I was recently asked what word first springs to mind when I think of Benriach. I gave it plenty of thought, but I still couldn’t come up with one word which succinctly encapsulated the distillery. For some distilleries, the answer is an almost instinctive, knee-jerk response. Laphroaig; medicinal. Macallan; sherried. Clynelish; waxy. Daftmill; collectable! Benriach isn’t nearly as straightforward or pigeonhole-able, but that’s no bad thing. It is affectionately known as ‘The Lab’ among its employees, and when you consider it produces a mixture of peated, unpeated, double- and triple-distilled spirit, you can quickly understand why.
For a long time, however, it seemed as though Benriach might have been the shortest-lived operational distillery in Scotland. Established in 1898 by John Duff during the late-Victorian whisky boom, it only produced spirit until 1900 when it became a casualty of the Pattison crash, which forced its closure, just like many other distilleries.
Benriach’s story may have ended there, had it not been located just half a mile away from Duff’s other distillery, Longmorn, which he founded in 1893. The neighbouring sites were connected by a ‘Puggy’; a small, private steam locomotive which transported raw materials and other goods between the two distilleries. Although spirit production ceased, Benriach’s maltings remained active and supplied malt to Longmorn until 1965, when another boom in demand for Scotch meant that, following extensive renovations, spirit began to run from its stills for the first time in 65 years.
As conventional as it once was, it is Benriach’s more recent history which perhaps explains why I couldn’t quite capture the distillery in just one word. In 1972, batches of peated spirit were first produced, a tradition which continues to this day and is referred to as the distillery’s ‘smoke season’. Every summer since 1998 it has also produced batches of triple-distilled spirit, with the only blip in production coming between 2002 and 2004 when previous owners Chivas Brothers mothballed the site, prior to it being swiftly resurrected by Billy Walker when he took the reins in 2004.
It’s now under the ownership of Brown-Forman and, shortly after they purchased Benriach from Walker, along with sister distilleries GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in 2016, they appointed Rachel Barrie as master blender. It’s not difficult to see why Barrie was drawn to Benriach with all of its versatility and experimentation, but her memories of the distillery go back much further. “I’m from just east of Speyside, in Aberdeenshire. A very idyllic upbringing, my family were always outdoors; I remember cycling past here and seeing the beautiful cherry blossom tree just outside the cottage,” she reminisces. “When I was 18 I went to a summer gliding school which was just across the road, and that was my first opportunity of seeing the immense panorama, the bird’s eye view of this part of northern Speyside, and I could actually see Benriach Distillery below. It was absolutely spectacular,” she says.
Those “fond memories of summers in Speyside” as a child have undoubtedly gone on to shape her professional life. In 1994, when she had been working in the industry for three years, she tasted Benriach for the first time – it was a rather significant bottling from 1994. That 1994 bottling was a 10-year-old expression which was, remarkably, the first time Benriach had been released in its own right onto the emerging single malt market. Thinking back to that moment, Barrie says that she remembers, “There was this beautiful balance of fruit and malt which was absolutely perfect; the most archetypal, beautiful Speyside style”.
Fast forward 26 years to the present day, and Brown-Forman were looking to revamp a range which was, at times, somewhat confusing to the average consumer. While malt enthusiasts were quite comfortable with accepting and digging deeper into the pseudo-latin suffixes attached to each expression, others found it off-putting and unnecessarily complicated. In crafting the new range, Barrie first wanted to understand the very essence of Benriach, saying, “It’s all about the place, it’s about the character of the distillery, it’s just like getting to know a person and everything about them.” Getting to know Benriach’s multi-faceted personality was one of the challenges she most enjoyed, saying it was “about getting to know the spirit” in all its varied guises.
Combining each spirit type with the plethora of cask types available at Benriach meant Barrie had an almost infinite number of possibilities at her disposal when it came to creating flavour. There’s barely disguised excitement in her voice as she tells us, “I went into the warehouses, looked at the different colours of the cask ends, and they looked like different paint pots. Instead of painting a picture, I’m painting with flavour. I was given the creative licence, as well as the creative freedom, to bring to life this world of flavour.”
Perhaps no one knew what was lurking in the warehouses better than global brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan. He was a key driver in bringing the distillery back to life in 2004 and, although he was primarily involved in spirit production, assessing the warehouses was just as exciting. “What have we got in there? What’s in these warehouses? Let’s unlock them, let’s go and see what we’ve got. I think the variety of styles, even back then, blew us away,” he says.
That variety of styles, or figurative paint pots, has been drawn on to the fullest extent in the new range, as has simplicity, both in terms of packaging and message. The pallet of colours is reminiscent of the Speyside landscape, ranging from pastel blues and purples to more heathery, earthy tones, and the overall look of the range pays significant homage to that original 1994 bottling.
Barrie grins as she speaks of the “world of eclectic casks” she has used to create a core range which initially consists of a pair of 10 year olds and a pair of 12 year olds, with “a kind of yin and yang thing going on”. Both age statements have an unpeated variant and a peated variant, but differ in their cask make-up. Aside from being matured in Bourbon and sherry, The Original Ten has the addition of virgin oak, whereas The Twelve includes port casks. The Smoky Ten combines peated spirit matured in Bourbon, virgin oak and Jamaican rum casks, with The Smoky Twelve consisting of smoky whisky from Bourbon, sherry and marsala casks.
In addition to those four expressions there’s The Twenty One (Bourbon, sherry, virgin oak and red wine casks), The Twenty Five (Bourbon, sherry, virgin oak and madeira casks), and The Thirty (Bourbon, sherry, virgin oak and port casks). Travel retail will also see The Ten Triple Distilled (matured in Bourbon, PX sherry and virgin oak), as well as Quarter Cask and Smoky Quarter Cask offerings, both matured in Bourbon casks and then finished in quarter casks.
The joy in bringing together all types of casks and flavours to create this new range is plainly evident. “It was like being a child in a sweetie shop”, Barrie says, smiling. Then, a moment of quiet introspection: “Now I have a vision for the future, and to create the future of Benriach. It’s been quite a journey.”