The story of Benromach Distillery is a tale of two parts, with its first chapter starting in 1898. It was an important year for whisky making in the small Morayshire town of Forres as it saw licences granted for Benromach and also its neighbour Dallas Dhu.
This was no coincidence, as both had a link to the prolific Speyside distiller Alexander Edward who, among other exploits, also built the famous Craigellachie Hotel. Both of the Forres distilleries were constructed on land owned by Edward and Dallas Dhu, which was founded by him directly, would be producing spirit just a year later. Benromach, however, was something of a non-starter and took much longer to get going. It didn’t begin production until 1900 and, even then, the new distillery was almost immediately closed after little more than a few test runs.
As might be expected, the cause of the problem was financial in nature. One of Benromach’s founders, a Leith spirit merchant called F. W. Brickman, was hit particularly hard by the financially ruinous whisky-industry calamity that was the ‘Pattison Crash’ of December 1898 and, as a result, pulled out of the project shortly after.
This left the other partner, Duncan MacCallum, to solider on alone. Thankfully, MacCallum was a prominent distiller in his own right who had previously founded Campbeltown’s Glen Nevis Distillery and also taken ownership of Glen Scotia. Unfortunately, despite his undoubted business acumen and respected status as a philanthropist, he is perhaps most widely known for the tragic circumstances surrounding his suicide by drowning in Campbeltown Loch on 23 December 1931.
However, although MacCallum also did not emerge from the Pattison Crash entirely unscathed, he was able to restart production sometime between 1907 and 1909 (accounts vary) with the distillery briefly rebranded as ‘Forres’, before later selling it on. The subsequent decades saw further ownership changes for Benromach, interspersed with more silent periods, until it was finally acquired by a subsidiary of the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1953.
Relative stability was achieved throughout the 1960s and 70s, with significant upgrades and investment made in the distillery’s infrastructure. However, another great industry crash would see both Benromach and Dallas Dhu, also now under the ownership of DCL, closed in 1983. While the latter distillery was left intact and eventually opened as a museum under the management of Historic Environment Scotland, Benromach was stripped for parts and left to deteriorate.
Benromach’s second chapter begins in 1993, when it was purchased by the family-owned grocer, distributor, and independent bottler Gordon & Macphail (G&M). The sale included the buildings and a portfolio of casks dating from before the site’s closure; however, by this point the distillery was just a shell and only a couple of wash backs remained in situ.
During the next five years, G&M effectively built an entirely new distillery inside the Benromach buildings, though they did continue to use the original water source, and the ‘new’ distillery was opened in 1998 by HRH Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay. Thus, the Benromach we know today was actually the third of the ‘new wave’ of distilleries, following Kininvie (1990) and Arran (1993), that tentatively paved the way for the boom of the new millennium.
In its early days, the reborn Benromach Distillery was only producing 135,000 lpa per annum, which equated to one mash per day, five days per week, and there were only two distillers working there: Keith Cruickshank, who joined as the original still man, and manager Bob Murray, who had previously been at the helm of Glen Spey Distillery.
Keith became manager himself in 2000 and is still at the helm to this day, with an expanded team supporting him. He speaks fondly of those early days and is clearly pleased to have had a hand in the development of Benromach’s spirit character, which was created in homage to the traditional lightly peated style of Speyside new makes that were common prior to the 1960s, when automation and centralised commercial malting became more widespread.
“We tweaked it and tried different ideas to get the character,” explains Keith. “It took about six months really for the copper to bed in and for us to really know the length of fermentation, yeast type, how we were going to run the stills. The character at the start was a bit on the light side, beautiful, but lighter than we would’ve liked.”
Bob and Keith determined that the malt they were using, which was only peated to around 4-7ppm, didn’t pack enough punch for the style they wanted to create, especially as only around a third of those phenols were coming through in the new make spirit. In order to boost the peat influence, the malt specification was later upped to 12ppm and the tails cut point lowered slightly to 61 per cent in order to retain more phenols, where it remains to this day for production of the core Benromach spirit. Meanwhile, the unpeated organic releases are cut higher, at 63%, and the heavily peated expression dips further into the feints with the tails cut at 57%.
“Originally, we had a lot of first fill Bourbon casks and just some sherry casks,” explains Keith. “It wasn’t until later on that we started to change the profile and fill a lot more sherry casks."
However, this wasn’t the only aspect of Benromach’s production that was inspired by tradition: to this day there are no computers in the distillery, no pressure gauges, and cutting is done manually. The team also elected to use a mixture of distillers’ yeasts and a brewers’ yeast, which again was once common practice in days gone by.
As for wood policy, Keith has this to say: “I fill the best casks here, I don’t have to muck about with refills or refill refills!” This is hardly surprising as Benromach’s parent company, G&M, has built its 122-year reputation on the matching of great spirit to wood of the very highest quality and it is clear that this same philosophy was applied at Benromach from the very beginning.
Partnerships were forged with Spanish cooperages, such as Juan Pino and Lobato, and sherry producers, such as Bodegas Williams & Humbert, to ensure a steady supply of superb sherry-seasoned wood would be available for filling. In fact, the influence of sherry casks on Benromach’s style has developed considerably over the past two decades.
“Originally, we had a lot of first fill Bourbon casks and just some sherry casks,” explains Keith. “It wasn’t until later on that we started to change the profile and fill a lot more sherry casks. Now we’re filling sherry casks for eight to nine months of the year.” As for the types of sherry casks, Keith explains that they fill a balanced portfolio of both European and American wood: “I’d probably say we have a lot more European oak sherry casks, but we have American oak ones too because they give a cracking flavour. They do take a lot longer to mature, though, as with the European sherry casks after eight to nine years the new make character is really beginning to fade. Whereas with the American, for us, it probably takes 12 years.”
What’s more, on account of its commitment to ‘hands-on’ whisky making practices, the distillery has come to be recognised as a centre of excellence
This commitment to filling quality sherry casks will see the Benromach 10 Years Old expression being made up entirely of sherry-cask matured spirit by 2022, though Keith stresses that profile consistency is of the utmost importance and he’ll be keeping a close eye on how things develop. “We don’t want it to become a big sherry monster!” he adds.
However, wood isn’t the only area of investment at Benromach. To meet increasing consumer demand, production was recently upped to a shift rotation of three batches per day, five days per week, and nine further European larch wash backs were installed, all with a view to making more than 500,000 lpa per annum. What’s more, on account of its commitment to ‘hands-on’ whisky making practices, the distillery has come to be recognised as a centre of excellence for distiller training and attracts students from all over the world. The distillery visitor centre is also thriving under the management of Susan Colville.
So, as Benromach prepares to celebrate both its 120th birthday and its 20th year of distilling since being reborn, it is undoubtedly in finer health and safer hands than ever. This Forres distillery may have taken a century to find its feet but good things come to those that wait.
The Benromach still house
Checking the fermentation
Preparing a cask
The Benromach line up