Well, spring is upon us, that season when the flowers start to find their colour and the leaves of the trees and hedges display their wonderful shades of green. It’s a bright and warm season.. .or should be, but this is the Scottish Highlands and the sky is grey. As I look out from the dining room, the rain is licking the windows and running down in slow legs, like a full bodied whisky.
Today is the start of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, an occasion held over several days that allows the best distilleries of the region to be open and share their wares to the visiting folk. Over the next few days I’ll get out and about and share a dram of two, and talk whisky nonsense to all and any that will pin back their ears and listen.
To get me in the mood, I’ve driven the long distance (13 miles according to Google Maps) from home to Forres, and more specifically to Benromach Distillery. This distillery has graced the pages of Malt on a number of occasions, so I’ll just give a fleeting potted account of its modern history here.
The site has been owned and sold several times since first being founded in 1898. By 1983 the distillery was officially closed; step forward Gordon and MacPhail, the prominent independent bottlers. Fulfilling a desire to own a distillery, Benromach came under their control in 1993. In 1997, they took on the task of restoring it to working condition. The on site maltings remained closed and the ensuing works were designed to allow one operator to carry out the daily functions. In 1998, HRH Prince Charles (now HM King Charles III) was on site to officially re-open the distillery and Benromach has not looked back since.
The distillery releases a number of core bottles and a range of almost experimental offerings, these selling under the range name of “Contrasts.” A review of the distillery exclusive releases was carried out by Graeme in 2022; he did miss out on a couple, and because I have them sitting on the shelf in the house, I’ll take a look at those over the next two reviews.
But what about my visit today for the Festival? Well, Benromach has very generously laid on a number of free tours over the weekend. Remaining true to my heritage, I’m never one to knock back anything free, so I took the chance to book one when the tickets became available. I’d been to the distillery previously, but never on an official guided tour.
Meeting up in the well-run and well-stocked visitors centre, myself and the other guests were given a friendly welcome and introduced to our guide Pat. After a wee safety brief we headed outside, stopping to see the trap door on the road that the weekly delivery of barley is dropped dow. Then in the trough the door, the metal panels on the floor covering the barley conveyor belt giving a good ready route for us to follow.
Pat began to cover the story of the milling process. Heading up the stairs, we looked at mashing. All the time, Pat wass presenting us with the story of the dram; the washbacks sat awaiting our attention, the wooden lids open, allowing the beer like aroma to fill the room. Two men sit cleaning some of the other equipment; one of the guests, a retired lady from England, quietly says to me, “I’d be drunk if I had to work in these fumes all day,” she paused, “not that I’m complaining.” We shared a laugh and followed on with the group
Next was the stills, two wonderfully shiny copper stills, heavenly. Pat talked the group through the process of distillation without getting overly technical; it’s good to see how these guides clearly assess an audience and target their approach to the right level. In the corner was the spirit safe, suitably padlocked to prevent any overly investigative hands. Pat brought some bottled samples forward to allow the group to smell: the heads, tails, and heart of the runs.
From here we headed back outside to the rear of the still rooms. In a small area we found three operators stencilling and filling casks with new make spirit. Perhaps I managed to dip a finger in a bung hole and get a wee peak at something that will appear in 10 years or so.
Then, we were off and over to the dunnage warehouse. Stepping inside you could feel the temperature change. I had worn a kilt, as I often do, and I felt the air drop on my knees! The warehouse was pretty full; closest to us were some ex bourbon casks; Jim Beam and Marker’s Mark were two names I spotted. Sitting just above and behind these were some sherry casks, no stencilling visible, but once you start spending day after day looking at casks you just kind of know what they are.
Pat clearly had done more than a couple of tours, and the knowledge he imparted was more than enough to keep folk engaged. But, as we walked back to the visitors centre, we did share a chat about things and he remarked about when people start throwing chemistry questions, etc. in on the tours. We all know those type of people in life, don’t we?
Back at the visitors centre, one of the other guides had done the preparation work. Two already poured Glencairns were on the tables in front of each seat, Pat was quickly on hand with a bottle of Benromach 10. He guided us through the first dram before picking up the Benromach 15 and chatting as we enjoyed. There was a moment to sit and share some thoughts on our tour before I went to chat and thank Pat.
