BenRiach: a working distillery
From there, we popped into the distillery. BenRiach, like so many Scottish distilleries, is located smack dab in the middle of working farmland. As we crossed the courtyard from the malthouse to the distillery, we watched pigs about the same size and shape as a sherry butt rooting in the neighboring pasture’s soft mud. Inside, we checked out BenRiach’s stainless steel fermenters and watched workers tending to the tall, tapered stills that produce a fruity new make spirit.
But the most interesting part of our visit was a walk through one of BenRiach’s earthen floor dunnage houses. This distillery employs an incredible range of cask types. On our tour, we saw sherry butts, port pipes, Madeira casks, Pedro Ximenez casks, bourbon barrels, wine casks, and sauternes casks, as well as a dizzying array of cask sizes.
In that way, BenRiach’s ethos is almost the opposite of its sister distillery, GlenDronach. There, sherry casks reign supreme, and a focused range seems squarely aimed at drinkers who prefer a rich, sweet, nutty malt. But at BenRiach, the focus is on experimentation and diversity. The brand offers an amazingly extensive array of whiskies, including special releases for different markets and an abundance of one-offs and exclusives.
We tasted several different bottlings, a tutorial in the effects of cask type on malt. A 22-year-old Moscatel finished malt was my favorite, sweet and seductive, but the standard 16-year-old malt was also showing beautifully, with a buttery texture and honey-like flavor. But a limited edition cask strength peated port-finish malt distilled in 2008 was less satisfying, with a loud combination of pungent smoke and vinous fruit that didn’t quite line up for me.
I’m very interested to see what Brown-Forman does with BenRiach. It seems like the focus on diversity and finishing casks lends itself well to targeting the increasingly technically sophisticated whisky consumer. There’s a lot to nerd out on in this collection, and the sheer number of releases seems to trigger the collector itch. On the other hand, with all those one-offs, it’s hard to put your finger on what, exactly, BenRiach malt is. Is it sweet and decadent? Yes. Is it pungent and peaty? Yes. Is it soft and fruity? Also yes. This chameleon-like distillery can be a little bit of everything to everybody, as long as you pick the right bottle.
Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...