Around Scotland, if not the world, distilleries are popping up like bluebells in a forest at spring time. Once a rarity, these beautiful little ventures seem to be gathering pace, year-on-year, and are littering our landscape with stunning new stills, producing all sorts of different flavour drams. Be it the suburbs of London or the wilds of Texas, it seems that small scale distilling is being given a whole new lease of life.
As these newly established businesses start to put roots down, each one seems to be looking for their unique marketing story to add provenance and history to a spirit which thrives on narrative, legacy and lineage.
At the same, dusty old distilleries are coughing and spluttering back in to life, stumbling into the light of the global market, blinking at the sheer brightness of the future of the category; rejuvenated to supply both single malt for bottling and to bolster the already stretched inventory for their parent company’s blended Scotch.
If the former, these old men of Scotland have a ready-made story; their cracks, dulled white-washed walls and scarred stills all have a story to tell, be it from a former smugger who ‘went legit’ to build it, to a long departed distillery cat... they have all the sombre charm which is a marketing man’s dream.
Up on the northern outskirts of Speyside is a small distillery, which has the benefit of not only being a brand new design, but inheriting history by the bucket load.
Keeping up traditional, manual productions methods, Benromach Distillery is happily sitting quietly, churning out spirit to be matured mainly on site in their own warehouses.
“We’re not a big operation,” says distillery manager Keith Cruickshank, “we only fill around 24 casks a week.” one of which can be found in their visitors centre as a ‘bottle your own’, hand selected by him.
I find Keith, who is from the nearby town of the same name, on a snowy Monday morning at 8am, checking the level of the spirit which has been quietly gathering in a vat in their filling store during the past seven days.
“We fill our casks every Monday morning. It takes us a couple of hours to get them all filled and then we’ll stack them away in the warehouse and wait” he excitedly says.
This particular frozen March morning, the spirit in question which is being carefully measured, is the Benromach Organic. The casks into which this 100 per cent, soil association accredited single malt whisky is being filled are quite unusual: brand new, virgin oak cask, with a portion going in to second fill casks which previously only held their Organic release.
"Keeping up traditional, manual production methods, Benromach Distillery is happily churning out spirit"
This is a pure whisky in a very real sense, with Scottish organic barley being used in the production process and a whole heap of very strict regulations to make sure the term ‘organic’ can be used.
“Even the mouse traps we use in the distillery can’t have chemicals in them when we’re making this,” remarks Keith.
The distillery itself is a robust sort of place. A huge red chimney reaches high into the sky, either as a beacon for the angels’ to guide them towards their warehouses or as some sort of cannon to keep them away, firing steam in their direction to put them off flying in. Either way, this landmark is stunning and can be seen clearly by the passing traffic on the A96 between Elgin and Nairn, or the local train line which passes in front of the distillery drive.
Churning out around 100,000 litres a year, at present this isn’t a distillery which is being squeezed to its capacity limit like others in the region, but seems to be running at a natural pace, meaning the resulting spirit is relaxed and elegant with little sense of urgency about it.
This feeling of ease is in no small way down to the attitude of the owners. Gordon & MacPhail have their head offices just a short drive away in Elgin, and are a company famed in the whisky industry for their independent bottlings. (see: Mortlach and Glenlivet 70 Years Old release in the last couple of years) However, it is the general company spirit, if you excuse the pun, which gives Benromach such a welcoming feeling, not just from a visitor perspective, but from the production side too.
"We realised Speyside would have produced a lightly peated, smoky style. It’s not Islay. It’s Speyside peated"
Acquired in 1993, Gordon & MacPhail had a lot of work to do to enable them to start making whisky at a site which first churned out new make in 1898. The previous owners, United Distillers (now Diageo), had embarked upon a series of distillery closures in the early 1980s and none more famous than a certain site on the Isle of Islay. But alongside the now legendary Port Ellen, it was decided that Benromach was also a wounded war horse and so in 1983 was lead away to the United Distilleries knacker’s yard.
Ten years later and local family business Gordon & MacPhail decided to move from independent bottling to making the stuff themselves, but were faced with an issue: they needed a site and they needed stills.
At this time, Benromach had one, but not the other, since the stills, along with pretty much everything else, had been removed once the site was closed.
Therefore, G&M were faced with building an entirely new set up in an existing set of buildings with, most excitingly, an opportunity to design their own style of spirit.
“We wanted to go for something different. We had a look at our own casks of very old whisky and realised that, traditionally, Speyside would have produced a lightly peated, smoky style. It’s not Islay. It’s Speyside peated.” G&M’s managing director Michael Urquhart told me.
Really he’s not wrong. A delicate peat is found in all of their range, from their Ten Years Old through to their Cask Strength Edition (save for their Organic release), which is bolstered by a Peat Smoke release which positively prickles with the stuff.
Building a new distillery from scratch is always going to be difficult, but breathing life into a distillery which first produced spirit in 1898, with no reference to the former still shapes or new make style, you’ve either got a problem or an opportunity.
Thankfully G&M saw this as an opportunity. It’s going to be fun watching this whisky brand grow (in 2012 its sales were up 40 per cent) reclaiming the category of the Speyside peated malt.
Benromach Distillery, Invererne Road, Forres, Morayshire, IV36 3EBTelephone:
01309 675 968Website: www.benromach.comVisitors Centre:
Gordon & MacPhailStatus:
SpeysideCurrent core range:
10 Years Old, Cask Strength, Peat Smoke, Organic
10 Years Old43% ABVNose:
A bed of light peat with rich sherry silk sheets and pillows of spice. Plum chutney and vanilla are backed with dark chocolate dusted with cinnamon. Some delicate malty tones hidden right at the back.Palate:
Big and rich and a nutty tone. The peat sits in the mid-palate as a core flavour, without overpowering. Cherry liqueur comes through behind the peat smoke.Finish:
Fresh red cherries, dark chocolate and peat, all served with a big slice of Turkish Delight.
Vanilla, hazelnut praline, banana bread, toffee and banoffee pie.Palate:
Rich and unctuous, the praline comes to life with milk chocolate covered oak cakes. Some red apples. Some tropical fruits appear with the addition of water.Finish:
Toffee apple and Moroccan mint tea.
Peat Smoke 46% ABVNose:
The first impression is of a good, early 1970s Ardbeg. Pear drops and light vanilla sherbet are the order of the day, all wrapped up in peat smoke.Palate:
Sweet (white candy floss), toasted marshmallows, baked apples and cinnamon.Finish:
Long, vanilla and peat smoke.