Benriach relaunch: Rachel Barrie makes her mark

Peter Ranscombe tastes his way through Benriach distillery’s new range, which was launched online today.

I’LL always have a soft spot for Benriach.

It was one of the first whiskies that I got to know when I was cutting my teeth as a reporter at The Scotsman newspaper.

I remember meeting its then owner, Billy Walker, for lunch on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh and, as we parted company, he reached into the boot of his car and produced a bottle from the Speyside distillery.

Years later, sitting around the fire at its sister site, Glendronach in Aberdeenshire, Walker opened my eyes to the joys of older whiskies as he poured me a dram of his 30 year old.

One of the factors that fascinated me the most about Benriach – which sits just south of Elgin in Moray, on a sweeping curve on the road north from Rothes – was the sheer diversity of its range.

Walker produced both peated and unpeated spirits at the distillery and aged them in a weird and wonderful array of different casks, allowing him to create whiskies with a huge range of flavours.

I was always a bit confused about finding peated whiskies on Speyside – it’s a flavour that’s more readily associated with Islay.

But I remember Walker explaining that – before the days of coal, gas or heavy fuel oil – the barley would have been malted over burning peat.

That meant that, in the past, Speyside whiskies would have carried more of the peated flavours than the sweet sherry cask flavours that characterise their tastes today.

A history lesson

Walker and his South African investors – Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter – bought Benriach from Chivas Brothers, Scotland’s second largest distiller, in 2004 for £5 million.

The distillery had been mothballed, but Walker and his team breathed fresh life into the site, bottling it as a single malt.

In the past, its spirit had been a well-liked component in blends, but under Walker’s stewardship, it gained a life of its own.

Walker sold Benriach, Glendronach and Glenglassaugh on the Banffshire coast to Brown-Forman – the American giant behind brands including Jack Daniel’s whiskey, Finlandia vodka and Chambord liqueur – for £281 million in 2016.

His new project is GlenAllachie distillery near Aberlour.

That means it’s now time for a new master blender to make her mark on Benriach – step forward Rachel Barrie.

Evolution, not revolution

Having grown up in neighbouring Aberdeenshire, Barrie has happy memories of Benriach and its cherry tree as she cycled passed the distillery at weekends and on holidays.

During this afternoon’s online tasting to accompany the relaunch of the Benriach range, Barrie described herself as like a “child in a sweetie shop” when she stepped inside warehouse 13 at the distillery and first saw all the casks with which she’d be able to create the new range.

She’s always been a fan of the way Benriach has balanced fruit and malt flavours.

That love for the spirit shines through in the way she waxes lyrical about the ten whiskies she’s created for the relaunch of the range.

I expect that the access she has to casks through the wider Brown-Forman network gives her some really exciting options when it comes to laying down whisky to age, and also when it comes to adding “finishes”, when aged whiskies spend a few months in exotic barrels to pick up additional flavours.

The core of the new range features peated and unpeated versions of Benriach’s 10- and 12-year-old whiskies, with limited editions including 21-, 25- and 30-year-old Scotch, plus spirits aged in smaller quarter-casks.

Tasting through the range

The Original Ten (£38)
Barrie has dialled-up the vanilla flavour in the 10-year-old whisky by using more first-fill bourbon barrels, taking her inspiration from the first incarnation of 1994 Benriach, the distillery’s debut as a single malt. There are some delicious caramel, marmalade, honey and dried fruit aromas, but it’s the vanilla that dominates on both the nose and palate, with a lovely lemon curd richness towards the finish. The vanilla is perhaps too dominant for me, but I know this style will be a real crowd-pleaser – it’s sweet, it’s approachable and it’s a great calling card for the distillery – and I expect there’ll be lots of special offers below the recommended retail price of £38.

The Smoky Ten (£42)
One of Benriach’s most distinctive variations has been its peated “Curiositas”, with Barrie adding Jamaican rum casks to the new recipe. It’s evolution, rather than revolution, and works really well, with smoked meat flavours alongside red cherry, pineapple, brown sugar and honey. Sweet inland peat from pine forests has been used, which adds vanilla elements alongside the smoky phenols.

The Twelve (£44)
If “vanilla” is the dominant tasting note for the 10 year old then “fruit” is the word I’d most readily associate with the sublime 12 year old, with Barrie adding ruby port pipes to the mix of pedro ximénez sherry casks and bourbon barrels. I loved the peach, sultana and raisin notes on the nose, with the dialled-back vanilla allowing more milk chocolate, honey and spicy cloves notes to come through on the palate.

The Smoky Twelve (£48)
Barrie has brought masala wine barrels to the party for the peated version of the 12 year old. There’s a great balance on the palate, with cream, vanilla, honey, redcurrant and charred notes. It’s also the driest of the whiskies for me in the core range, which is a characteristic I’d always associated with Benriach. Here, the dryness feels like its driven by the tannins in the wooden barrels, creating a more savoury flavour and chewy texture.

The Twenty One (£145)
The 21 one year old was easily my favourite whisky in today’s tasting – it’s got a depth of flavour that comes with age, but it’s light on its feet, with bright honey and apricot jam aromas and then plenty of baked red apple, brown sugar and peach flavours coming through on the palate. It’s so lively for a middle-aged whisky and I love it.

The Twenty Five (£325)
Considering its components have been aged in sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and madeira wine casks, the 25 year old is relatively muted on the nose, with brown sugar and TCP notes. But it’s much, much more expressive on the palate, with sweet demerara sugar, hot spicy cloves, tangy marmalade, shrivelled prunes, and a delightfully nutty finish, with lots of rounded texture too.

The Thirty (£650)
That medicinal TCP note from the 25 year old becomes more pronounced on its older sibling, but what impressed me most was the surprising freshness and depth to the fruit aromas, with light lemon, pear and apricot flourishes. There’s golden syrup, there’s red apple, there’s roast meat, there’s a depth to the peach flavours on the palate. Barrie used only peated whiskies in her blend, making this a true rarity – an aged, peated Speyside single malt.

Benriach Triple Distilled
Another string to Benriach’s bow is when it triple distils its spirit in the summer. There’s a tinned sardine metallic-yet-fishy note on the nose, alongside fresher green apple and confected pear drop aromas. Those fruit flavours become much fresher on the palate, centring on green apple and lemon, but there’s also a distracting heat, which feels like it’s beyond the 43% alcohol by volume quoted on the label.

Benriach Quarter Cask
There are lovely roast beef and brown sugar notes hiding behind the spirity kick on the nose of the quarter cask. The depth of flavour is really dialled up on the palate, with vanilla, red apple, honey, caramel, and the return of that lemon curd richness from the 10 year old. Its 46% alcohol by volume definitely benefits from a drop of water.

Smoky Quarter Cask
There’s a rum-like aroma in amongst the coal smoke, vanilla, honey and strong cereal element to the peated version of the quarter cask. The vanilla powers through on the palate, with coconut, roast meat and green apple flavours. There’s real depth and complexity here, plus a chewy wood-tannin texture.

Read more of Peter’s whisky, wine and beer reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.