I’m generally suspicious of brands with too many product variations. Think audio cables or mulch or yogurt. Someone is trying to take advantage of me, trying to milk every last dollar out of my wallet. I picture a coterie of suit-clad marketers wheezing with laughter as consumers run out to buy the next, the newest, the best.
Whisky is no different. When I visit my local liquor store, I gravitate to the brands with one style of whisky, maybe two, not the brand with a dedicated bookcase. Maybe I’m just a simple guy; perhaps I just don’t like choosing.
When I arrived at Benromach Distillery in northern Moray, I admit to being apprehensive, to thinking about copper versus gold versus platinum audio cables. I’d never tasted their whisky, but I knew if there was one distillery that had more expressions than any other it would be a deathmatch between Benromach and Edradour. Incidentally, they happen to be two of the smallest distilleries in Scotland. Their small size gives them more flexibility to try new styles since their mashes and distillations are done in such small batches.
I was greeted by Keith Cruickshank, the distillery manager, inside the lavish visitors center. He’s a down-to-earth, friendly guy with a great name and a love for his craft. He’s been the distillery manager since Benromach reopened in 1998 (after a 15-year hiatus) under the ownership of Gordon & MacPhail, and he was my personal tour guide on this trip.
As Keith led me through the distillery buildings, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way they’ve chosen to make whisky. No computers, no outsourcing, no compromises. Keith might be the distillery manager, but he only manages one other worker. All of Benromach’s whisky is produced by these two people without the aid of modern technology and equipment. That means Keith and his coworker personally handle everything from milling and mashing the barley to distillation and filling the casks. All of the whisky ages on site, which is a rarity in the age of multi-national spirits corporations. It’s a sharp contrast to other distilleries that have more brushed metal and computers than the international space station.
This is truly handmade whisky.
Keith takes me to a tasting room that looks like it used to be an office. This is a small place – the mash tun, washbacks, and stills are all in one room! That’s a new sight for me. A tray of oat cakes sit off to the side of a paper placemat with five different Benromach expressions. I taste the 10 year, the first of the new Benromach with an age statement, as Keith talks me through the gorgeous array on the table. I’m puzzled by the flavor – there’s peat in this! Speyside whiskies are almost completely devoid of the pleasantly smoky flavor of peat, so I’m shocked – SHOCKED – to taste it here. Flavors of butterscotch, peat smoke, salted meat, and fresh leather hover in perfect balance. I want more.
We move on to the Origins: Golden Promise bottling, which uses the specific Golden Promise variety of barley. Benromach’s Origins line of whiskies is inventive: each batch explores a different aspect of the whisky-making process to see how it affects the character, nose, and flavor of the whisky. This one has a toasted malt flavor with some serious sweetness and obvious Sherry butt tones. It’s also a powerful 50% ABV; in fact, all of Benromach’s whiskies are a muscly 43% or higher.
The remaining three drams are 25, 30, and 38 years old – relics of Benromach’s past before it closed down in 1983. Keith didn’t craft these whiskies, but I happily drank them. At this level of quality, it’s not about good and bad but about savoring and giving thanks to deities. The 25-year is subtle with some cinnamon or allspice poking through a Bourbon barrel background. The 30-year is Christmas in a bottle – that familiar spicy, coffee cake flavor mixed with rum and raisins – and has a thick, warm mouthfeel. Finally, the Vintage 1968 is a Sherry juggernaut shedding ripe fruits, black licorice, and dry, smoky oak flavors.
Benromach is making uncharacteristic craft whisky in Speyside, and, with the backing of Gordon & MacPhail’s massive distribution network, even the big boys in the region will need to pay attention. Keith’s creativity is leading to exciting expressions, like their 100% organic whisky, and I, for one, am eager to follow their evolution. Do yourself a favor and hunt down the Benromach 10, and let me know where you found it. As I left Benromach this was my thought, not some drivel about audio cables or yogurt.