop using the term altogether, as it’s unhelpful.
As I’ve previously highlighted, distillery tours are hugely effective in embedding the brand, the brand story, and the sense of place in those who visit, turning reluctant tourists into permanent whiskyphiles. Those experiences are a very difficult thing to export.
Taking a completely new approach to marketing whisky to non-whisky drinkers is the Monkey Shoulder brand. They have announced a mixing spirit which is a blend of new-make grain spirits without any wood influence. This takes whisky into blanco tequila or white rum territory. I’m intrigued to try it once it becomes available. I like to taste new make spirit but how will it taste in a blended and reduced strength format?
We don’t cover many cocktails or blended drinks on Malt, even in the terms of Malternatives we tend to start at the level of sophistication that will allow these drinks to be consumed on their own without mixers… albeit some fall short of our haughty expectations.
The next irritating categorisation of whisky we make is “Supermarket whisky.” Not too distant from “entry level” whisky, and equally talked about in both positive and negative ways. I’ve previously written about the wild fluctuations in price from these whiskies, and it now seems big brands are being put off. Balvenie has ended relationships with many UK supermarkets due to the deep-discounting which they view as damaging their brand. Highland Park are pulling their core 12 year old from the shelves for similar reasons, although the more recently launched 10 year old and some Non-Age Statement (NAS) offerings may be available. It remains a blunt instrument for classification. “Supermarket whisky” is another term I’d like to see condemned to the trash.
The most consistent distinction we can reliably make is between “official bottlings,” from the distillers’ companies themselves, and the “independent bottlings” from companies who purchase casks from brokers or the distillers themselves.
Within the official bottlings you will find a core range, usually widely available in many countries around the world and more limited offerings which may turn up in some regions and not in others. For example: the Balvenie Tun releases. The distribution of Independent bottlers varies widely around the globe as does their output; often focussed on single casks, each release can comfortably be less than 250 bottles. Most of my whisky budget goes to indie bottlers, which then feeds my reviews.
The tide is turning now; with cask prices getting out of hand, indies have no choice but to pass those prices on to consumers. The official bottles are beginning to look better value for money and the quality is improving within the official stocks, too.
In the last 10 years, faced with competition from new distilleries around the world, the Scotch distillers have focussed once again on the quality of spirit they produce. Distilleries like Glen Garioch are returning to direct fired stills which only makes sense in terms of flavour. More core whisky is presented naturally without filtering or artificial colour, and at a higher strength. Many of these improvements are reaching the market now as 10 year old single malt.
Let’s try to pull this together and see if we can focus on a particular area for reviewing over the next few months liberally interspersed with interesting or unusual whiskies along the way too. Below gives the red target area for reviews and yellow represents perhaps my wider interest which I’ll no doubt touch upon occasionally. Feel free to comment on whether this approach hits the mark or not for you.
Today I bring you a review of core bottles from Benromach Distillery to rebalance my previous review of their distillery exclusive bottlings. It’s not the complete range; I believe a 10, a 12 and at least one Contrasts (the Cara Gold) are missing.
Benromach 15 Year Old – Review
First fill bourbon and sherry casks. 43% ABV. £65.
On the nose: Warm, rich, sweet honey and brown sugar, nice prominent peat, paprika, clove, cinnamon, peppercornio, toasted buttered hot-cross buns, slightly industrial, rich heavy oak sawdust, yeasty malt.
In the mouth: Smooth and sweet, smoky then rich buttery baking spices, lingering spice from the peat, slightly fruity between more waves of smoky spicy peat and sweet malt. Heavy spirit and a spicy finish with hints of tobacco.
I think this is a great balance of bourbon and sherry, and is a superb substitute for the overly sherried Springbank 15. You heard it here first (as far as I know): anyone missing their Springbank fix should head out and get a bottle of this 15. It’s not a direct replacement, but it’s close. I often find 15-year-old whiskies a little oaky; there is common trend to use a lot of first fill bourbon, but where it fails to work with the likes of Glencadam’s gentle fruity character it works very well with the peat and sherry here.
Benromach Contrasts: Organic – Review
Virgin oak casks, 2012 to 2020. 46% ABV. £41.
On the nose: Spicy spirit eases with time in the glass, fruity white orchard fruits, hard pear and green apple, buttery vanilla, sweet mash, raw pastry, and mineral clay.
In the mouth: Spirit forward, bright, peppery at first but this does ease after a couple of hours in the glass, very malty, full of vanilla, fruity freshness burst through if you have the patience for it.
A good dram at a fair price; it’s not as immediate as the likes of Tomatin Legacy but – for those who give it time – it really comes out of itself. One of those drams you could be unsure about for half the bottle and then love the second half entirely.
Benromach Contrasts Peat Smoke Sherry Casks – Review
First fill sherry casks 2012 to 2021. 46% ABV. £41. Previously reviewed by Andrew in 2021.
Colour: Deep gold (rusty, thanks Andrew)
On the nose: Thick sweet sherry, followed by spicy peat, smoky and rich, slightly industrial, some TCP, furniture polish, caramelised apple, rich baking spices, raisins, dates, honeycomb, buttery toffee.
In the mouth: Balanced sherry; not too sweet, with a nice savoury note, almost meaty, soy sauce too, oyster sauce, treacle, Deep Heat, earthy, like sweeping up the recently vacated rugby changing rooms, a lingering spicy finish with more iodine, bandages.
I’d challenge you to comment with any quality peated and sherried whiskies for sale below this price point. It’s tremendously good value. Sherry and peat only does so much for me, so I’ve scored this a full two points below Andrew. I also note: I’m reviewing this in balmy Scottish summer weather and Andrew enjoyed his in early December. I expect that has a good 1 point influence, too. We certainly both really enjoyed this.
Benromach Cask Strength Vintage 2010 Batch 1 – Review
Exclusively first fill sherry casks. 58.5% ABV. £60.
On the nose: Woody spices and a punch of ethanol, smoky, gently smoky, dry vanilla, more baking spices, some green apple skin, two-part epoxy, pencil shavings, a little cocoa, Crayola crayons, plasticine and a little biscuity.
In the mouth: At full strength it’s a little prickly, but with water it gives more mineral notes, fresh fruitiness is more red fruits and darker dried figs and raisins, vanilla, honey, not too much sherry here given its first fill, some spicy oak and soft smoke. This takes a lot of water before it begins to sing.
A little hard to dial in with the water; I just wouldn’t drink this without water. It does begin to develop well with water and become quite enjoyable. Whilst I’d recommend the Benromach 15 over the Springbank 15, there is no contest when it comes to this and the Springer 12 Cask Strength, but there are similarities which Springer fans may enjoy, albeit perhaps not the diehards!
Benromach 21 Year Old – Review
First fill bourbon and sherry casks. 43% ABV. £110.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Smoky, fruity sweetness, a slight char, honey-nut cornflakes, praline, milk chocolate, toasted oak, unscented artificial candle wax, honeydew melon, slightly herbal with a nice depth.
In the mouth: Fruity sweetness, soft malt surrounded in whisps of smoke. Custard apple, light toffee, baked apple with oak spices intermingling, some spicy peat, the finish is short with some light fruit but quite dry.
Quite tasty, and not badly priced, but the 43% in the core range does not carry enough of the subtle flavours for this age of whisky. This is the oldest age statement since the distillery was revived. The 40 year old releases are from older stocks held by Gordon & MacPhail. It’s not the flagship I was expecting, really, because I hoped for a little more life, some more fruit and a little effervescence.
All photos courtesy of Benromach.