In many ways, single malt Scotch has reached a crossroads. Down one path roam the many distilleries continuing to base their craft on history and tradition, honouring time-proven recipes and processes. Down the other tread, those experimenting with modern technologies and ways of thinking, adapting themselves to a changing market. Very few distilleries are trying to walk down both routes with equal strides, and perhaps none as successfully as Benriach.
The key word behind Benriach’s success is ‘diversity:’ a quality it embodies in every way it can. For Benriach, this doesn’t only mean portfolio diversification but also applies to the processes championed inside each bottle produced. The result is, of course, the characteristically broad flavour profile for which Benriach is now known.
The casks used are a key element of this. Unlike most Scotch distilleries, Benriach’s barrel warehouses are a true treasure trove of the intriguing and unusual, featuring barrels from all corners of the world dating back to 1966. Some of the more frequented sorts used include port, sherry, marsala wine, Jamaican rum, madeira, red wine… the list goes on.
Whilst this eclectic playground might be daunting to the uninitiated, it is nothing short of a natural habitat for Dr. Rachel Barrie who is a true master at striking artful harmonies between contradictory casks. Starting her 26-year career as a Research Scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, Barrie is one of only a handful of female master blenders in the world and has also been inducted into Whisky Magazine’s ‘Whisky Hall of Fame.’ With more than 150,000 cask samples under her tasting belt, her expertise in casks is virtually unparalleled. Or, in other words, Dr. Rachel Barrie at Benriach is a match made in heaven.
It’s important to note that Barrie and Benriach don’t just use these casks to broaden the company’s repertoire but to invoke diversity inside each individual offering as well. Every whisky in Benriach’s core range has been aged in at least three different types of cask, resulting in multifaceted layers of flavours that morph with every sip. On top of that, the more premium core range offerings—the 21 year old, 25 year old and 30 year old —benefit not only from four unique cask maturations but from a mix of peated and unpeated spirit as well.
Despite the cask diversity, Benriach’s core range is still unmistakeably Speyside: expect rich and smooth malts with flavours of orchard fruit, honey sweetness and toasted oak. The diversity throughout Benriach’s range is also a rare sight in Scotch, evident through the three styles of whisky: peated, triple distilled, and classic Speyside. Created every Autumn in a period dubbed ‘Smoke Season,’ Benriach is now home to the oldest and rarest peated whiskies in Speyside. For Benriach, this annual ritual is an opportunity to celebrate an often-overlooked aspect of Speyside’s history: that heavily peated single malts were the preferred palate of the region throughout the 19th century.
The use of peat from the Highlands region imparts a sweet and smoky woodland aroma that is distinctly recognisable from the more medicinal notes typical of Islay. Peated whiskies in Benriach’s range include the Smoky Ten, the Smoky Twelve, and the Smoke Season. The flagship of Benriach’s peated options, Smoke Season, is aged in a combination of American virgin oak and bourbon barrels that amplify its toasted sweet notes.
Benriach’s triple distilled whiskies champion the lighter and more delicate fruit flavours enabled by the extra distillation. A process rarely seen in Scotch due to its associated operational costs, triple distilling creates ultra-smooth and delicate whiskies renowned for their finesse.
On top of this, Benriach also runs its stills at an atypically slow pace for all of its distillations to extend the ‘heart’ of the run. This technique captures the maximum level of esters and emboldens the resultant fruit profile, which, in the case of Benriach, is defined by the layers of fresh orchard fruit and vibrant citrus zest found throughout its range.
To this day, Benriach remains one of only two Speyside distilleries to distil whisky using barley malted in-house. These historic floor maltings take place over six to eight weeks during Spring in a period dubbed ‘Malting Season.’ The barley malted at Benriach is used in its annual Malting Season Special Edition whisky, with edition three next to be released. Expect a creamy, rich whisky laden with barley sugar, almond fudge and poached apple, leading into rounded flavours of vanilla and honeyed pear and the lingering nuttiness of slowly kilned malt.
Benriach also has a rotating selection of Cask Edition releases on offer. Highly limited in production, this collection is a liquid celebration of Benriach’s extensive ‘museum’ of rare and unique casks. This range reflects Benriachs flexibility as a company: whilst it has mastered the art of blending casks together to write the story itself, it is also aware when to take a step back to let the cask share its own narrative.
By this point, many readers might be wondering why Benriach isn’t the first name on the tip of every whisky drinker’s tongue. The reason? Benriach’s success is a relatively recent story. Founded in 1898, it was forced to shut down whisky operations two years later due to the Pattison Crash and wouldn’t fire up its stills again until 1965. In fact, Benriach only released its first single malt whisky, a 10-year-old, in 1994. Fast-forward 21 years to 2015 and Benriach was awarded the Global Whisky Distiller of the Year. The following year it was purchased by Brown-Forman and, a year on from that, Dr. Rachel Barrie became master blender.
Since then, Benriach has continued to become more distinctly Benriach, embodying the creative history of the company and truly starting to prove itself on the world stage. Accolades from 2022 include the best whisky, 12 Years and Under, at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, three Double Golds at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and three Golds at the International Wine and Spirit Competition; a testament to Rachel Barrie’s mastery behind the casks.
Benriach’s growth has also largely been due to its increasing global presence. For this, one man deserves the credit more than any other: Stewart Buchanan. First hired as Distillery Manager in 2004 to bring Benriach back into production after two years on pause, Buchanan not only worked tirelessly to help get the venue back up and running but has been raising a sweat as global brand ambassador since 2012. In March 2018, Stewart was named a ‘Keeper of the Quaich,’ a prestigious award given to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to Scotch.
Whilst it’s easy to forget the long path Benriach has taken to get to where it now stands, it’s important to note that its whisky remains exactly what it always has been: a careful balance of tradition and history with a modern playfulness and frame of mind. It is a company that is very aware of who it is, and yet it is always prepared to grow into something more.