Tasting four whiskies from Benromach
Like many of Scotland’s distilleries, Benromach has had an eventful history of ups and downs over the years. It was originally founded back in 1898, but over the course of the next one hundred years or so it was sold, closed and re-opened numerous times, before falling under the ownership of Diageo (known as DCL back then). It was then closed for last time in 1983.
If that year sounds familiar to seasoned whisky fans, that’s because it’s the very same year DCL closed numerous other distilleries inducing the likes of Port Ellen, Brora and St Magdalene.. and we all know what happened to them; they were lost forever. So the simple fact that Benromach managed to survive the 1983 closing-spree is something quite special in itself.
Fast forward to 1998 and the distillery was eventually purchased by one of Scotland’s oldest independent bottlers, Gordon and MacPhail. It is they who lovingly brought things back to life at Benromach and are essentially responsible for producing the whiskies I sampled below.
Benromach Organic 43%
Organic eggs, organic yoghurt and now organic whisky! Not just a health-food fad, the Benromach Organic truly is an organic whisky. When it was originally certified, it was the first whisky to meet the rigorous standards set by by the UK Soil Association which cover the full whisky production process, from barley growing through distillation, maturation and bottling.
The nose smells quite bright, fresh and young with green notes of cut grass, underripe banana, orchard fruits and fresh oak. There’s also some light vanilla, honey and dry malty cereal in the background.
A nice medium creamy weight to the palate with flavours reminiscent of honeyed oats, porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and some toffee. Much sweeter on the palate than the nose would suggest, fading to a medium length finish loaded with a good whack of young toasty oak spice and coffee grounds (many of these notes coming from the virgin oak maturation, I suspect).
Benromach 15 year old 43%
Not long after Benromach released the highly anticipated 10 year old 100 degrees proof (tasted here), a slightly more mature and demure sibling was announced, the Benromach 15 year old. As I raise the glass to my nose for the first time – fresh from tasting the spritely Benromach Organic – I find myself in a whole different world.
The nose is rich and deep; slow-moving if you will. There’s a heady old-world combination of sherry, malt, wood and funk. Stewed apples, dusty bookcases, leather chesterfields, butterscotch and orange skin. There’s also a peated vegetal note in the background with the faintest trace of dry earthy smoke. Really quite complex and plenty here to keep you entertained for a long while.
Another nice medium creamy weight to the palate, this time softer in its delivery with lots of sweet stewed fruits, runny honey, poached figs and vegetal earthy peat. There’s a decent amount of oak on the finish, which runs for quite some time. It tastes stately and has a definite old-world charm that you really don’t come across too often; especially not in any other modern 15 year old whisky I’ve encountered.
Benromach Sassicaia 2007 45%
The next expression starts life as ex-bourbon cask matured Benromach before being finished for a little over two years in former Sassicaia wine casks. Sassy-what now!? Sass-ih-kay-ah. A single-estate Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Bolgheri, in Tuscany, Italy. It’s an estate that is so critically acclaimed it was even granted its very own DOC (controlled designation, similar to the appellation system used in France).
On the nose it’s almost somewhere in between the Organic and the 15 year old, but with a big berry-whack to it. It’s got that youthful fresh, bright note with an undertone of tart red currants, berries, oak, jam and some earthy smoke.
Slightly thinner on the palate than the 15 year old with bright punchy fruits, menthol, earthy spice, crystallised ginger, citrus pith and cracked pepper. There’s a definite berry sweetness in there from the wine casks with a lot of earthy oak, spice and smoke char on the finish.
Benromach Peat Smoke 2006 46%
When I see the word ‘peat’ I know I immediately think of those big smoky, briny whiskies from Islay, but although this is peated, I’m expecting it to be a little different as we’re dealing with Highland peat here, decayed vegetation that has a very different composition – and flavour – to that found on the rugged west-coast of Scotland. Peated to a hefty 67 parts per million (PPM), these small-batch peated releases are full-term matured in first fill ex-bourbon barrels.
On the nose it’s immediately crisp, dry and ashy with some lemon zest, cracked pepper, green apple skins, light floral honey, and some light oak. A fresh, crisp light campfire smoke lingers in the background somewhere.
Nice and oily on the palate with the crisp, dry theme from the nose continuing. Stewed apples, a touch of honey, star anise, tobacco leaf, macerated strawberries, lemon, earthy tea and dry smoke on the finish.
The Benromach range
Whisky drinkers can be a funny bunch sometimes. It seems like everyone talks about the whisky they can no longer find, the whisky that’s too expensive these days or the whisky that’s lost its age statement or become homogenised. In my mind, here we almost have the complete opposite of the whisky described above. We have a whisky that’s widely available and affordable, a core range that proudly carries age statements (or vintages) and a whisky with loads of individual spirit character, especially in the 10 and 15 year old expressions. Yet even with all of that up its sleeve, Benromach still seems to fly under the radar for so many. Wake up people!
In a few months time I’m hoping to visit Benromach for myself, so watch this space. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you some interesting tidbits on my return.
A special thanks to Ian and the team at Alba Whisky (the Australian importer of Benromach) for providing the samples tasted here.