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Friday, November 7, 2014

Single Malt Report: Benromach Peat Smoke 2004

Two weeks ago, I led a tasting session for a group of great folks who were relatively new to whisky.  While prepping for it and considering all of the stuff that's helpful to beginners, I inevitably started thinking about the whisky "regions".  The "regions" are still being included in whisky pamphlets, maps, ad propaganda, and even in books published by professional writers.  But other than for geographic purposes (as I use them on my blog), the "regions" are have become meaningless.  Islay does not make the only heavily peated whisky in Scotland, nor do all the Ileach distilleries make peated whisky of consistent quality.  There's light wispy (even triple-distilled) single malt being made outside of the Lowlands.  Bladnoch, a Lowlander, was making quality peated malt before its closure.  The "Island" distilleries each have their own very specific style (see Tobermory versus The World).  Campbeltown distilleries often seem to have an industrial, almost grimy, style thanks to Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia; but, again, Springbank has a triple-distilled brand (Hazelburn) and Longrow, a heavily-peated brand that can kick the asses of most of the Islays right now.  And, yes, a few Speyside distilleries are making competitive peated whiskies as well.  So those regions, which could once be used as relevant helpful shorthand, have become neither relevant nor helpful nor shorthand.

I'm following up Tuesday's review of one peated Speysider with another peated Speysider today.  This time it's a highly peated (50+ppm at maltings) single malt from Gordon & MacPhail's distillery, Benromach.  Sadly, I'm way behind in my Benromach experience.  Because they're one of the ten smallest distilleries in Scotland and because G&M pried it out of United Distillers claws in 1993 (after it had been mothballed for ten years) I really want to root for their success.  But if the whisky isn't good, then there's no need to cheerlead another so-so distillery.  So far, their ten year old makes for decent drinking and I like their Organic product, though I may be alone on the latter.  Here's a recent batch of their heavily peated stuff.

Distillery: Benromach
Ownership: Gordon & MacPhail
Age: 8-9 years (2004 - 8/2/13)
Maturation: first-fill ex-bourbon casks
Region: Speyside (Findhorn)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Peat PPMs: 53
Chillfiltered? No.
Caramel Colored? Probably not
(Thanks to Eric S. for the sample!  Eric, please let me know if any of my data is incorrect and I'll update it ASAP.  Thanks!)

The color is of a pinot grigio.  The nose begins with vanilla-covered roasted peat.  Very roasty and toasty in general.  There are some youthful rubber and acetone notes, but they're in the far background.  Apples and pears around the edges.  A whiff of sea air and sugary pastry notes.  Seems to get more vibrant as it opens up, but overall it's not as peaty as I had expected.  There's more peat smoke (as per the name) in the palate, though it doesn't dominate.  Big notes of cinnamon, anise, and vanilla lead the way.  Then cinnamon toast (cinnamon + granulated sugar + butter + toast).  Smaller notes of tangy lemons, sea salt, and notebook paper in the distance.  The peat gets dustier in the finish.  The tangy lemons and cinnamon toast fill up the most space, though the whole experience is sort of short.

Vanilla, cinnamon, and barley move to the fore in the nose.  The peat recedes further but is still present.  Spiced orange peel and overripe mango start to emerge.  An oak pulp element develops after some time.  The palate becomes rather shy.  There's some pleasant bitterness hovering around the cinnamon, peat, bacon, brown sugar, and dust.  A hint of bacon remains in the finish, as does the peat smoke and cinnamon toast.

The first thing I noticed with this whisky is that the Peat Smoke is more like peat smoke.  Perhaps it has something to do with the shape of the stills, but the peat is very mellow considering its levels (50+ppm at malt) are similar to Ardbeg and Kilchoman, while being higher than Laphroaig and Lagavulin.  I'd say that most Caol Ila (30-35ppm) and some Ardmore (10-15) single malts register their phenolics more aggressively than this one.  This isn't necessarily a problem, delicate peat can be gorgeous.  It just caught me off-guard.

The whisky is much better without water than with, though the fruit notes that develop in the hydrated nose are nice.  At times all the sugar, cinnamon, paper, rubber, and acetate notes make this feel even younger than its age.  The overall mildness of the package may appeal to people who don't want peat fireworks, but the name is "Peat Smoke" thus it's the peat geeks who will buy it first.  And I'm not sure this will impress the geeks.

Overall it's decent, without any gruesome sins, and gets better with some air.  But right now (in their price range) they're dealing with BenRiach as competition in their geographic neighborhood and Kilchoman in the youthful peater category.  This may get close to Curiositas, but has a ways to go before it reaches Machir Bay's quality.  But since the Peat Smokes are done in small batches perhaps they will nail it well in other releases.  I would drink this again, but I'll pass on a bottle.

Availability - Some US specialty retailers
Pricing - $55-$80
Rating - 80