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Monday, February 25, 2013

Single Malt Report: BenRiach Taste Off, Part 1 (Un-peated)

BenRiach's malting floors were closed in 1999 after 101 years of use.  The Chivas-run distillery then began buying their barley malt from large suppliers, the same way that over 90% of the other Scottish malt distilleries do.  Once the distillery was purchased by Billy Walker and The BenRiach Distillery Company, they set out to reopen their own malting floors.  Finally, within the next few months, BenRiach is going to become the seventh distillery to do its own malting.

This is just one example of the smart aggressive choices made by the folks in charge of BenRiach's whisky.  When Billy Walker and company bought the mothballed distillery from Chivas (via Pernod), they found whisky of varying quality in the warehouses.  They needed to get some product back on the shelves, and some of the malt clearly needed some sprucing up, thus the countless finished single malts they've released.

But they also found some experimental stuff, including heavily peated whisky as well as triple-distilled spirit.  Other than the "Heart of Speyside" bottling, all of the malt in the BenRiach releases was casked by the previous ownership.  And it's not half bad.

I'm not the biggest fan of finished whisky -- I went through a bottle of BenRiach's 16yr Sauternes Finish last year and though it didn't suit my palate I don't doubt it would make Sauternes fans happy -- so I decided to avoid any PX or rum or Rioja finished stuff and focus on the more basic BenRiach malt.

I bought BenRiach's "Classic and Peated" mini four-pack last year and I'm just tearing into it now.  It held the 12yr, 16yr, 10yr Curiositas (peated), and 21yr Authenticas (peated) single malts.  I've split them into two Taste Offs, peated and unpeated, so that I can focus on the malt itself.

A brief note of commentary:  A company that cranks out finished whisky after special release after finished whisky doesn't instill much confidence in their basic naked malt.  As stated above, I know the malt whisky they're working with wasn't distilled by the current ownership, but is BenRiach going to continue tarting up the spirit when it is created by their own hands?  I suppose if it sells, they will.  I can't begin to know what they found when they started going through the casks nine years ago nor what's hiding behind all of those colorful additional maturations.  But I must say that their basic malts shouldn't be ignored.

Ownership: The BenRiach Distillery Company
Age: minimum 12 years
Bottled in: 2009
Maturation: 60% ex-bourbon (mostly second-fill) casks only + 40% ex-bourbon casks then transfered to ex-oloroso casks
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 43% (some bottlings are 46%)

Yes, this is my second report on BenRiach 12.  The first one was completed almost exactly a year ago. It was sampled in a loud dark bar and I was mostly just enjoying rather than deconstructing.  Here at home, I now had a full 50mL to sample in a Glencairn glass.

The color is light gold.  If they're applying caramel coloring, there appears to be a minimum of it.  The nose leads with apple juice, then ripe bananas, blueberries, and vanilla follow.  A pleasant dose of flower blossoms appears at times.  But mostly an almost-effervescent burst of lemon-lime soda catches the most attention.  Overall, it's a very pretty nose.  The palate is much simpler.  Vanilla, sugary white fruits, and notebook paper are the most prevalent.  The highlights that peek out are cream puffs and pipe tobacco.  The medium-length finish is sweet, desserty, and malty.  Vanilla and shortbread cookies nestle within some light tartness.

As I often find with younger ex-bourbon matured whiskys, adding water brings out a lot of oak vanillins in the nose while all of those great fruits recede.  The palate and finish become mildly cheerful like a decent 40% blend.  Aside from all the vanilla, there's some black pepper and notebook paper.

Ownership: The BenRiach Distillery Company
Age: minimum 16 years
Bottled in: 2008
Maturation: 60% ex-bourbon casks only + 40% ex-bourbon casks then finished 4-5 years in ex-oloroso casks
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 43% (some bottlings are 46%)

The color is slightly darker than the 12yr, probably due to more time in the two oaks.  The nose has some dry sherry, but actually sniffs more like a late harvest sauvignon blanc.  It has the vanilla and apple juice notes of the 12yr, while there's some nice lemon peel adding to it.  The palate is much oakier (duh).  Toffee, caramel, and vanilla lead the way.  Here and there are notes of cayenne pepper and butter.  The silky finish is longer than than the 12's, full of vanilla, butter, and butterscotch.  It slowly progresses from sweet to peppery.

Adding some water ironically dries it out in the mouth.  There are some pepper, malt, dark chocolate, and dry grass notes in the nose and palate, while the finish sweetens up some.

First off, my apologies that I didn't get proper mini bottle pics.

Secondly, these minis were of the 43% ABV variety.  Would they have benefited from another 3 percentage points of alcohol?  Absolutely.  Somewhere out there (the US perhaps?) these guys are bottled at 46%.

Thirdly, rankings:
NOSE -- 12 year, by a considerable margin
PALATE -- A draw!
FINISH -- 16 year
OVERALL -- 12 year

I've been finding that I'm much more of nosing man.  Out of context, that could be interpreted many ways.  In context: I really enjoy just sitting around and smelling the hell out of my whisky.  Probably looks goofy, but that's what's most fun in my whisky experience.

Here, with these two unpeated BenRiachs, the younger one had the most to say in its nose.  The spritely floral elements may have been the distillate still speaking through the years of oak.  The elder's nose was quieter, the spirit becalmed by the wood.  The palates were both mild, likable but not rave-able.  Perhaps the ownership saw this element as a canvas, an opportunity to paint brightly with all sorts of wine-d woods.

The 16 year old can be found for incredible prices overseas, similar to the 12 year's price in some California shops.  But if I -- putting my new purchasing policies into place -- was able to obtain the 12 and the 16 for similar prices, I would buy the 12.  Previously I would have gone straight for the 16 since it would be a great deal.  But it's the 12 that I actually like (in two reports so far!), so I would leave the bargain for someone else.

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $45-55 in the US, though better deals can sometimes be found; $50-55 for Americans having it shipped from overseas in a larger order
Rating - 85

Availability - Some liquor specialists
Pricing - $68-80 in the US; $60-80 for Americans having it shipped from overseas in a larger order
Rating - 80