A belated Happy New Year to you all! I had hoped to complete this blog before the end of last year, however with the Christmas rush and all the activities that go along with it I’ve only just been able to complete these notes. What I wanted to talk about on this occasion was the final Arkwrights whisky tasting of 2015 which was held on Wednesday the 2nd of December. The whisky being sampled was from BenRiach and it was presented by Stewart Buchanan who was here a few years ago on one of his very first ‘gigs’!
BenRiach distillery is based towards the top of the Speyside region of Scotland, 5 miles from the River Spey and 3 miles from Elgin. It was established way back in 1898 and although it was closed for a number of years, it reopened in 1965 under the ownership of Glenlivet (although the spirit produced back then was used purely for blending). In 2004 the distillery was acquired by an independent consortium and since then has relied on the use of traditional methods of whisky making to produce its spirits, with the focus being on quality not quantity. They produce approximately 1.8 million litres of spirit per annum and are very passionate about the use of good quality casks. The thinking being that although they could up production, they would lose the ability to utilise the best casks and the overall quality would suffer. BenRiach don’t produce any duty free specific ranges, they refrain from mass marketing, shun NAS (No Age Statement) expressions and do not undertake any chill filtering.
So… what are the results of these ideologies? Here are my notes on the seven expressions we were fortunate enough to try:
This whisky has been aged in refill sherry hogsheads (“refill” meaning it’s been filled at least twice previously with whisky). The age of the casks make them unpredictable and harder to manage. Typically the Angels take their fair share, a 250 litre cask may only have 40 to 50 litres of spirit remaining after 35 years. Sometimes if left for too long the whisky can end up too ‘woody’ and ‘dry’, or occasionally the strength could drop to below 40% alcohol (which would means technically it cannot be classed as whisky anymore). All these factors mean that BenRiach employ an extensive tasting program to regularly check the status of their aging spirits… sounds like a great job to me! Where do I apply?
Visually this dram is a very dark amber colour, with ‘good legs’ in the glass.
Nose Toffees and dark fruits like prunes and juicy raisins. There’s some chocolaty notes too, and a hint of sweet, ripe, juicy pear.
Palate It’s rich & sweet with tropical fruits (especially peach) but with a chili warmth and spicy notes from the Spanish Oak casks.
Finish Rich, sweet & warming… treacle toffee & cloves persist.
Aged in American Oak ex-bourbon casks. This bottling has been reduced down from cask strength and is the only whisky that has been produced solely under the current ownership.
Nose The barley notes from the new make spirit are still evident, it’s quite ‘oily’ and light, with masses of vanilla and some tropical fruit notes.
Palate Citrusy notes, especially lemon zest. Sweet green apple and a touch of dry woody spice from the cask.
Finish Not particularly long, but the spiciness & hints of oak are more prevalent.
This whisky was names ‘Best Speyside Single Malt’ at the 2015 World Whiskies Awards and was previously a Gold Medal winner at the 2006 ‘International Wine & Spirits Competition’. BenRiach believe this highlights continuity in the quality of their bottlings. This single malt marries somewhere in the region of 30 casks of spirit, including 1st fill bourbon & 2nd fill barrels, virgin US oak casks as well as a number of Scottish oak hogsheads, which are bourbon casks which have been re-built with additional staves to take the size up from 200 litres to 250 litres. These may have also been re-charred.
Nose It’s really sweet and peachy, with some lightly toasted coconut and a slight ether hit of pear drops.
Palate The same sweet peach is evident, with light honey & vanilla wrapped up in a creaminess. This slowly fades and a citrusy tang opens up.
Finish Candied lemon peel and some of the dry nuttiness that was picked up on the nose.
This expression was not one that was intended to be produced! It was actually a request from a Taiwanese importer who had an old single cask of sherry finished BenRiach. The importer wanted more of the same to replace an outgoing whisky he supplied. Eventually this expression found its way to Taiwan where it promptly flew off the shelves! Only 20% of the casks stored in the warehouses are sherry casks. This particular expression is made up of 50% Oloroso cask finish & 50 % Pedro Ximenez finish casks.
Nose Has the sort of classic “Christmassy” nose often associated with sherry finishes… rich, sweet and warm with gentle spice.
Palate Keeping with the festive theme! Sweet marzipan, toasted hazelnuts, rich dark fruits (soaked in sherry!) and a touch of maltiness.
Finish Long and warming… spicy (clove & red chili) but with some fruity berry notes too.
Another expression from the ‘specialist finish’ range, this is the second edition of the Sauternes cask finish. This whisky is aged for at least six years in a Chateau d’Yquem cask. These casks can cost somewhere in the region of £350 each! Hence the reason why the spirit is left to mature in them for so long. It allows them to extract the finer qualities from the casks.
Nose Sweet, juicy pineapple. Ripe red berries, light brown sugar and a sort of ‘resinous’ quality
Palate Initially it’s very sweet on the tongue. Masses of fruit (including red grape). Eventually mellows and you get some vanilla notes.
Finish This has an almost ‘rubbery’ aftertaste to it. And as strange as that sounds, it’s not unpleasant!
BenRiach have a history of producing peated whiskies stretching back to 1972. However back
then it was made purely for blending purposes. Now the distillery dedicate five weeks of the year to producing peated spirit with a phenolic content of around 55 ppm which is comparable to your more well known Islay malts such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin & Ardbeg. The peat used to dry the grain is cut from the surrounding hills of Speyside and is generally younger that the Islay peat and does not contain the salt saturation of the coastal variety.
Nose Has an oily quality mingled with an earthiness and the smell of a damp campfire (like burning wet leaves)
Palate Much dryer than the nose suggested. Hay notes, vanilla and yet smoky with a touch of bacon and a lovely maple syrup like sweetness.
Stewart actually had a big part to plan in the creation of this expression in his previous role as Distillery Manager. The distillery had been playing around with a couple of port cask finishes (peat & port go well together in Stewart’s opinion) and eventually came up with the Solstice. This expression has been finished for approximately 6 ½ years in both tawny port hogs heads & ruby port pipes. It was discovered that over time, the ruby port cask softened the peatiness of the spirit and added a sweetness whereas the spirit in the tawny port cask developed a more savoury, phenolic tone. The end result is a marriage of three tawny port hogsheads with two ruby port pipes resulting in what was my favourite dram of the evening.
Nose Very ‘winey’ and resinous. Sweet and yet spicy, reminiscent of strawberries with black pepper.
Palate It’s thick, sweet and juicy with hints of red fruits (plums, damsons, raspberries etc…) and more than a whisper of dry smoke. Some biscuity, cereal notes too.
Finish The smoke becomes more evident and the strawberry & black pepper picked up on the nose becomes more prevalent. It’s a good, long, enjoyable finish!
My order of preference for the evening went Solstice, 12 year old Sherry, 16 year old, 35 year old, 15 year old Sauternes, Septendecim & finally the 10 year old. I ended up buying a bottle of the Solstice to enjoy over Christmas, and enjoyed it was! It was yet another great evening organised by Fran and Ken and I can’t wait to enjoy whatever tastings they will bring us in 2016.
(We would like to add our thanks to BenRiach for another excellent evening’s tasting – great whiskies and a top presentation from Stewart.
Fran and Ken)
Photos courtesy of Brian Shaw Photography www.brianshawphoto.co.uk