At that moment I spotted Susan Colville, Benromach Distillery’s Brand Home Manager. Susan spotted me at the same time and popped over to chat. Susan is well regarded by the whisky community in Scotland, having started her career as a guide at Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas, before working for Royal Mile Whiskies, AD Rattray, Douglas Laing, Wemyss, and Glenglassaugh. In 2018 she was inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich, a prestigious society in Scotland that recognises those who have shown an outstanding commitment to Scotch Whisky.
I had only spoken to Susan a couple of weeks before my visit and she had spotted my name on the guest list, so knew I was going to be in. It’s good to try to maintain friendly relations in a field you enjoy. As much as you may think the Scotch whisky industry is fairly large, in terms of the community it is pretty close, and people all tend to know each other.
When you spend as much time writing or studying about whisky as I do, then having people who you can quickly drop a question to is often a godsend! You only need to ask Connal Mackenzie of Ardnamurchan; our children share a class at school and he probably gets hit with a fair few random questions from me! But, getting a face to face meeting with Susan was beneficial. My visit to the distillery was planned with this article in mind, and it’s always nice to almost get the slightly unofficial nod of approval when you tell someone you’re going to name drop them.
So, I implied above I was going to look at a whisky that was missing from the last time Malt looked at Benromach. This one comes from their Contrasts range and, whilst you can still locate it, it is not the easiest to find. It’s the Cara Gold Malt; I was lucky to try several drams of this whilst visiting the Dornoch Castle whisky bar in Scotland, and I enjoyed them so much that, later that afternoon, I picked up a bottle!
Benromach Cara Gold Malt – Review
This was £45 at time of purchase; a couple of sites have it in stock, around that same price, pushing toward £50.
Colour: A light gold.
On the nose: Bright and tropical, somewhat fragranced, yet welcome. Perhaps refreshingly, the barley is the star of this whisky and it is present on the nose, a buttery hint in-twines.
In the mouth: The palate is a wee bit more peppery but not off putting. There is citrus fruit, orange, perhaps a wee bit of a sour grapefruit coming in, the vanillas and butterscotch of the bourbon casks are present and there is the very gentle hint of that peated barley coming through from Benromach’s standard malt. The finish is perhaps edging on medium; sweet, smoky, vanilla toffee.
Benromach is a distillery that, if you get the chance to visit, then you should. The staff on site are fantastic; not just the guides, but even the operational staff are incredibly friendly and open to questions.
But, in regards to the product, Benromach is a distillery that can at times frustrate folk. The whisky they put out is far from bad, in fact it’s pretty damn good, but we all see things in different lights and enjoy different things. So it’s not uncommon to see people have a moan that Benromach should perhaps up their ABV a little, or perhaps be more transparent (such as if an expression is chill filtered or not, that kind of thing). People have even moaned that they don’t like the new bottles/packaging! In my experience I don’t think people, in general terms, are disappointed in with Benromach… they are just, perhaps, frustrated that what is really a great whisky, could in fact be an amazing whisky.
As for the Cara Gold: for me this is where the contrasts range pushes Benromach to step into that amazing whisky realm,. The Cara Gold, is natural coloured, it is non-chill filtered, it has a 46% ABV, and there is an age statement of 11 years, and it has a “distilled” year of 2010 and “bottled” year of 2022 statement on the label… so is this an “integrity bottling?”
I enjoy this expression, but with it being a limited release its going to be one of those that I’ll perhaps take of the shelf every now and then, and maybe pour a dram for someone if I like them, but really I’m keeping this to myself! Reflecting that its limited and I may not pick up another bottle has made me knock it down a wee bit, but that does not reflect the liquid in the bottle.
“Reflecting that its limited and I may not pick up another bottle has made me knock it down a wee bit, but that does not reflect the liquid in the bottle.” Just to be clear: Does this mean you would have given it an 8/10 if it were more widely available?
When you look at the scoring and the last sentence in the 8 banding “will I grieve when it’s finished” to be honest yes, when this becomes a bottle kill I think I will be a wee bit sad, so aye, limited availability is, in my humble opinion, it’s letdown
Garry, glad to see you got back to your spiritual home for a visit. Lovely write up. I was briefly in Elgin this week for some Crisis Management training. As I walked past the Gordon & MacPhail shop I thought “this could be expensive” and after the training I popped in. A beautiful display of Benromach before me, the Polish wood single cask stood out and is so well priced. I would have parted with my money there and then with the slightest bit of interest from a sales person but unfortunately the 3 chaps in the store could not be less interested and I left Benromach-less as a matter of principle. So sad.