Tasting Notes: The Benromach Core Range

Gordon & MacPhail have been making a few headlines lately for their independent G&M branded releases. Last year they released the world’s first ever 80 year old single malt scotch whisky (see notes here). Earlier this year they released a 70 year old single malt that was distilled on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to mark her 70 years on the throne (see notes here). More recently still they have released another milestone whisky – their last cask of whisky distilled by ‘Milton’ distillery (now known as Strathisla), originally distilled in 1949 (see notes here). When I saw that my local bottle shop was holding a tasting night of Benromach whiskies (owned by G&M since 1998), I leapt at the chance.

The venue was The Tasting Room @ Chester Beer & Wine, located in Handbridge, Chester. This shop has been my local off-licence for a few years now and I have really enjoyed meeting with their knowledgeable and approachable staff and, of course, their ever-changing range of great beers, wines, and spirits. I was thrilled when they recently opened up their upstairs to the public with a wine bar and neighbouring tasting room. Better still, amongst their beer club, wine club, and gin tastings, they have been hosting the occasional whisky tasting night too.

For the Benromach core range tasting, our compere for the evening was Gordon & MacPhail’s regional sales manager Luke Todd-Wood. When I got to the tasting room, he was already holding court and entertaining people with whisky stories as well as enjoying the punters’ own. It didn’t take too long before the evening was in full swing with the (proverbial) ice broken and we duly received a whistle stop tour of the history of both Gordon & MacPhail and the Benromach distillery. That then neatly brought us on the first whisky of the night…

Chester Beer & Wine

Benromach Contrasts: Organic

A couple of years ago Benromach rebranded their logo, image, and core range line-up, and part of that rebrand saw each of their No-Age-Statement whiskies now falling under the umbrella of “Contrasts”. One of the distinguishing releases of the Benromach core range under G&M was their Organic release, and thankfully this has remained within the roster. It is one of the first single malts to carry the Organic banner and even comes with a seal of approval from the National Soil Association. Despite the soil reference, this is a non-peated whisky, which has been housed in American virgin oak casks, bottled without colouring or chill-filtration at 46% ABV.

Quick fire notes: Simple, refreshing, delicious. A “breakfast whisky” as someone suggested. Delicious soft malt body and taste with vanilla, toffee, and butterscotch flavours and a gentle white pepper spice. A great place to kick off proceedings.

Benromach 10 Year Old

Benromach pride themselves on a crafting traditional Speyside whiskies, and whilst many would immediately think of fruit-led, Sherry-rich profiles, the Benromach distillery has been around for over 100 years, and so they have looked a little bit further back in history and that means that their tradition is to use a gentle peat smoke in the maltings. 13ppm to be precise. The 10yo is comprised of Benromach spirit which has been matured in 200L 1st fill bourbon casks, and spirits housed in 250L 1st fill Oloroso Sherry casks, aged for 9 years, and then married for a final year’s maturation together in 1st fill Oloroso Sherry casks. Final product is bottled with it’s natural colour at 43% ABV.

Quick fire notes: A really creamy malt start with vanilla and sweet grist flavours. It keeps builds and warms with little nutty flavours and juicy orange. Rounded with a little campfire smoke. Really soft body but with a drying finish.

Benromach 15 Year Old

Having followed the brand for a few years now, I knew going into this that the 15yo had a reputation for being one of their best whiskies, so expectations were high. The recipe itself takes the exact same process as the 10 year old (spirit aged in 1st fill bourbon casks and 1st Oloroso Sherry casks for 9 years, and then married together in a 1st fill oloroso Sherry cask) but then left for a further 5 years vatted in that cask. The final product is bottled at 43% ABV.

Quick fire notes: We’re talking a softer palate again but now there’s a stronger emphasis on those orange and nutty flavours. There’s a stronger clove spice to it and rich chocolate / cocoa bean flavour and bitterness – maybe even coffee grounds. The smoke plays even more of a background role but brings all of those heavier, richer, and smoother flavours together.

