Distillery Focus

The pride of Speyside

BenRiach is still relatively unknown but it's a gem of a distillery and as Dominic Roskrow reports,it will continue to punch above its weight.
By Dominic Roskrow
The devil, they say, is in the detail, and detail is everything to Billy Walker.He’s one of a team of three who own BenRiach distillery in the heart of Speyside, and as soon as he walks through the distillery doors his eyes wander off to the darkest recesses, linger on polished fittings and rove round the mills, washbacks and mash tuns.When we’re joined by distillery manager Stuart Buchanan he evaporates into the recesses of the distillery.When he emerges he’s satisfied and says so, Stuart Buchanan is non-plussed. It’s as if both men couldn’t imagine it being any other way.“The people in the North East are hard workers,”Walker says later.“That’s what I really like about them.You don’t have to tell them to do things, they look for jobs and do them.They take pride in what they do.” He has a point.Wherever you turn at BenRiach there are signs of that pride; everything ordered and tidy, spotlessly clean, in working order and ready to go.And it’s in evidence at Glendronach, too,and best reflected quite literally by the large plate of mirror-like copper and brass fittings that adorn the underback.Maybe it’s a company thing.Ah,Glendronach.To complete a journey round the BenRiach Distillery Company it’s necessary to take a detour to the company’s new acquisition. Since Whisky Magazine planned the trip to write about BenRiach it’s fair to say that events have run ahead of themselves.Walker and his South African business partners Geoff Bell and Wayne Keiswetter beat off stiff competition in late summer to acquire the distillery and after just three months you can see their influence.Where a couple of years back it was a sad place, scene of a messy divorce and peopled by staff unsure of their future, today it’s a powerhouse of activity. Its accommodation is being used for visiting trade guests and journalists, a new marketing person is in place and with Keiswetter and Bell in town and Belgian guests on site it’s buzzing with irreverent and humorous banter, the sort of joshing that you only get when people are very comfortable together.Outside, distillery manager Alan McConnachie is pointing out some of the tackier signage that is to be removed and where improvements are to be made to welcome visitors, while discussing with representatives of the Gordon Highlanders how the company intends to resurrect a copse where trees dedicated to departed heroes of the regiment has fallen into disrepair.The table in the main room of the distillery is covered with Glendronach and BenRiach sample bottles, packaging for the new Glendronach expressions are placed nearby, and the atmosphere is that of a campaigns office, which of course is exactly what it is. Later we’ll sample some of the heavily sherried stock that the trio inherited with the distillery, a crucial element for them when making the purchase, and the drams are quite wonderful.It’s like turning the first pages of a brand new chapter,an experience dripping in anticipation and excitement.But we digress.Today at least we’re here for BenRiach.As it happens this turns out to be a timely visit, for there are no TASTING NOTES There are too many expressions to do the distillery full justice,but here are a few favourites Birnie Moss 48% Nose: Rich peat,masses of it, with some vanilla,spice and a hint of wood Palate: Big peat attack and as unruly as a bunch of 16 year old rugby players in a grudge match.Some vanilla and yellow fruits but this is peat for peat’s sake – and all the better for it.Finish: Soft and fruity.No, only kidding.A proper peat monster.1991 Burgundy 55% Nose: Spicy and quite aggressive,with blackcurrant andberry fruits,earthy Palate: Oily,full and intense, with some citrus fruits and a wave of spice.Finish:Medium with red berries and a lingering spiciness BenRiach 16 Years Old Sauternes Finish 46% Nose: Complex and evolving, with nuts,raisins and vanilla fighting it out Palate: Sweet and full,with vanilla,berry fruits and aggressivesweet spices.The whiskyequivalent of break dancing,with things kicking off left rightand centre.Finish: Asquabble between fruit,spices and wood,with no obvious winner.BenRiach 20 Years Old 43% Nose: Gentle,honeyed and soft,with vanilla and soft toffee in the mix Palate: Soft,gentle,mouth coating and honeyed,almost fudge-like,sweet peach and apricot in syrup Finish: Smooth and rounded, with only a hint of woody BenRiach 15 Years Old Madeira 43% Nose: Unsurprisingly very fruity with orange and exotic fruits high up,soft toffee,and sweet spice Palate: Intense,rich,mouth coating an extraordinary,with sweet orange and exotic fruits offset by a winey dryness and spiciness.Full of character.Finish: Long rich and fruity and some wood and spice to prevent it becoming cloying and to add a welcome depth Arumaticus Fumosus 46% Nose: Slightly acrid but excellent sooty smoke and tinned fruits trying to battle throughout Palate:Weird and wonderful, with the distinctive sooty smoke set off by a winey and exotic fruit mix.Peat battles with sweet and wins.Some pepper in the mix too.Finish: The smokiness lingers longest BenRiach 30 Years Old 43% Nose: Rich and full,with intense fruit flavours Palate: Deliciously honeyed, smooth and roundeed,with intense fruits and just enough tannin and spicetoprovide depth but without choking the malt Finish: Rich,long and tanniny 1991 Rioja cask 56% Nose: Strawberry,fruit