New Whisky Releases From The BenRiach
For a distillery that was dark through most of the 20th century, The BenRiach has been working hard to light up the palates of malt drinkers in the new millennium with a variety of styles and an ambitious array of barrel finishes. Four new releases to the American market--one triple distilled and three peated--seem to showcase every variety of malt other than those typical of a Speyside distillery, and to quite a bit of success. Built in 1898, The BenRiach was mothballed a mere two years later due to the collapse of a major whisky blender whose demise brought down a number of distilleries. They were out of commission until 1965 and then spent the next 30 years producing malt whisky for blends--whose need for whisky with varied characteristics is the likely reason why there are so many kinds of malts in BenRiach’s stocks. This lack of official bottlings was seen as an asset by industry veteran Billy Walker when he led an independent consortium to purchase The BenRiach in 2004. Inheriting a brand with a rabid fan base can come with its hazards--just ask Dr. Bill Lumsden about his experiences reviving Ardbeg--and with few official releases, comparisons would be hard to make.
The BenRiach is clearly taking advantage of this freedom to stray from the standard Speyside flavor profile with these four new releases. The youngest and most traditional of the four, titled Horizons, is a 12 year old malt that spends its first decade in ex-bourbon casks and an additional two years in sherry casks. It also has the distinction of joining the small but respected ranks of triple distilled Scottish malts that includes Auchentoshan and Hazelburn (the latter produced at Springbank). Triple distillation is common to Ireland and responsible for the comparatively lighter character of that Emerald Isle’s whiskey. Though lighter in body than most malts, Horizons is no gateway Scotch. It’s aromas and flavors are surprisingly deep, rich and expressive--the additional distillation run concentrating flavor while relaxing the mouthfeel. The nose is full of apples, sweet cream, lightly toasted, candied nuts, and lightest hints of cinnamon and nutmeg while the palate offers a wider array of baked fruit, unsweetened cocoa and thyme. It may very well represent the best value in the bunch.
The release to the U.S. market includes a pair of 17 year peated malts, Septendecim (The BenRiach has a penchant for Latin names) aged in ex-bourbon casks and the second edition of The BenRiach Solstice, previously released as a 15 year old, which is aged in ex-bourbon casks but then finished in tawny port casks.
The Septendecim is the more peat forward of the two with a peaty, slightly medicinal nose complemented by sweet, spiced oranges, clove, hide leather, brine and lemon peel. The palate features a confident, deep and well-integrated core that follows the nose but features mellower, more polished versions of the aromas. The finish brings the peat back to the fore which book-ends this very complete dram.
Solstice, on the other hand, sees the peat influence decrease due to the strong influence of the port cask. Initially, this combination presents good flavors -- the nose on the Solstice is of browning butter, molasses and sandalwood, the palate similarly buttery with a quick transition to brine and then peat with undertones of pepper and turmeric -- that are somewhat sleepy. A few drops of water helps them shine through more brightly and more clearly, leading to a particularly complex and satisfying finish.
The last of the new releases is the Authenticus, which at 25 years old, represents the most super-annuated of The BenRiach peated expressions. Older peated malts typically see a significant decrease in the level of peat compared to younger expressions and the Authenticus is no exception. Although it shows less peat than either of the 17 year expressions, the peat itself still maintains an impressive vibrancy. The peat character also lacks the strongly medicinal quality of Islay malts which suggests that like the previous 21 year version, this release of the Authenticus originated from malt peated with northeast mainland peat. Though reticent at first, this is a dram that benefits from time in the glass with the herbaceous notes of the nose becoming significantly more expansive over time. Dried herbs from the nose present as oregano and anise with the peat making its strongest appearance on the finish. Like the Solstice, the Authenticus draws from a much broader and less common set of flavors. The Horizon and Septendecim, though more straight-forward, tie together more completely.
The strong vision and willingness to experiment that The BenRiach has become known for under Bill Walker continues with these four expressions. With the malting floors at The BenRiach now up and running again for the first time in nearly a decade, the cavalcade of malts coming from this distillery seems unlikely to end anytime soon.