The Benromach Core Range

Benromach 21 Year Old

Fourth spot of the night went to the most expensive whisky of the night, purely down to its age / vintage. Again, featuring spirit solely matured in 1st fill casks, this whisky contains a combination 1st fill bourbon, 1st fill Sherry hogsheads, and 1st fill Sherry butts. The final product is bottled at 43% ABV.

Quick fire notes: This very much feels like a rich and Sherry-forward whisky now. There are loads of dark fruits all melded together here: dates, raisins, figs, raspberries, and cherries – all complemented by warming baking spices. There’s just a touch of smoke behind it all too. Definitely feels like the most rounded and unctuous whisky of the night. Oozes with quality, and that kind of whisky body that only age/time can seem to give to a single malt.

Benromach Contrasts: Peat Smoke

Leaving the core range and age statement formula behind, this Contrasts release focussed on Benromach’s peat. The distillery get their peat in from Aberdeenshire to dry their barley and here it has been used to create their highest peat content release at 35ppm – ie nearly 3 times as much peat smoke content in the barley then its regular recipe. The whisky has been matured solely in 1st fill bourbon casks (Jim Beam / Heaven Hill), and has been bottled at 46% ABV.

Quick fire notes: To quote Monty Python… “And Now For Something Completely Different”. This is quite the deviation in style here. Very pale in colour and delivering some real zing. Lots of citrus flavours popping out of the glass with a sherbet lemon zing to it. There’s a sweet and malty vanilla underneath but then it is superseded by a strong, almost meaty smokiness – like charred bbq meats. It remains silky sweet without the TCP style note that you’d get from higher ppm or Islay style single malts.

Benromach Cask Strength Vintage 2012 – Batch 1

Whilst the Contrasts Peat Smoke demonstrates the power of peat at the distillery’s disposal, this bottling looks at the power of percentage. This bottling effectively represents a cask strength version of the 10 year old – caught at 60.2% ABV. The whisky is a marriage of 1st fill bourbon and 1st fill oloroso Sherry matured spirit using their ‘traditional’ 13ppm barley recipe.

Quick fire notes: Big Sherry flavours at play here. Quite a thick body with rich fruits and toffee sweetness that bring Riesen Chocolate Chews to mind and delicious fruit cake. There’s a touch of smoke behind it all again, but big peppery heat from the casks and alcohol count make for quite the pucker. With a touch of water the heat obviously calms down and brings out more of a dark caramel and orange flavour with those baking and clove spices closing proceedings.

Happy crowd

Final Thoughts

The night itself: A great evening was had. A really good bunch of people came together for this and everyone was very open, honest, and enthusiastic about their opinions and choices. Luke was a superb MC for the evening. Very knowledgeable and affable. He kept us all entertained and informed without ever feeling like a lecture or delivering faux enthusiasm considering it is his job. Both he and everyone else really did seem to be getting on and having a good time. Chester Beer & Wine were great hosts too and the ‘rustic buffet’ served us well to keep the stomach lined as the ABV kept increasing and frivolities unfurled.

The Core Range: A great selection of whiskies. I will always champion the fact that you can’t really appreciate a whisky without having tried another one beside it. The running order made sure that our palates weren’t entirely battered considering that we had a cask strength and big peated whisky in there too – wise to keep them toward the end. The 21yo was almost unanimously everyone’s favourite on the night, and mine too. I was already a fan of the Organic release and had heard good things about the 15, and whilst it did not disappoint, the 21 just proved to be another step up from that. Clearly we all have expensive tastes! The peat smoke remained as divisive as ever amongst a room of tasters, but by tasting the range I think that you got to appreciate the impact of the gentle smoke upfront and see how it’s influence diminished with age but still provided an important back bone to an otherwise fruit-forward selection of whiskies.

Many thanks to all involved. If you get the chance to try a Benromach, then do so. Better yet, buy one from Chester Beer & Wine or find a tasting with Luke at the helm. Good times guaranteed.

Tasting Room

Disclosure: This was a ticketed tasting event at Chester Beer & Wine. All notes are intended as an honest, fair, and independent review of the whiskies, and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly. Please drink wisely. Special thanks to Luke for sharing the photos from the night as I just spent my time enjoying myself and using good old-fashioned pen and paper to scribble down my notes and didn’t actually get my phone out!

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