Its unusual, troubled past reads like A Series of Unfortunate Events: two years after Benriach started operations in 1898, it was hit by the Pattison Crash, in which plummeting whisky prices brought the Scotch industry to its knees. The distillery was subsequently mothballed for the next 65 years, though it continued to provide malted barley for its neighbour Longmorn during this time.
In the ‘60s, Benriach came under Glenlivet, which refurbished and restarted the stills in 1965. The distillery was one of the pioneer makers of peated whisky in the ‘70s — an unconventional move back then at Speyside — and was bought by Seagram’s Chivas Brothers in 1985. Production increased from two to four stills and Benriach released its first single malt in 1994, almost a century since it was founded.
That, however, didn’t last. When Pernod-Ricard took over Chivas Brothers in 2001, the distillery reduced operations to three months a year. Shutters eventually came down in 2003. An independent consortium led by Billy Walker subsequently acquired Benriach a year later, and the new owners released an eclectic but exciting portfolio of both peated and unpeated whiskies dating back to the ‘60s. Benriach was finally coming into its own — if only about a century on. Today, Benriach boasts a handful of awards under its belt, including Global Whisky Distiller of 2015 by the Icons of Whisky Awards.
Under the helm of Master Blender Dr. Rachel Barrie — who was appointed by the distillery a year after it was acquired by Brown Forman in 2016 — Benriach revamped its core whisky range. Released in September last year and now available in Singapore, the new portfolio consists of two age statements, a 10 Year Old and a 12 Year Old. Each age statement offers a peated and unpeated version. “The new range perfectly marries tradition and innovation that is central to Benriach’s story,” Barrie elaborates. “Inspired by the 1994 bottling of the Original Ten (Benriach’s first bottle), with its fruit-laden complexity and smooth, rounded taste, the new range re-imagines the 1898 origins of Benriach, brought to life in the 21st century through fusing distilling styles with extraordinary casks.”
And how do they taste? “In the new Original Ten, a more richly flavoured, rounded malt character might be discerned,” says Barrie. Matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and sherry casks, the distillery’s summery signature is crisp, bright yet buttery, with layers of orchard fruit, honeyed malt and toasted oak. The Twelve, which Barrie describes as a balance of “richly sherried malt with added layers of fruit complexity”, is creamier and sweeter than its younger sibling, with maraschino cherry, baked orange and raisin on the palate, as well as hazelnut and chocolate notes on the finish.
“The new Smoky Ten and Smoky Twelve explore the sweet smokiness of Benriach, enriched through innovative combinations of rum, virgin oak and marsala casks interwoven with more traditional bourbon and sherry,” Barrie continues. What this translates to is a pair of peated expressions that has more of a barbecue flavour and less of the medicinal taste typical of traditional Islay malts. Both feature charred, ripe fruit notes and an oaky, spicy finish, though the older bottle is creamier and more complex than the Ten in its smoke with hints of floral.
(All images: Benriach)