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Monday, March 21, 2016

WTF is This? Benriach 26 year old 1987 Exclusive Casks

Though I have criticized his whiskies before (and will now again), I like David Stirk.  When I met him in person three years ago, he was friendly, very funny, and a great presenter.  He also jumps head first into discussions with whisky geeks online, more so than most (or any other?) independent bottler.  I just tend to find cask-related problems with many of the Exclusive Casks/Malts releases.

There were the Bowmore and Aberlour bottlings for K&L (both of which I probably scored too highly), which had odd goopy buttery layers of oak sitting on top of immature spirit.  And then found the same problem with two whiskies (Glen Spey and again Bowmore) from the first round of US Exclusive Casks.  The first Ardmore he brought to The States one of the only indie Ardmores I don't like.  But when the Exclusives DO work well, it's usually because the cask stays in the background, like with the K&L Fettercairn, K&L "Island Distillery", and the very first Bowmore he brought to The States.  But I will say I did like the cask influence (whatever sort of cask it was) on an Exclusive Casks Ben Nevis.

But then there's this Benriach.

photo courtesy of Steve H.

I split the bottle with whisky buddy Steve H., and I think we're both glad neither of us were stuck with a whole bottle.  There appears to be a 26yo Benriach sold as a single cask by Exclusive Casks in Texas.  That cask sounds good.  This is not that cask.

Distillery: Benriach
Independent Bottler: The Creative Whisky Co.
Exclusive to: Total Wine & More
Age: 26 years old (1987 - ???)
Maturation: Oak, lots of oak
Limited bottling: 629
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 48.7%

Nose -- Bitter wood, burnt bark, coal, and lots of burnt peanuts.  Ammonia, walnuts, soap.  Peach, perfume, peach perfume, and caramel.  The soap note grows with time.

Palate -- Burnt peanuts, burnt hair, and loads of sugar.  Underneath there's some malt, toffee, roots, and pepper spice.  With time an acidic citrus note develops and, along with the sweetness, takes over the entire palate.

Finish -- Very sweet and very burnt.  There's some malt and toffee.  Citrus, no, diet orange soda.  It pics up the soap and woody bitterness after some time.


WITH WATER (~40%abv)
Nose -- The burnt stuff turns into lead.  Orange Pixy Stix and vanilla perfume.  Hint of white vinegar.  Smaller note of burnt wood.  Nope, here comes the burnt peanuts.  And "orange chicken" glaze with a savory stock.

The palate is less burnt, but insanely aspartame sweet.  Burnt peanuts.  Maybe a hint of apricots.

Finish -- Peppery and cloying a.f. (as the kids say).  Lots of acid and caramel.  The burnt stuff gradually drifts back in.

Rarely have I found a whisky that's off-putting on so many levels.  The wood smells totally wrong, worse than an over-oaked old bourbon.  Then I'm not sure what's worse: the burnt peanuts or the overwhelming Nutrasweet.  Or the ammonia.  Or the soap.  Or the perfume.  Or the lead.

Time for conjecture!  What happened here?  Because there are 629 bottles, a lowish abv, and no cask number listed, I'm going to guess this was a batch of 3 or 4 casks.  Maybe even one that was underproof, thus the abv.  Perhaps the casks weren't larger than 200L due to so much apparent wood contact, specifically American oak contact.  Was this an attempt to bury (or blend out) a problem cask?  Possibly even that hypothetical underproof one?  Or because so many things are going haywire, were there multiple weak casks?

This whisky left me wondering "How?" and "Why?"  I've had only half of my bottle split and I don't foresee any reason to consume more of it.  As this is sold exclusively through Total Wine & Spirits (except in Minnesota), I truly hope unknowing customers aren't shilling out $150+ for this as a special occasion whisky.  And I hope this won't be someone's first experience with Benriach, because it would likely also be their last.  And I'm sure The Benriach Distillery Company Ltd would care for that about as much as I cared for this whisky.

Availability - Total Wine & Spirits exclusively (except in MN)
Pricing - $160
Rating - 56  (with water, high-40s without water)


  1. Replies
    1. Purchased a bottle...just found your review...will try it this weekend and hope that you were just having a bad day!

