I hope that by this point my love and appreciation for Benromach’s whiskies is common knowledge. It’s a shame that I have such a hard (read: impossible) time finding them here in Wisconsin, but perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder.
In this case, I think that old axiom is way off base.
Last year I had the opportunity to tour Benromach distillery with Keith Cruickshank, the distillery manager, and experience a guided tasting of Benromach’s stunning past and exciting future. Earlier this year I returned to Speyside’s smallest distillery during the magnificent Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival and took another spin through Gordon & Macphail’s pride and joy, which ended in a thorough tasting of Benromach’s award-winning whiskies.
No, absence didn’t make my heart grow fonder. Presence did. Presence! If I could find the Benromach 10 Years Old on store shelves around town, it would be my everyday whisky. Not that I drink whisky everyday, but…well…you know what I mean.
This time around, my dad and I met up with Sandy Forsyth, Benromach’s senior tour guide. Sandy has worked for more than 40 years in the whisky industry at the likes of Miltonduff and Glenburgie before finding his way to Benromach. Forty years yields a lot of stories, and Sandy spent the entirety of our three-and-a-half-hour visit lavishing us with hilarious, often eyebrow-raising, stories from days of yore in his rapid brogue. He made us feel right at home and proved to be another great ambassador for Benromach.
Sandy sat us down for an introduction to Benromach and then took us on a detailed tour of the facilities, but, since I covered this in my previous write-up of Benromach distillery, I’m going to focus on the focus of this visit: Benromach’s award-winning whiskies.
First, a note about tasting notes that can’t be repeated enough. Tasting notes are the opinion of one person. There really is no contradicting what one person smells or tastes. Certain parts of the whisky-making process yield definitive flavors, and in my experience with tastings most people are on target with their notes, it’s just a matter of specificity. One person might say the whisky is spicy while the next says he picks up cinnamon and nutmeg, for example. The purpose of tasting notes is simply to give consumers an idea of a whisky’s flavor profile, to help them purchase whiskies they’ll enjoy. To do your own tasting, nose and taste the single malt straight and then repeat after adding a few drops of water. Drink water and eat something bland like an oatcake between drams.
Benromach 10 Years Old
Our tasting begins with Benromach’s flagship whisky, the 10 Years Old. This whisky is solely the product of Benromach’s second stint in production (post-1998) and matures in a mix of Bourbon and Sherry casks, much like Balvenie’s Doublewood. Specifically, the final period of maturation is in European oak Oloroso Sherry casks. In the glass, this whisky is a rich bronze color (Gordon & Macphail never add coloring). On the nose, the classic Sherry character is clear with milk chocolate, cinnamon, and a hint of stewed fruit while a waft of smoke curtains through. I get a chocolate-chip cookie note and craisins, some oak chips. The delicious nose follows through on the palate with smoked red berries in cream and Sherry. This is a big, balanced, mouth-coating whisky. Desert-island whisky.
Benromach 2001 Cask Strength
Dram number two follows and it’s a big boy: Benromach 2001 Cask Strength. At 59.9% ABV and un-chill-filtered, this whisky packs a punch. Matured in first-fill Bourbon barrels, the color is reminiscent of gold coins or damp straw. That Bourbon character comes through loud and clear on the nose with vanilla, brittle, cereal, and pears or green apples. Possibly hazelnuts in the background. The palate begins with heat that flows into a creaminess similar to the 10 Years Old, almost like cayenne pepper and yogurt sauce without the sourness. Then a line of slightly sweet licorice comes through. A wisp of smoke hovers far in the background. Water certainly helped open this up.
This dram was the industry’s very first all-organic single malt whisky when it launched in 2006. Bottled at 43% ABV and aged entirely in virgin American oak casks, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Bourbon. No age is given on the bottle, but it’s around six years old and yields a rich reddish-gold color. The nose is full of malty sugars – again, I think of Bourbon – that eventually yield to traditional American oak flavors like vanilla, caramel, and lemon. Again, very sweet on the palate then fraying into bananas foster with black pepper on top. Mexican hot chocolate or pineapple with chocolate fondue hide in the distance. The Organic uses malt peated at 8-12ppm phenols, just the same as the 10 Years Old, but it seems smokier than that. Perhaps some reaction between the phenols and new oak barrels? Excellent dram.
Benromach Peat Smoke
Our fourth dram is an exciting one for a Speyside distillery: Peat Smoke. This whisky uses malt peated at 35ppm phenols, similar to Caol Ila, and spent nine years in refill American oak hogsheads (ex-Bourbon) before being bottled at 46% ABV. A shade lighter than the Organic, Peat Smoke delivers a measured nose with green fruits wrapped in a steady waft of smoke. It’s not overpowering, though, and here it’s more wood than iodine. Malty sweetness appears on the palate before a soft breath of smoke. Fairly straight-forward neat, but water amplifies the sweetness and smoke, bringing out burnt tobacco and floral notes. Sandy mentions cigar ash and yes, absolutely.
Benromach 30 Years Old
Whisky number five is a bazooka. Thirty years in first fill and refill Sherry casks yields an archetypal Speyside Sherry monster, and [SPOILER] I love it. Bottled at 43% ABV and the color of blood money, I whisper a small prayer of thanks before nosing. Peach crumble drizzled with rum and a side of golden raisins, then over-ripe Granny Smiths. On the palate there’s brandy-soaked spice cake, cinnamon, cardamom, and a smooth creaminess that has me reaching for a bottle that’s not there (for shame). This is the type of whisky that makes people say, “This is what whisky is supposed to taste like.” Seriously, more than one person said it at this tasting. One of the best whiskies anywhere.
Benromach Wood Finish Port
I’m fairly certain these next two whiskies were not officially part of the tasting, but Sandy unearthed them from the Benromach archives (bless his soul) so we could have a nip. This particular dram spent 25 years in a Sherry cask before being transferred into a Port Pipe for an additional 28 months. Only 1,100 bottles exist and it’s bottled at 45% ABV. The color is much like a tawny Port while the nose is loaded with ripe red berries and a pleasantly woody/nutty edge that reveals a winey/Sherry character. This is in my whisky wheelhouse. The Port is there, but it’s mellowed with some herbal notes (I would swear sage, but that sounds crazy). The palate is a succulent mix of strawberries, raspberries, cardamom, and cracked black pepper. That Benromach chocolate appears on the long finish. My favorite dram of the day, and that’s saying a lot.
Benromach Wood Finish Burgundy
Sandy conjured this bottle from the ether because, as much as it pains me to say, it’s no longer available. I categorically love whiskies finished in red wine casks. This particular dram’s origin is a little mysterious, though it spends its final seven years in oak casks that had been used to produce wine from St. Romain in Burgundy. This was a limited run of 1,600+ bottles at 45% ABV. The color is buckwheat honey and the nose meshes the sweet caramel of single malt with a juicy, fruity red wine. The palate is luscious black: black raspberries, black licorice, black pepper. A filament of spearmint, too. The long, warming finish completes the mindblowing tasting.
Disclosure: The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival and Benromach Distillery provided my dad and I with a complimentary tour and tasting. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.