Distillery Focus

The hands-on distillery

Our man explores the history of a Speyside survivor
By Gavin D. Smith
BenRiach is one of those unfortunate Speyside distilleries that came on stream just too late to capitalise on the great Victorian whisky boom, and just in time to be closed down as boom turned to bust. The wonder is that it survived and thrives today.

The fact that it does, owes much to its historical association with neighbouring Longmorn, which had been built by John Duff & Company during 1893/94. As the good times in the world of Scotch whisky rolled on, Duff decided to construct ‘Longmorn No.2,’ otherwise known as Benriach, as it was originally spelt, in 1898.

However, 1900 saw both distilleries close, with John Duff & Company filing for bankruptcy, as those good times abruptly stopped rolling. The collapse of the prominent – but fraudulent – blenders, Pattison Ltd. of Leith, led to the realisation that for some time, Scotch whisky production had far outstripped its sales.

Longmorn went on to reopen in better times, but BenRiach remained silent until 1965, when the next whisky boom led to its reconstruction by then owners, The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd.

The chances of the silent BenRiach remaining intact for more than six decades would have been remote, to say the least, were it not for the fact that Longmorn utilised its floor maltings to supplement its requirements. This factor alone probably saved BenRiach from demolition.

With the largely rebuilt distillery back in operation, 1972 saw the start of annual periods of peated spirit production to provide a smoky malt for blending. Six years on, the distillery changed hands, with Glenlivet Distillers Ltd being acquired by the Canadian distilling giant Seagram Company Ltd.

In 1994, BenRiach launched as a single malt for the first time, with a 10-years-old expression being included in the Seagram’s Heritage Collection along with Longmorn, Strathisla and Glen Keith, though quantities marketed were modest.

Seagram’s spirits interests were purchased by Pernod Ricard in 2001, and a rationalisation programme soon saw ‘rotational production,’ introduced at BenRiach, Alt A’Bhainne, Braeval and Caperdonich, each of which was operational for just three months per year. As it happened, all four were mothballed the following year.

Happily, for BenRiach, in April 2004 a consortium led by industry veteran Billy Walker purchased the distillery and stocks, and just four months later, the first bottlings appeared. They were the NAS BenRiach Heart of Speyside, a 12 Years Old, a 16 Years Old, a 20 Years Old, and a peated 10 Years Old, named Curiositas. Then, on 20th of September, the first run of spirit under the consortium’s ownership was filled to cask. Walker and his associates also took the decision to capitalise the central ‘R’ in Benriach, a practice they followed when they went on to acquire GlenDronach Distillery in 2008.

The initial batch of releases was followed by a veritable torrent of new expressions over the next few years, including wood finishes, peated wood finishes, and many single cask bottlings, as BenRiach was established as a highly credible single malt both in the UK and many export markets.

In June 2016, US-based Brown-Forman Corporation acquired The BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd in a deal worth £285 million. This purchase by a foreign firm with no previous experience of Scotch whisky could have been less than positive for BenRiach, but according to global brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan, the opposite is true.

“Brown-Forman has been hugely respectful of the distillery and are fantastic in terms of getting BenRiach global exposure,” he declares. “There are no negatives with the Brown-Forman ownership. It’s a family company and it provides us with great casks. They said to Rachel Barrie, our master blender, ‘Here are the warehouses, go and play!’ What she does is not dictated by the marketers. We can opt for whatever toasting level we want on casks, as Brown-Forman have their own cooperage in Kentucky. Rachel is currently assessing three different levels for future use on virgin oak casks.”
Buchanan was born in Dumbarton, and was formerly production manager at Tobermory, then at BenRiach from 2006 to 2012, before taking on his present ambassadorial role. He points out that during the Seagram era, BenRiach was often used for experimental practices, saying, “They were making peated whisky to 45/55ppm in the 1970s for six weeks per year, so we have 40+ year-old peated whisky in our warehouses.”

He adds that, “Even in the 1980s, Seagram’s were filling virgin oak barrels, so we have stocks of that. You can see why they used virgin oak casks – the whisky from them is fruity, with barley and apple and pear notes. Great for a blender to work with. A nice backbone for an expression. Rachel [Barrie] uses virgin oak in many expressions now.”

BenRiach also practiced triple-distillation, with Buchanan explaining that, “A third spirit still was installed in 1998 for this, though the still was later removed. We have 90 barrels of this triple-distilled whisky, and when the distillery was bought from Pernod, we didn’t know it was there. Since 2006, we’ve done one week’s triple distillation each year, using the existing still set-up. We tend to make around 25,000 litres at a time, but we may increase this as the triple-distilled expression has proved very popular in travel retail outlets since its introduction in 2017.”

In terms of ‘regular’ production, BenRiach operates a traditional ‘plough and rake’ mash tun, hidden beneath modern steel cladding. “It gives us very clear wort,” says Stewart Buchanan. “There is a very high mineral content in the water we use from the underground Burnside Springs. It’s one of the hardest waters on Speyside. The high minerality produces more esters during fermentation, and with long fermentations this gives us a big fruit character in the new-make spirit. It’s clean and sharp, and citric. The fruit character is pushed by the fermentation, after the barley character has developed in the mash tun.”

When it comes to distillation, Buchanan points out that, “We take a big middle cut, one of the longest on Speyside. We run 13 minutes of foreshots and we go right down to 60.5% ABV. Others will typically run foreshots for 30 minutes and cut at 63/64% ABV. We have to run the stills very slowly because there is no ‘boil ball’ to aid reflux. It’s a gentle simmer, not a big boil.

“Everything is done by hand, not by computer programs.

"The cut points are judged by strength in the spirit safe. Although nothing is computerised, one man can run each shift because of the way that the various processes are laid out side by side, as it were, on the same level.”

One unusual feature of BenRiach is that those floor maltings that probably saved it from the bulldozers have been recommissioned. Stewart Buchanan notes that “Floor malting ended in 1996, but in 2012 we got time finally to start them up again, doing our first short run. All we had to do to get the maltings up and running was put in a new fuse box!
“Going forward, we will probably do six to eight weeks in April/May each year. In 2018, we only did five weeks, giving us around 20 tonnes of malt to distil. It’s distilled separately from the bought-in malt and casked accordingly. We still haven’t done any peated malt on the floor maltings, though we do six weeks of peated production each year, and in the future we will probably do that in the autumn.”

Buchanan explains, “The new-make spirit from the floor maltings has a more earthy cereal note than we usually get. Real old school. Rachel has filled it into lots of different cask types to see which work best.”

Noting that, “We have one cask dating from 1966, that’s our oldest, and we have 1970s and ’80s stock,” Buchanan declares: “Not selling a lot of it as single malt over the years has protected our stocks. Reciprocal trading was previously a big part of the business, but today only around one-third of what we produce goes for blending, and we have cut back on that, not renewing contracts with blenders when they run out. The aim eventually is for all our make to be sold as single malt.”

At present, there are three principal BenRiach ranges, with the Flagship Range embracing NAS Heart of Speyside, plus 10, 12 21, 25 and 35-years-old expressions, along with a triple-distilled 10-years-old exclusive to the travel retail market. The Peated Range comprises the NAS Birnie Moss, Curiositas, Temporis 21-years-old and Authenticus 30-years-old. ‘Limited Releases’ includes several cask strength expressions, a 22 Years Old Peated Albariza with a Pedro Ximénez sherry cask finish, and a succulent 22 Years Old Dark Rum Finish. Additionally, a total of 15 batches of very diverse single cask bottlings have been released to date.