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Benriach is a distillery in Speyside originally founded all the way back in 1898. Since 2016, however, it has been owned by American distiller Brown Forman, alongside sister distilleries Glendronach and Glenglassaugh.
Late in 2020 Brown Forman announced an overhaul of the Benriach brand. A completely new range of single malts was launched in new, contemporary packaging. Whilst I was a fan of the old Benriach malts, even I would have to admit that it was a little chaotic at times. There were various age statements and some releases were sub-headed with Latin names as well as peated and unpeated versions. It was all a bit hard to keep track of. Possibly it was fair enough then, that a bit of streamlining should take place.
Brown Forman has caused a little controversy among Scotch whisky drinkers in recent months. Their GlenDronach brand gained massive popularity under previous owners and has, until recently, maintained that relationship under the current regime. Some eagle-eyed whisky lovers began to notice a subtle change in the packaging, however. Mainly, that the words “non-chill-filtered” had disappeared.
Many emailed to ask the reason for this and received what can only be described as a politician’s answer in response. I’m paraphrasing but it went along the lines of “we reserve the right to do what is right for the brand but remain dedicated to putting out the best possible whisky”. For Scottish readers, that means maybes aye, maybes naw.
For those who don’t already know, chill filtering is a process that removes certain oils and acids from the whisky. There has been ample debate over the years as to whether this affects flavour. Personally, I prefer to see my whisky bottled as naturally as possible but there’s evidence that mainstream markets are put off by a cloudy dram. Whisky bottled at 46% abv (or higher) will usually remain free of this hazy effect and at present, the majority of the GlenDronach range is bottled at 46%, so why have Brown Forman removed the non-chill filtered declaration from the packaging?
Initial fears suspected that a lowering of the strength would follow. I was never sure how likely that was though. After all, they had just committed to the higher strength bottlings of the new Benriach range. In any case, they recently responded to a video review by vlogger Ralfy and stated categorically that no change in strength is planned. So what is going on then? Have they had complaints from customers in warmer climates who have dropped an ice cube into their dram and watched aghast as the Scotch mist appeared? Has the wording been removed as a precautionary measure, just in case the odd batch has a slightly hazy appearance?
It appears we might never know and therein lies the problem. A lot of the social media backlash on this, admittedly over-dramatic at points, could have been avoided with a little more honesty and transparency from the owners. If indeed the range is now being filtered as standard practice it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will become a bad whisky overnight. There are still very talented people involved in its creation. I must admit, however, that I would feel like the brand had taken a step back. It would feel like it had lost a bit of credibility. It would have been nice to hear from someone at Brown Forman who could explain to the brand’s supporters what the advantage of this policy change is.
Which brings me back to Benriach. I’ve always enjoyed this single malt. Some Speyside whiskies are a bit too delicate for my palate but Benriach is something of a chameleon, taking on peat and showing well in an array of different cask types. It can be light and fruity in some expressions and bold and boisterous in others. I’ve been keen to try this new range so when I saw them offering a tasting pack as part of the Spirit of Speyside festival I jumped at it. Noticeably, however, much like GlenDronach, there is no statement regarding chill-filtering. Presumably, therefore, despite remaining at a higher strength, the new range has been filtered.
The Original Ten
Matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks and bottled at 43%. RRP of £37.
Smell: Lots of fruit at first. Apple, orange, lemon, peach. Pineapple and melon too. Beyond that there’s some malty biscuit notes. Fresh bread. Hay bales. Saw dust. Baking spices.
Taste: Lots of honey on arrival. Some peppery spice and oak towards the back of the palate. Apple and pear. More of that malty character. Fruit comes back towards the end. Cinnamon and almond on the finish. Orange peel soon appears alongside some sherry / dried fruits notes. Evolves well in the glass.
Thoughts: This is the lowest in strength at 43% but it drinks rather well and there’s layers of flavour that keep it interesting. Sure there are other good whiskies in this price bracket, but you could also do a lot worse.
It’s fully flavoured with a gentle, warming spice that really adds to the experience. It carries decent weight on the palate too.
The Original Ten is a solid introduction to the new range. It has a recognisable Speyside / orchard fruits character but the addition of some sherry casks have provided some complexity and the spice prevents it from falling into the dreaded “inoffensive” category. The whisky has retained some backbone and crucially, some character.
Matured for 12 years in a combination of bourbon, sherry and port casks before bottling at 46%. Retails at £38.
Smell: Oaky nose with red berries. Dried fruits. Cherry. A strong blast of ginger. Highland toffee. Vanilla pods. Rum and raisin. Currants.
