*A sincere thanks to JH, JJY, and SK at Single Cask Nation for the sample.
BenRiach has been around for a long time, and yet in a way, it’s barely been there at all. The distillery was founded in 1897 and then turned off the stills a mere six years later…another casualty of the Pattison Crash. Outside the fact that they didn’t get away with it, the Pattison brothers were the late 1800’s Scottish version of today’s U.S. financial institutions…though saying that is kind of an insult to those corrupt, self-indulgent, soulless, foolhardy Scottish brothers. In the latter half of that decade they built a blending and distilling empire on bad credit, even worse loans, garbage whisky, and unbelievably overcooked books. Their dealings helped fuel the whisky bubble that began when Phylloxera wiped out Europe’s wine and brandy supply, and in 1898, when that bubble finally showed signs of leaking, the staggering collapse of their empire came along and nearly deflated the whole thing. Distilleries they owned shares of closed, distilleries that supplied their blends were left with unpaid-for surplus, and the cheap, barely-whisky they had sold as premium stuff helped lower already sinking consumer confidence and demand. The whisky industry was in shambles and so began a period of 26 years in which 77 distilleries closed. World War I and Prohibition certainly played a huge part in this dark time, but the Pattison’s were the ones who really got the landslide going.
Though BenRiach the distillery was closed for most of the 20th Century, BenRiach the floor maltings stayed busy for almost one hundred years, primarily producing barley for the neighboring Longmorn distillery. The maltings continued when the stills were once again fired up by their new owners Glenlivet Distillers, Ltd. in 1965, and continued to continue when it was purchased by Seagram’s in 1978. In 1983, BenRiach began producing peated malt to be used in Seagram’s blends. The maltings were finally halted in 1999, and a couple of years later, Pernod Ricard took control of BenRiach and the other Seagram’s holdings. Pernod-Ricard wasted no time in picking up where the Pattison’s left off and promptly closed BenRiach in 2002. This time around, the entire place remained silent for a couple of years until Billy Walker and his South African partners fired up BenRiach’s stills once again and quickly became one of the more successful and celebrated distilleries of the last 10 years. Adding to their success, they’ve recently begun using the floor maltings again as well, joining the slim handful of Scottish distilleries to carry out this process on premise. This lovely independent, 17 year old, peated, society-only bottling from Single Cask Nation was distilled in those heady, final days of Seagram’s and was matured in a 2nd fill bourbon barrel.
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The Nose: Beautiful nose full of sweetened, fruity peat. The peat is rubbery and tarry, though less so than Islay peat (how’s that for a generalization?), it’s a little more brisk and dry. The fruit is similar, hard Anjou pears, crab apples, and slightly under-ripe bananas in a banana split that could use more chocolate syrup. Dry kindling smoke, vanilla extract, and sea salt caramels mingle with lesser notes of toasted walnuts, polished oak and dry star anise pods. Huh…adding water ripens that fruit and adds a bit more chocolate sauce to that banana split. Thanks water! It also tones down that bracing peat quite a bit and softens the spice, making it no less beautiful, just a bit more languid and sly.
The Palate: Like the nose, strongly peaty and fruity to start, fried bananas, stewed peaches, vanilla, and diesel-y peat with a bit of woodsmoke swirling around along with faint hints of salted nuts and baker’s chocolate. More wood influence on the palate than on the nose, tannic and drying with raw clove, grated ginger, more star anise, allspice, and a little black pepper. That whorl of smoke gently winds its way through the whole thing. Water quiets that early peat and smoke, letting it grow instead as the dram progresses through the range of fruit, cocoa and now becalmed drying spice.
The Finish: Lengthy, peaty, and smoky. Nicely dry with dark coffee stout beer, vanilla bean, and the rest of that spice gang from the palate.
Thoughts: Wonderful, delicious whisky. I loved this at strength, lively and complex with both the nose and palate boldly parading the peat, fruit, and spice proudly around town. For me, though, this one gets even better with a little water. A bit more balance is added, as wells as a more contemplative, gradual progression. While it is quite peaty, it’s less so than the peaty Islay malts and…brighter, crisper, if that makes any sense. It also has the added bonus of having all that peat countered by rich fruit and wood-spice complexity. A deftly chosen cask, provocative and incredibly satisfying in equal measure, this one was my favorite of Single Cask Nation’s three inaugural releases. Highly Recommended.