Looking after a distillery is a little like bringing up a child. You have to see it through its infant years, then through school and then finally to college or university. Then it leaves home and comes out from under your wing and makes its own way in the world.
“We’re at the leaving home stage for Benromach. We have looked after it and helped it grow up, and now it’s starting to make its own way in the world.”
As a summary of where Benromach Distillery finds itself in 2010 Michael Urquhart’s is pretty much spot on. It’s a small distillery on the fringes of Speyside, is independently owned by bottler Gordon & Macphail and its name helps maintain a sense of obscurity – uncomfortably similar to Balmenach and one of four distilleries which start with the word ‘Ben’. Despite that, though, it’s starting to build up a reputation for innovative and outstanding malts – and when the new 10 Years Old arrived last year, the first made entirely with spirit produced since the distillery reopened – it metaphorically came of age and started striking out on its own. Almost under the whisky enthusiast’s radar it has built a portfolio of malts that is diverse, exciting, challenging and exceedingly well made. It doesn’t shout as loudly as the Benriachs or Bruichladdichs, but Benromach is every bit as interesting. Despite, or come to think of it, perhaps because of its modest size, it’s a distillery with more than a few surprises up its sleeve.
It was founded in 1898 but has had a chequered and uneven history. It has been mothballed twice, had its name changed and has had several owners including the National Distillers of America.
But the modern era began for it when Gordon & Macphail bought it in 1993 and set about producing spirit again in 1998.
The company had bided its time, says Michael Urquhart.
“It had been our ambition to own a distillery and it had been in our long term plans,” he adds.
“Gordon & Macphail has always taken an innovative approach to business and one of the things we have always done is look back on the way the business has been run in the past and see if there was anything we could learn from the old ways which would be relevant for the future.
“If you look back to the 1800s a lot of the market was single malt whisky. With the distillery we have been able to spend time and money developing the distillery under the guidance of Gordon & Macphail and by applying the same business approach to the distillery.”
Benromach is situated at Forres, at the northern end of Speyside close to the coast. It falls within the Speyside region but what everyone agreed from the outset was that the whisky produced would not just be a typical Speyside malt.
The distillery produces just 500,000 litres of spirit a year, and is a dinky, labour-intensive and technology free distillery operated by just two people – distillery manager Keith Cruickshank and stillman and production manager Mike Ross. From the outset everyone agreed that innovation would play an important role.
“When we started producing here the people at Gordon & Macphail were keen to try and experiment in different areas,” says Cruickshank. “We put a great deal of emphasis on very good wood, and tried different wood finishes. But we knew there was no point in just sticking with a typical Speyside taste.”
Gordon & Macphail does have form in this sort of thing. Although on the face of it a traditional family-run independent company with its roots deep in Elgin, it has never been afraid to listen to a good business idea. Go to the company’s impressive shop and take a look at the bourbon range there, arguably as good as any anywhere else in Britain, and the company is distributing the whisky produced by St Georges, the English distillery.
It’s always been this way. Take the company’s Connoisseur’s Choice range, whiskies from different distilleries bottled under a generic label and sold by region. Although it’s very common now to see such ranges, Gordon & Macphail was the first to test the market in this way.
Michael Urquhart says thinking outside the loop has always been part of the company’s DNA, so it’s no surprise the philosophy has extended to its distillery.
A few years back it launched Benromach Organic, the first malt to be recognised by the Soil Association. Producing it meant stripping down all the distillery’s equipment and having it cleaned under the strict supervision of the Soil Association, then sourcing organic ingredients, including oak for the casks. A couple of years ago the distillery released Origins, a whisky which focused on the ingredients within the malt and how they impacted on flavour.
For Cruickshank it’s these sorts of whiskies which have helped set the distillery apart from many of its competitors and ensured its survival among the big players in the market.
“Whisky production had become more automated over the years,” he says. “We use traditional practices and make whisky by hand. That’s why innovation is so important to us.
“We are able to make use of being small to do interesting and unusual things and I think the whisky drinker likes that.”
Perhaps the coming of age of Benromach is down to two expressions from the distillery over the last couple if years: the aforementioned 10 Years Old, and Benromach Peat Smoke. You find a significant level of peat in several of the distillery’s whiskies, giving it an earthy Highland nature rather than a typical Speyside one. But Peat Smoke is something else again – a fully peated whisky with a distinctively Speyside and Highland heart.
“With no disrespect to Islay we didn’t want to produce a big peaty Islay style whisky,” says Cruickshank. “We wanted something with the phenols coming through but retaining the sweetness, softness and the malt’s spiciness. The idea was to create a peated whisky which nodded to the Highlands and to the west coast, but was still unique to here.”
