Whisky, to me, is all about sharing - a discovery, a memory, a story, a sense of place and of time. It's about terroir - but that is still a cheese or wine word and one which is not so common in the drammer's vocabulary. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the sharing part of whisky is one reason that I am often a little dismissive of 50ml sample bottles that arrive in the post. How can I share them with my Chichester Whisky Women? Now I am definitely going to change my tune as I have throughly enjoyed a brief journey through 3 of the expressions from the excellent BenRiach. This distillery company was in the entrepreneurial hands of whisky whizz Billy Walker from 2004, winning the Whisky Distiller of the Year Award in 2009, and Global Whisky Distiller of the Year in 2015. Two huge awards proving the know-how of the managing team who also owned GlenDronach, another Speyside favourite of mine.
A bottle of BenRiach 12yo sherry wood matured whisky has been on my shelf for long enough to be almost empty - so let's assume that I have thoroughly enjoyed it! I had naively thought it typical of the expressions from the distillery but on tasting the samples of 10yo and Cask strength Batch 1 that I was sent, I realise that the sherry wood is of a generation before the whiskies now being celebrated as being from the first batches produced at the distillery under the direction of Billy Walker. The BenRiach Distillery Company has recently been sold to the US drinks giant Brown-Forman: let's hope, on the strength of what I have been enjoying, that we cannot Taste the Difference in times to come.
This video sums up my delight in the 12yo: rich, warming, richly fruity and beautifully balanced. It's a delicious sherry cask Speyside in the new style and it is 46%abv. This is more Moody Blues than Mendelssohn. But then, who hasn't smooched to Nights in White Satin? My comment bout 46%abv being the norm for BenRiach is a little off the mark as you read on.
The BenRiach 10yo is bottled at 43%abv. I found it soft and easy on the nose, with a beguiling rich sweetness. Given that I tasted this in one of the shabbiest hotel rooms that I have stayed in for decades, it says a lot for the whisky that it soothed me enough to find such calm and gentleness before I had even had a sip! Without water this was an easy, soft whisky with dried fruit and coffee notes mingling with vanilla and pepper spice and fudge sweetness. With water it became richer and smoother still, with hints of ginger and mace giving way to a long finish with warm spice, mulled sultanas and fudge. Comfort indeed - suddenly the dreadful carpet of that hotel room did not matter so much. I would enjoy this whisky at any time of year: with an affragato in summer, and rich casseroles of lamb or venison in any season. It would even stand up to a treacle tart or sponge: just think of that!
I expected the Cask Stength Batch 1 sample to be a treat and it did not disappoint. 57.2%abv is a big wallop of alcohol and I think, like bridge and opera, cask strength is something that you grow into as a more experienced whisky drinker, and possibly with age. I seem to be getting the hang of it all! There was no age statement on the bottle and I can find none on the BenRiach website either - it doesn't matter as this whisky is about showcasing the spirit of the distillery and it does it beautifully. Do cask strength whiskies, like ageing actresses, not volunteer their age?
Expect a big hit from a whisky of this strength - I find it a good idea to pass the glass to and fro under the nose to acclimatise yourself gently. I found it huge, complex, sweet and spicy. Settle back in a comfy chair and enjoy the alluring experience of nosing this whisky! Without water - which is a challenge worth taking up - I found a complexity which matched the nose. It was bigger, richer and there was more unpacking of experience to do to get to grips with this than with the 10yo. All the characteristics of the first sample were there but with a depth of character and a hint of seaweed adding to a chewable whisky experience. In comparison to the 10yo, this was a whisky whose voice had broken and dropped from counter tenor to bass. And could it sing!
With water the whisky became more balanced and gentler, the hint of seaweed was joined by dried chilli and the coffee was definitely espresso rather than milky. The finish was long and luxurious, and this is definitely an after dinner, digestif whisky or one to sip with richly flavoured blue cheeses, on the creamier side like Blacksticks or Shropshire blue, avoiding any of the more acidic notes sometimes found in Stilton. Shake up the French - try this with Roquefort! How that saltiness with the richness of the ewe's milk would complement it! (Not forgetting our excellent UK blue ewe's milk cheeses too, of course, like Beenleigh Blue made in Devon.) In conclusion, the BenRiach Cask Strength Batch 1 is a contemplative, chewable whisky, one for cold nights, relaxation after a busy but successful day, or for putting the world to rights. We need whiskies like that.
Being able to follow the story of a distillery through a selection of whiskies like this is a real privilege. If you have to buy all the bottles yourself it does, of course, put it beyond the whisky budgets of most of us. However, visiting a whisky show or a tasting event is a great way to explore a few distilleries in this way. If that sounds good to you, check out The Whiskey Affair website - their next tasting is in Guildford on Saturday 16th July.
All these whiskies are available from The Whisky Exchange and I think that they represent fabulous value for money for the flavour and tasting experience that they deliver. I cannot recommend one over another as I know from my whisky club that we all have very different palettes but there is a whisky here for everyone and I hope that my descriptions help you to choose which one would suit you most.