Taste: Warm sherry arrival with raisins and maple syrup. Runny honey. Lots of dry oak on the finish with dark chocolate.
Thoughts: There’s little in the way of a price jump between the ten and twelve-year-old bottlings, which gives consumers a choice of which way to go. I don’t think the 12 is necessarily better, but it is a very different dram.
Where the 10 was fruity and complex, the 12 is intense and woody. It is radically different. The ten feels more spirit-led, whereas the twelve has seen some serious cask interaction. That higher strength of 46% may well be adding to the intensity of the experience. A splash of water failed to bring out any haze in the liquid. Confirmation that it has been chill-filtered? The real question, of course, is does that matter? So far these drams have been pretty good and they don’t seem to lack weight. They’re different enough from the previous bottlings that it’s hard to compare but from my point of view, there’s no obvious drop in quality from what came before.
The Smoky Ten
A peated whisky matured in bourbon, virgin oak and Jamaican rum casks. Bottled at 46% and retails for £39.
Smell: A really interesting nose! There’s fruity rum punch, grassy malt and freshly sawn oak. Smoke from a wood burner drifts up from the glass but it’s gentle rather than overpowering. The peat is woody, rather than maritime. Lots of baking aromas too. Croissants and pan-au-chocolat.
Taste: Honey and malty cereal notes to begin with. The honey intensifies as it covers the palate. Woody smoke with a touch of pepper comes through on the finish with some charred oak notes. With water some fruitiness appears, apple in particular.
Thoughts: An entirely different experience again, not just from the rest of the range, but from almost any other malt I’ve come across before. Once again, however, it shouldn’t cost you more than £40.
Peated malt matured in bourbon, rum and virgin oak casks sounds like quite a complicated thing to get right but Rachel Barrie, to her credit, has brought it together beautifully. Every time I thought I had defined the character of the dram it veered off in another direction, which ultimately made for an exciting drinking experience. Complex, layered, nuanced… whatever descriptors you want to apply… it’s totally intriguing.
The Smoky Twelve
This peated malt was matured for 12 years in a combination of bourbon, sherry and Marsala wine casks. Bottled at 46%, it retails for £45.
Smell: Honey, malt and stewed fruits. Apricot. Orange and peach. Tobacco leaves. Liquorice. Fresh oak. Cinnamon and ginger. Pepper. Smoke is very subtle. Almost imperceptible.
Taste: Caramel and toffee. Walnut. Cigar smoke. Coffee. Sultanas. Liquorice. Peppery spice. Charcoal and old oak. The smoke is never obvious until the finish, when it lingers on the palate. Seems to get spicier with time.
Thoughts: A slight step up in price, but not much. On a personal level, I think I would rather have the Smoky Ten or even Twelve but the Smoky Twelve may appeal to you and it won’t break the bank if it does.
With my first couple of sips, I thought this was quite a tame whisky. Probably the closest in style to the Original Ten, albeit with a little bit of smoke and a touch of Marsala. With each additional sip, however, the whisky seemed to grow in intensity, gathering spice as it developed. It didn’t quite live up to the Smoky Ten, or even the Twelve, but that’s a matter of taste and opinion. It is still a well-made, flavoursome whisky.
Conclusions: It’s been an interesting experience tasting through this new range. Especially against the backdrop of the policy change at Glendronach. Does the quality of the new drams live up to that of their predecessors? That’s hard to say. Looking back at old reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed the old ten-year-old Curiositas but how that would compare to the new Smoky Ten is impossible to say without a side-by-side tasting. That might now be difficult with Benriach but maybe not with Glendronach. It would be very interesting to taste old un-chill-filtered Glendronach alongside new chill-filtered Glendronach. Maybe I’ll look into that.
In the meantime, the new Benriach range is solid enough. The Smoky Ten stood out as the most interesting to me, but I enjoyed them all. I wasn’t blown away, but perhaps that’s expecting a bit much from four bottles at £40. Maybe the really spectacular stuff will come further up the range.
Only time will show us the long term impact of Brown Forman’s recent change in direction. Maybe the whisky will remain as good as ever and the whole affair will blow over. Or maybe the people who gave Glendronach the position it now enjoys will move on to something new. Maybe Glendronach will find a new, mainstream audience and challenge the Glenfiddichs and Macallans for sales. All I would ask is that people make their minds up with their palates. At least taste the whisky before you write it off. Don’t judge it on what you think it should be. Judge it on how it tastes. Only then can you truly decide if it’s worth the money being asked.
For more on Benriach visit here.
For more on Glendronach visit here.