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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