It is whiskies like these which are making Benromach such an attractive proposition these days. Gordon & Macphail has backed the distillery up by putting its whisky into stylish packaging but making sure there is no compromise on the spirit within.
For Michael Urquhart the distillery is another active way of offering whisky drinkers increased choice. He points out that on the one hand the company can release a 70 Years Old Mortlach priced at the very highest level, or expressions aged 30, 40 or 50 years old, but at the same time it has fabulous young malt from an active and dynamic distillery.
“We like to think we have something of very good quality to suit everyone,” he says. “We can offer customers more than 360 expressions covering a wide range of tastes. When people ask us what’s new we say you haven’t tried everything we already have available. It’s all about choice.”
Independent companies such as Gordon & Macphail should be applauded, not least for maintaining their enthusiasm after more than 100 years in business, and consistently demonstrating their desire to embrace new ideas and to keep moving forward. It’s no doubt why they have not only survived but have flourished despite the growth of bigger companies and the centralisation of the drinks industry.
Quite what’s coming next for Benromach is anybody’s guess. Cruickshank talks about more spirit mature in European sherry oak, and of the possibility of 12 and 15 Years Old expressions down the line. But one thing he’s sure of, the future of the independent whisky maker is very bright indeed.
“If you look at the list of great independent distilleries such as Glenglassaugh, BenRiach, GlenDronach, Glengoyne and us, then it’s very exciting for the customer,” he says. “I think there’s a move back to the way it used to be and it may be that as the bigger companies focus on the main part of their companies, other distilleries will be bought be independents so that privately owned distilleries are on their way back.”
It’s great news for the industry. Benromach’s come of age – and plenty more might follow.
Benromach tasting notes
Benromach10 Years Old Nose:
Ovaltine, sappy damp straw and flour doughballs.Palate:
A savoury wave of peat and smoke at first, then a delicatessen smorgasbord, touches of cocoa and fruit. Intriguing, challenging, different and overall worthwhile.
Young, with grassy and viney notes, some smoke and oil.Palate:
Agricultural, cerealy, and earthy. Like smoking roll ups and chewing barley husks at the same time.
Softer and sweeter than the Traditional or 10 Years Old, but with oak and some toffee and mashed pear. Palate:
Big and bold, with oak and blackcurrant squash, quickly followed by a wave of pepper.
BenromachPeat Smoke Batch 2 45%Nose:
Lemon drizzled on grilled sole and barbecue wood chipsPalate:
A charming mix of creamy lemon and feisty peat.
Benromach21 Years Old 43%Nose:
Apple and pears and some prickly peat Palate:
Guava and kiwi fruits on the palate. Sweet and clean, with some vanilla and marmalade notes.
BenromachSassicaia Wood Finish 45%Nose:
A bowl of over-ripe fruit, resinous, with oak and peat vying for attention. Palate:
Chunky melon and the pleasant interplay between peat and oak remains.
Very odd and disconcerting, with some sulphury notes and then milk chocolate. It’s intriguing more than off-putting but you do wonder what it’s going to taste like. Palate:
The answer is, very fine indeed. The sulphur soon gives way, and you’re left with an almost liqueur-like treacle malt, with sweet brown sugar in the mix.
Benromach25 Years Old 43%Nose:
Lemon and lime jelly bonbons to the fore, backed by some spice, peat and oak. You just know from the aorma that this is going to be a treat. Palate:
This is like a rock band with three ego-driven lead guitarists trying to outperform each other. Oak, spice and peat all give it a shot, but it’s the fruity rhythm section which holds it altogether and stops it becoming an incoherent mess.
BenromachOrganic Special Edition 43%Nose:
Fully coastal, with salt, seaweed and shellfish in the mix.Palate:
Benromach goes to the seaside! Oily and fishy. Soft and rounded with little or no spice.
Distillery infoBenromach Est. 1898Area:
Speyside (Findhorn)Number of production staff:
500,000 litres a year Water source:
Chapelton Spring in the Romach HillsBarley:
Chariot, but also Golden Promise and OpticMashing and fermentation:
Stainless steel semi-lauter tun with copper canopy, 1.5 tonnes capacity. Four Scottish Larch washbacks each holding 11,000 litres. Fermentation takes three to five days. Five washes a week.Distillation:
One wash still, 7,500 litres charge. One spirit still, with reflux bowl, 5,000 litres charge.Maturation:
Dunnage style warehouses. Casks filled at 63.5% ABV
Gordon & MacPhailAddress:
Invererne Road, Forres, Moray. IV36 3EBTel:
+44 (0)1309 675 968Website: www.benromach.comTours:
Every 20 minutes and during June, July and August the distillery is also open on a Sunday.