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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Single Malt Report: Benromach Organic

Gordon & MacPhail was established in 1895 as an independent licensed bottling agent.  In 1915, John Urquart became the company's senior partner and his family has run the business (from the original location in Elgin) ever since.  With more than a dozen different bottling series (such as Connoisseur's Choice, The MacPhail Collection, Secret Stills, Private Collection, Speymalt, etc.) they remain one of the leading independent whisky botters.  Their continuing success in the whisky business provided them with the means to purchase the mothballed Benromach distillery in 1993.

Benromach began distilling in 1898 (so it's actually younger than its current owner) and has been mothballed twice, in 1931 and 1983.  It changed ownership a number of times in its youth, including four instances over forty years.  It ended up in the hands of DCL (proto-Diageo) in 1953.  As the whisky market underwent significant turmoil in the Eighties and early Nineties, DCL (then United Distillers) mothballed Benromach to stanch its losses.  Then in an act very unusual for the company, DCL/United Distillers sold the distillery to Gordon & MacPhail.  It took five years to get the distillery back in operation and it has been running ever since.

Distillery: Benromach
Ownership: Gordon & MacPhail
Age: older than 3 years, younger than 10 years
Maturation: virgin American Oak
Region: Speyside (Findhorn)
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

This particular bottling is Benromach Organic.  First released in 2006, it was a noticeable effort to differentiate their brand in the Scotch whisky market.  It was the first whisky to be fully certified organic.  As per their website:
The whole process, including the use of the raw ingredients, distillation, maturation and bottling, is certified to the rigorous standards set by the UK Soil Association. The whisky is matured in virgin American oak casks from environmentally managed forests...
Virgin oak can impart an intense influence on a whisky.  Thus I'd bet the malt here is very young; too much time in new oak can crush any sense of the original spirit.

The color is bronze with bright orange highlights.  The nose starts with rich rye-like spices (think nutmeg and clove), overripe stone fruits, and lots of toffee.  Peach liqueur, lavender, brown sugar, and dark rum evolve over time.  The palate starts with MASSIVE vanilla.  Sweet spices, whole wheat bread, honey, and caramel sauce sing backup.  It's all very thick and desserty.  It finishes with the vanilla and caramel sauce.  Maybe dulce di leche?  But definitely rummy.  Very sweet.

The nose leads with toffee and dark rum.  Brown sugar, some malt, basic wood grains, and (since the nose can't technically smell "sweet") the illusion of sweetness.  It's much simpler but still quite nice.  The palate is like the nose, but more malt sneaks out once the water is added.  There's still a bit of brown sugar and molasses sweetness with a snip of black pepper in the back.  Whole lotta sweetness in the finish, in fact it's almost bourbony in its intensity.  The black pepper lingers.

I liked this a lot.  But my opinion isn't shared by everyone.  Please keep in mind this one is a big sweetie.  Untempered by previous fills of bourbon, sherry, or other malts, the oak does some serious syrupy stomping here.

On a side note, I'm a complete hypocrite.  While I've often complained about the wood effect from first-filled sherried-European oak and occasionally griped about first-fill bourbon-American oak, I've found I  really enjoy the wild character imparted by virgin American oak.  Perhaps it's because it reminds me of the best parts of American whiskey, especially straight rye.  I've found Bruichladdich's Organic Multi-Vintage whisky to be less sweet and more malt-forward than Benromach's, so that must have something to do with wood management.  But I do like this one as a dessert whisky.

The reviews on this whisky are all over the map, so I recommend you take a look at these before you run off and try Benromach's Organic syrup whisky:

LA Whisky Society - Did not like it.
Whisky Advocate - Found it mostly......meh.
Malt Maniacs - Mixed
Serge Valentin - Liked
Whiskybase (crowdsourced) - Mixed

The folks from Michael Jackson's Complete Guide were so-so on it, while Jim Murray was positive.

I think many of these folks are reviewing the initial 2006 launch, but I find the vastly different reviews very interesting.  While reading their notes, I wonder if they (or we) drank the same whisky.

I've tried it twice, from the same 750mL bottle (Thank you, Bob!!!) so I can concur that my notes come neither from a mini nor a packaged sample.

Ultimately, there ain't a lot of subtlety in this single malt.  Heck, there's not a lot of malt in this single malt.  But it's a sweetie, if you want a sweetie.

Availability - Select liquor specialists
Pricing - US $65-$75, International $45-$60 (before shipping)
Rating - 86