After checking in with one of England’s newest upstarts, Henstone [WLP}, let’s see where one of Scotland’s established distilleries is at. ‘A World of Flavour’, is Brown-Foreman’s current marketing slogan for Benriach.
Benriach’s history in brief:
- Opened in 1898 – just before the Pattison crash – it closed two years later, though the maltings remained in operation for the next 100 years [until 1998].
- Re-opened in 1965, the focus – according to our host Stewart Buchanan – was to produce a whisky to appeal to a sweeter palate.
- The distillery closes once again around 2002, but is taken over & re-opened in 2003 by Billy Walker [& Intra Trading].
- Brown-Forman buys Benriach from Billy Walker in 2016, and bestows Rachel Barrie with role of master blender in 2017.
SW tells us:
- ‘Vibrant when young, it matures well – especially in refill casks where fruits take on a more tropical edge and extra spiciness steadily develops‘, [the key words here being ‘refill casks’].
WF‘s view ties in nicely:
- ‘The old 10 yo by the previous owners was really uninspiring but new owner Billy Walker did a tremendous work by tasting all casks that used to lie in the warehouses, which allowed him to select top notch stuff for all (I think) new bottlings that were put into the market since the takeover. Older Benriachs are usually uberfruity (not unlike old Clynelishes, Bowmores and Lochsides), displaying superb notes of passion fruits and tangerines,…. Benriach also jumped on the ‘finishing’ bandwagon since 2006-2007, and I don’t like the results as much as I like their ‘natural’ ones but I’m sure they have their reasons that they just cannot escape‘.
From recent experience, a Benriach tasting is inevitably an exploration of wood. Given my penchant for distillate-led/driven malts, I am wondering why I signed up for this event. I guess I feel obliged every now and again to revisit the core range of distilleries I tend to neglect, something I would invariably do at festivals before the non-zombie apocalypse manifested. Benriach is certainly one of those distilleries that – in the spirit of Roy’s V-pub entitled ‘The Ignored ‘ – I tend to walk past, simply because Benriach’s contemporary output has invariably been [too] woody [and tannic] to the point that the spirit is often lost, or at best, coerced. Having said that, well-matured stocks can offer a different perspective.
To the juice then, courtesy of The Spirits Embassy and hosted by Brown-Forman Global Brand Ambassador, Stewart Buchanan. Let’s see where I’m at with it all in 2021 [see video link HERE].
The 10yo is made up from bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and virgin oak – unsurprisingly perhaps, much like Billy Walker’s current Glenallachie’s then.
- N: Crisp, sweetish, sawdusty, a hint of peat,.. not a great deal else to see.
- T: Starting crisp yet watery, it moves swiftly towards a briny sawn woodiness that is brought on, we are told, by virgin casks that Benriach has been utilising as a part of its maturation program since the 1980s. The honeyed fruit sweet notes that our host [Stewart Buchanan] suggests we look out for here, are overshadowed on this occasion by our [superior] warm-up dram – Glenmorangie’s ‘Original’ 10.
- F: Light brine, sawdusty, drying,…
- C: Though not particularly kind on the palate, overall, it’s decent enough. Thank goodness for the peat.
Scores 80 points
Benriach 12yo  Ob. The Twelve 46% WB84.01
- N: Made up of bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and port casks, a sweeter grape-led cask commitment over the 10yo translates as even more tannins in addition to the [cask] sappiness. Descriptors of note include honey over apples, a hint of grape-y cannabis ~ camphor,…
- T: More fruitiness [again] in the form of milky toffee into stewed apples, cherries, [foam candy] bananas,.. but these are peripherals. In the main, we’ve more sawdusty and tannic action which makes this feel far stronger/fiercer than 46%, but let’s not forget that it’s Benriach’s ‘hit/punch’ that is the appeal,.. and not the turn-off as it might be for others like myself – one man’s opinion and all that.
- F: Far from ‘A World of Flavour’, it moves between just a few limited vista points, all very cask driven with a milky dry finish. Even our host talks of the spice tingles coming from the oak,… Enough from me already.
- C: I prefer this to the 10yo with regards to colour characteristics, but my palate already feels stripped and we are only two drams in.
Scores 82 points
In truth, I’m just hanging out for the 21 & 25yo. Leaving ‘The Smoky Twelve’ till last then, I march on with the old guns before my palate packs up.
Benriach 21yo  Ob. The Twenty One 46% WB86.43
Made up of bourbon, sherry, virgin oak, and Bordeaux wine – that’s more casks than blades on a Gillette Mach3!
- N: I don’t mean to sound surprised, but this is actually very decent. I reckon it’s the wine-cask influence that I’m turning towards most favourably, as well as the dense Ledaig-ish peatiness,… vanilla,..
- T: Same cask-driven story again really, but the years have consolidated a tannic > sappy youthful mix into more of a curious soup. And the spirit? It’s somewhere in & around that briny soup. Very straight-ahead in character, the peatiness remains impressively vibrant, even after 21 years.
- F: Not too long on cask spicy/briny > aromatic radish/rocket heat into ashy dry honeys, barley sugar, vanilla,… However, larger mouthfuls provide a more sustaining energetic fruit-tannin peaty experience.
- C: Not a dissimilar story to Benriach’s younger models, but I really like the nose. Furthermore, that cask vibrancy coupled with age starts to pay dividends, big time.
Scores 87 points
Benriach 25yo  Ob. The Twenty Five 46% WB87
This one is made up of bourbon barrels, sherry casks, virgin oak, and madeira casks.
- N: Whilst I liked the Bordeaux wine cask influence on the 21yo, the imparted madeira character of this one easily trumps it. Though a resinous sappy tannic mildly saline soup once again, we are now beginning to see a slick briny greasy weightiness that offers up suggestives beyond the nuts & bolts.
- T: With a salivating slick [cabbage-like] sweetness, all that wine influence remains candidly evident, as too, those ageing/aged phenols. At 25 years+, things have inevitably begun to converge, and yet, dislocate at the same time.
- F: Still ringing true of both sherry and madeira cask influences, we’ve a simple enough conclusion, though the whole mix frankly comes across as a bit of a repair job. The vibrancy of those casks continues to chug away, still biting, still tannic, sappy, briny,… still that lingering ashy heat,… lemonade popsicles?.
- C: 10 years or 25 years, it’s swings and roundabouts. Sure, the oldies win out significantly, but at what cost? This one: £300+ at time of writing.
Scores 87 points
Back to the ‘Smoky Twelve’ then, though given the phenol levels in Benriach’s whiskies across the board, it’s not such a big deal saving this till last as opposed to the middle of the line-up. It was more a palate-preserving exercise.
Benriach 12yo  Ob. The Smoky Twelve 46% WB85.53
Cask mix: bourbon barrels, sherry casks, marsala wine.
- N: The brininess and sappy vibrancy is a different prospect with this smoke-driven dram.
- T: A surprisingly weak arrival, initially, before the pine-y sappy > salty~washy < = peaty middle beds in.
- F: Lingers contently enough, becoming very smoky with caramel < toasted popcorn and a briny [chilli gherkin] heat.
- C: This one works well enough for me. Price? +/- £45
Scores 83 points
I’m as bemused over Benriach now as I was before. I also know many peeps love these big bold vibrant hitters. No doubt I’ll refresh myself with Benriach’s core range in another five years time when things will have naturally evolved once again.