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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Birthday Booze! BenRiach 32 year old 1978 cask 4387 Virgin Oak Finish

BenRiach Distillery Company acquired a large quantity of casks when they purchased the actual BenRiach distillery.  There are/were casks from The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. containing whisky distilled between 1965 and 1978.  And there were even more casks from Seagram Distillers with whisky from 1978 to 2002.  Thus because Billy Walker & Co. bought the place in 2004, the vast majority of their bottled whisky was distilled by another company.  That includes both their regular range (outside of Heart of Speyside and the new 10 year old) and their nearly 400 individual single casks.

Some of these single casks include peated spirit that Seagrams started distilling in 1983 (according to the Malt Whisky Yearbook).  Many of them contained unpeated spirit.  Some casks were released as is.  Some were recasked or finished in new or different casks.  The sample I purchased from whiskysamples.eu almost two years ago was of an unpeated single malt distilled in 1978, originally casked in what was likely a former bourbon barrel-turned-hogshead, then finished in a Virgin Oak hogshead.  I bought the sample because it was from 1978 and also because I was curious as to the impact a new oak cask would have on long-aged whisky...

Distillery: Benriach
Ownership: BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd
Age: 32 years old (late 1978 - July 2011)
Maturation: Primary - refill ex-bourbon cask (a guess). Secondary - virgin oak hogshead (listed). Length of time for each unknown.
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 50.9%
Cask #: 4387
Bottle count: 354
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Coloring? No
(Sample purchased from the old whiskysamples.eu)

The color is dark gold, like a young bourbon.  The nose begins with mild notes of white peaches and yellow nectarines, creamy vanilla, milk chocolate, and shredded wheat cereal.  But with time, the oak takes over.  Lots of worn out wood and tree bark.  The palate starts with tobacco, caramel, orange zest, and black pepper.  There's a medium level of bitterness.  A little bit of ethyl.  A small note of papery cardboard shows up late, along with a lot more oranges.  It finishes with the tobacco, pepper, and mild bitter notes.  Some more pleasant things then show up, like dried fruit (apricot and pineapple), wheat bread, and a curious hint of smoke.

Strangely, the nose gets tighter.  More of that tree bark note.  Green leaves and tomato plants.  Caramel and maybe some pears.  Lots of wood spice and wood bitterness in the palate.  Vanilla beans and caramel.  More oddness, in that the finale is now the most complex part.  White fruits, caramel, sugar, butter, black pepper, and wood bitters.

What an odd duck.  If I'd tasted this blindly, I would have no idea what its age was.  I'd certainly never guess it was 20+, let alone 30+.  Part of the reason is due to the original cask and the new cask being in conflict with each other.  There's both bland oak and big oak happening at the same time.  It's better neat and best before it breathes too much.  If it could just drop the woody bitterness, the finish would be very good.

I'm going to guess the obvious: the new ownership came upon a limp cask and decided to spruce it up with fresh new oak.  To me, that didn't work.  In fact, the whisky might have been better before it was futzed with.  Normally I'm a big fan of BenRiach's official products (and they tend to be one of the better exotic cask finishers), but I'm not sure why they didn't bury this whisky in the 25yo or 30yo (or even the 20yo) or sell it to a blender rather than releasing it as a single cask.  While it has its issues, it is drinkable, but I expect more from a 32 year old single cask from a good distillery.

If you're looking for another take, whiskybase voters totally disagree with me.

Availability - A few European retailers
Pricing - it was about €200 three years ago, now it's around €330-€500
Rating - 81


  1. I'm pretty sure Benriach is one of the few distillers that doesn't sell to blenders anymore, so this is what we get instead.

    1. I hadn't heard that, but you might be right. I'll bet they don't sell off GlenDronach either.

      One doesn't always consider this, but there's a negative aspect to not selling casks to blenders and that's dealing with dud casks and/or stuff that totally doesn't fit the distillery's style. The latter isn't a problem for Benriach since they're kind of a chameleon anyway. But the former can be an issue. I still think they could have blended this cask into one of their older regular range whiskies without causing any problems. But then again, my opinion about this whisky is in the online minority.

    2. Based on the lack of independent releases, I'm going to say Benriach and Glendronach have also cut off the indies too.

    3. I wouldn't doubt that Walker cut off outgoing Glendronach casks the moment he bought the place.

    4. I've been meaning to write about how selling to blenders helps to maintain the quality of single malts. The inability or unwillingness to do so usually indicates a lot of pressure on stocks, so they're going to toss everything out there both because they have to and because the demand exists. The lack of options can lead to decreased quality à la Lagavulin or Bruichladdich.

    5. Sorry I'm late to respond to this, but I totally agree. But don't let MAO know you think Lagavulin has decreased in quality... :)

  2. I know you don't like to hear this, so I won't tell you what my obvious guess was (that the sample lost its freshness between their cask and your glass).

    1. I know you like to question this part of my process publicly, so here we go.

      --Whiskysamples has been (or was), a small shop run by whisky geeks for years and is not a sample factory like Master of Malt. I have yet to have a bum sample from them.

      --I believe it can be assumed that the result of the original maturation of this whisky wasn't desirable, otherwise why waste a good old single cask on a secondary maturation? If the original maturation provided a reasonable quantity of decent oak character, then what purpose would a new oak finish serve? Old whisky can be pretty fragile so slapping a finish on top of it may not provide optimal results. If Benriach indeed doesn't sell casks to blenders then they needed to release this whisky in some form. And they chose to do so this way.

      --While there will always be some sort of mild oxidation happening when a whisky is decanted, I didn't find this whisky to be flat or mute. Instead, I found it to be more Glenmorangie than Benriach in the way the finish was separate from the whisky. I don't know, I think this is all pretty reasonable.

    2. I see. I must have read too much into the 'cardboard' notes. Sorry to be such a troll.

    3. I don't think you're a troll, we just have significantly different opinions about the source of cardboard notes. Your opinion is a challenge or a rebuke to a number of well respected reviewers, because you'd have to let Serge know that the cardboard notes he found in 30+ reviews were due to poor samples. And do the same for Johannes and his 20+ reviews with cardboard notes (though I've been told he reviewed only from his bottles and not samples). And Oliver for his handful of reviews with cardboard notes. And Jordan for his 15+ reviews with cardboard notes.