sherbet,candy,light and floral Palate: Very sweet,with lots of fruit,soft melon and peach,rich Finish: Not long but soft, sweet and very pleasant less than three news stories to report on from the distillery.Mind you, you can’t help wondering whether Walker would come up with three snippets of news whenever you happened to speak to him.And in BenRiach Walker and his associates have a gem. In fact, if you were debating a rational argument as to why one distillery might be considered the best from a malt enthusiast’s point of view you could throw BenRiach into the ring. It’s small for a starter, which always goes down well with the die-hards, it’s independent and not mechanised, an old-fashioned and labour-intensive distillery.Then there’s the range of malts.Not only are there all sorts of delights maturing in strange casks in the warehouses, but many of them are already in bottles, too.Indeed, it’s in a two horse race with Bruichladdich for the claim of being Scotland’s best all-rounder.You want a young fruity Speysider? Couldn’t be easier.Something older? Yes of course.Something vintage? Yep, all in order. Finishes? Have you seen the 15 and 16 year olds? Single cask?No problem.But there’s peat, here, two; the young and sooty Curiositas, for instance, and the aged and venerable 21 Years Old Authenticus as well as some fine peated single casks.Okay, but what about smoky whiskies with special finishes?Don’t be silly, and yet what are those four malts with the words Rum,Port,Pedro Ximnez and Madeira on the labels under the collective grey banner ‘Fumosus’?With prices on the shelves starting around £20 and stretching as high as you want to go,and with something to suit every conceivable whisky palate it’s a retailer’s dream, or nightmare.“Somebody should tell Billy to slow down a bit,”muttered one independent recently.“The trouble is there just isn’t the shelf space. I mean,we have to sell some whisky made by other people too.” The distillery itself, attached to Longmorn and in many ways a reflection of it,was built to reinforce stock from its neighbour but became a laboratory for Chivas Brothers, which doesn’t have an Islay distillery and so started to distill and mature peated whisky on the site.The distillery is dinky and ordered, and in addition to the process being traditional, it’s slow, too. Everything about the ordered process seems to be precise and confident, a relaxed and soothing experience when set aside the operation at Pulteney,Dalmore or Bunnahabhain.But it’s at its most reverent and stately in the maltings room.If it were only to have its maltings up and running again, then it really would be up there in the purists’ league tables.Cue Billy Walker’s first news.“We’ll be firing it up and malting within weeks,”he says.“We’ve talked about doing it for a long time so now it’s about time we got on with it.We’re all ready to go.” Even in winter, with the smell of snow in the air and blizzards just a day away, and the maltings silent and cold, there’s something comforting about them.The rich peat reek suggests practice runs have already been carried out.When the peat fires are burning once more BenRiach really will be a delight.Walker keeps his second piece of news until we’re in the warehouse.As you’d expect for from someone as creative as Walker there are all sorts of delights maturing on site.But Walker is keen to show off some casks from 1998.The whisky is amazing, a definite departure for BenRiach. One of the more unusual wine finishes perhaps?It seems not.“These contain malt that has been triple distilled,”he says.“We have done batches of triple distilled BenRiach before and they have been absolutely brilliant.These are in second fill Oloroso sherry and are works in progress but will be bottled soon.” The third piece of news is waiting back in the sample room.In dramatic packaging of red, orange and black portraying peat flames in full rage is the latest product from BenRiach.Birnie Moss refers to the area where BenRiach’s peat is dug up, and the malt, at a weighty 48% and the colour of light straw, is a Vindaloo curry of a peated whisky.But it’s special in other ways, too.“This is the first bottling containing all spirit distilled since we bought the distillery,”says Walker.“It’s young,perhaps three and a half, four years old, but that works well with peated whisky and it marks a special time for us.” We return to Glendronach for an evening meal and an extensive tasting session and turns into a classic whisky evening - too much whisky in the company of a diverse mix of people talking about a range of subjects,many of them contentious, late into the night. It’s a great evening.But the next day, as I head home just ahead of the snow that will bring Eastern Scotland and England to a halt for three days, the lasting memory I take away with me is BenRiach Distillery’s incongruous mix of dirty sooty peat-reek and spotlessly clean distillery equipment.It’s perfect, everything a distillery should feel, smell and look like.And it’s that attention to detail which will ensure BenRiach stays ahead of the game,whatever Walker and his colleagues decide to do with it next. Benriach Distillery Output:1.8 million litres,working now close to capacity Eight washbacks,four stills 20 mashes a week,each 5.8 tones of grain producing 30,000 litres of wash Four washes Two fermentation times, 60 hours,but with a longer fermentation time of 78 hours over weekends Stills operated manually and the stills have no reflux bulb Stills roughly balanced with 15,100 litres each