Born again- and again and again (Benromach)

Born again- and again and again (Benromach)

Benromach Distillery reopened last year, for the sixth time in its hundred-year history. Jim Murray hopes that this time it's for good

Distillery Focus | 13 Jun 1999 | Issue 4 | By Jim Murray

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It will be a stock trivia question for whisky buffs for years to come: which distillery celebrated its centenary by being reborn?Answer: the tiny northern Speyside distillery of Benromach, located in the ancient town of Forres. And the re-opening of Benromach brought the most famous independent Scotch bottlers of them all, Gordon & MacPhail, into that most exclusive of trades: whisky distilling. The fact that the Urquhart family, which owns Gordon & MacPhail, chose to buy a Speyside distillery was hardly a surprise, as Gordon & MacPhail is as much a part of Speyside as Glenfiddich, Strathisla or even the Spey itself.Gordon & MacPhail began when two Highland gentlemen, James Gordon and John MacPhail, set up shop in South Street, Elgin, in 1895. The businesss still operates from the same building.They began immediately to deal in malt whisky, but the grocery side of the fledgling empire was sturdy enough to see it through the Pattison crash of 1898-9. This happened at a time of over-production in the industry, when the fraudulent dealings of the most active Scotch company brought about a wave of closures of distilleries throughout Scotland and the ruin of some individuals who had invested too heavily.While Gordon & MacPhail continued to thrive, the brand-new Benromach distillery was less fortunate. It was unlucky enough to have been built in 1898 at the very height of the late-Victorian whisky boom, and had not even taken on the aroma of peat when Pattison’s foundered. It remained silent until 1907 when it produced a spirit known as Forres. However, three years later it was silent again. The end of World War One brought about a return to production, but as the Depression bit Benromach, as it was once more known, was closed down again from 1931 to 1936.Benromach had by now passed through a number of slightly singed hands. But in 1938 National Distillers, the American owner of such Kentucky names as Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow and Old Taylor, took control, and at last a sense of stability arrived at the bruised and battered Speyside outpost. Almost immediately, though, the apparently cursed Benromach was shut down again. This time it was because of World War Two, and though distilling continued in Scotland to bring in much-needed export revenue, some of the warehouses at Benromach were emptied of casks and filled instead with conscripts.In 1953, with Benromach back making its trademark full-bodied spirit, Scottish Malt Distillers (which later became United Distillers) added the distillery to its already enormous portfolio. Production remained constant, with the exception of 1966 and 1974 when there was upgrading of the distilling apparatus and buildings. However, after 30 years under the wing of SMD the distillery was closed again.One of Benromach’s problems was its relatively small size: the two medium-sized stills were capable of producing a fraction less than one million litres of alcohol a year. And SMD had no shortage of Speyside distilleries. Yet, ironically, the reason it has opened again is simply because Gordon & MacPhail wanted to distil on a very modest scale, and own a distillery within touching distance of Elgin. At the moment the distillery is set up to produce only 150,000 litres a year, making it easily one of Scotland’s smallest, alongside the likes of two other newcomers, Speyside and Isle of Arran.The first mash was made on 3rd August 1998 and the first spirit ran exactly a week later. But the process of getting there had been a slow, almost tortuous one. From buying the distillery to getting the plant up and running had taken five painful years.Buying the distillery was the easy bit. Benromach’s near neighbour, the prettier Dallas Dhu, built just a few months after Benromach and, by coincidence, closed a similar time afterwards, had already been sold off to the government and is now a museum. But when the Urquhart family began negotiations with United Distillers, parts of Benromach had already been cannibalised for other distilleries while the distillery buildings, though sturdy enough, had been left to decay. Most of the warehouses had been pulled down. It was their poor condition which had helped SMD executives finally decide to put a red line through the distillery’s name.Because of the nature of the company, Gordon & MacPhail had only ever envisaged small batch production. So the fact that the two large stills were no longer there was not a problem. Gordon & MacPhail asked the Speyside coppersmith Richard Forsyth to make two more, but very much smaller. The new wash still held 7,500 litres and the new spirit still 5,000, less than half the size of the originals. And the washbacks to serve them were fashioned by making the six giant larch ones already in place into four much smaller ones of 7,500 litres each. That was all reasonably straightforward, and in 1994 Gordon & MacPhail expected Benromach to be up and running in 1995, or 1996 at the latest. The problems came from unexpected directions: the name itself – United Distillers did not own the trademark ‘Benromach’ – and the water supply.The trademark was traced to an English wine and spirit company, once probably the agents for the malt. It took the best part of 18 months to sort that problem out. The water took a whole lot longer. It comes from Chapelton spring to the south of Forres, while the distillery is on the northern edge, so the water has to be piped under the town. As Ian Urquhart wistfully explains: ‘We had to use metal detectors to follow the course of the pipes and dig up and replace any piping that had deteriorated. It took much, much longer than we first expected. I don’t know exactly how long that pipe is, but I personally know every single inch of it.’Indeed, such was the delay that at the official opening of the distillery Alan Rutherford of UDV said, ‘At the company’s centenary in 1995 I told the Urquharts I would see them again at the opening of Benromach, or the next centenary celebration of Gordon & MacPhail, whichever came first’.Distilling at last got under way under the auspices of former Glen Spey manager, Bob Murray. Just as in 1898, the first few months consisted only of trials. The one spirit I have so far tasted was exceptionally clean and light; if anything too clean. I doubted whether it would last 12 years in the cask without the wood taking too firm a grip. In the six months since then they have run the stills through their paces to find something a little bigger bodied. They have looked at different fermenting procedures, different yeasts, different types of malt, different run-off times from the still and an array of different woods; they have even upped the peating.Gordon & MacPhail is confident that it has now created a style of spirit that bears a close relation to the Benromach of old. This would suit it perfectly; it was a malt the company had grown fond of over the years.However, the day when the new spirit crosses the three year threshold to become whisky cannot come soon enough for the firm’s patriarch, George Urquhart. His father, John, had taken over the company in 1915, having worked there from its first year. Now in his 80s, George had dreamed since the 1930s of owning his own distillery. He was thwarted in 1950 when he was outbid for the Strathisla distillery. The day Prince Charles came to open Benromach was, said Urquhart, one of the proudest of his life.An even prouder one may come two and half years from now when he tastes his own single malt for the very first time. Benromach will then have completed its remarkable comeback.
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