    2. Good luck! Sadly it was 25oz of bad. Perhaps there's a chance of it getting ruined in transport or storage. That's my only thought towards the (somewhat?) positive. Plus you and I may have very different palates!

  2. A few points: Firstly, one man's poison is another man's perfume and I have certainly had glowing reviews from some people for this whisky. Secondly, you met me and I hope, found me engaging and open for debate but rather than discuss the whisky with me and get some answers before posting you had to make guesses. I always stand behind my whiskies and state if you think I've sold you a dud I'll replace it - in nearly 12 years of bottling I've done this twice. I have zero issue with someone publicly not liking a bottle of whisky I am responsible for bottling - as an independent bottler I have bottled whiskies from over 90 different distilleries so the chances of anyone liking each and every one is very slim. But I do try to be available to answer any queries and help when their is confusion.

    1. Hi Whisky Dave. Thank you for your comment. I respect your work as a independent bottler. The Fettercairn (for K&L) and Ben Nevis (for Total Wine) casks you selected for The States were great. Also I hope to review that first Bowmore cask you brought to the US, before this year is out. And I've also enjoyed your Distilleries of Campeltown via Kindle. But your comment caught me perplexed. I've panned a number of whiskies that were produced or distributed by my friends and personal acquaintances. (And of course, gave many positive reviews as well.) Yet I never found it necessary to discuss my findings with them beforehand because I believe a product, like a work of art, is there to speak for itself once it's released into the world.

      Perhaps I should have opened up a dialogue with you about the oak issues I'd found in some of the other releases, though they seemed to fit in with what I've been experiencing with many current whiskies (IBs and OBs) recently: casks being chosen for bigger and bigger oak characteristics. Now that it appears to be an evolving repeating style, I have begun to wonder about the producers' intents. I don't know if you're still willing to chat about that, but I'd wondered if bigger oak was a preference you have or seek out.

      As for this Benriach, as I mentioned as a reply to another commenter, my friends' portion of this bottle also didn't fare well when they brought it to a local whisky event. If one is to assume the cask(s) played no fault in the result, could a whisky get so damaged via transport or storage? It had good safe shelf placement at the store. I've rarely experienced something like this.

    2. I think you misunderstood me - I have no issue with you panning the whisky. As I said, one man's perfume is another man's poison. I just wondered why you didn't contact me for clarification on the cask which I would have been more than happy to have provided.

    3. Understood. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  3. Just opened it...thinking about 1987 and all that was happening in my life and in the world...started my Scotch Therapy in 1979 at the age of 18...this bottle, to me, is fruity and has the consistency of one that has be languishing in a cask for a long time...I thank the bottler for this gem and will place it on my shelf with my 20 to 50 year old Single Malts and Single Grains...

  4. A better term for aging in a cask might be "Mellowing"...

    1. True. Though there are some old Laphroaigs that never mellowed a bit after 2+ decades in casks.

  5. Great Scotch...thanks to Dave...

    1. Glad you found it great! My bottle (specifically my friends' portion) flopped with everyone at a local whisky event. That motivated me to get my tasting notes written and published. I hope you or someone else who had a great experience with it has a chance to publish a positive review of it. There isn't much about the whisky online and it would be good for folks to have different perspectives.

  6. Interesting coincidence of timing on some of these comments.

    David: Is Michael completely off-base with his conjectures? Do you often not list cask numbers when it's a single cask? How likely is it that a single cask would yield so many bottles at a low'ish abv after 25 years? Since he was only taking guesses at possible reasons and you're so willing to explain all the details perhaps you could take this opportunity to fill us in on what you know?

  7. Michael...my palate evolved from bottles including, but not limited to the favorites listed below and on hand, single malt and single grain, independent and direct from the distillers...

    20yr Glenrothes
    20yr Glentauchers
    23yr Strathclyde
    25yr Invergordon
    25yr Glenfarclas
    25yr Cola Ila 1979
    30yr The Balvenie 1966
    35yr Glenrothes 1970
    36yr Benriach 1966
    41yr North of Scottland 1964
    43yr Carsebridge 1963
    50yr Glen Grant 1961

    I am just a novice...

    1. That's awesome! Those old Glen Grants are gorgeous. Wish they were priced like they used to be!