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Sunday, 14 June 2015

Benriach Solstice Whisky Review!

Benriach seem to be making some ground these days, along with their sister distillery Glendronach, and for good reason: they're producing excellent whisky. I am yet to taste any of Benriachs's un-peated expressions, but that's mostly because there are plenty of peated expressions, and peat's my thing!

Being a Speyside distillery, this makes them a little unusual, with only a few 'Speysiders' using noticeable amounts of peat in their production process. Speaking of which, they also malt their own barley, on-site, using traditional floor malting. I've previously reviewed their 'Heredotus Fumosus' PX-finished peated whisky here, and I was quite impressed. But this one is a little different...

There have been two releases of Benriach Solstice, one a 15yo, and one a 17yo. Both were matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in Tawny Port pipes, which are massive Port casks/barrels, holding an average of 540 litres. I'm reviewing the second release / edition here, which was bottled at 17 years of age, at 50% ABV, and seems to still be reasonably easy to find, in Australia at least. Port casks are gaining popularity in the whisky world, and seem to work brilliantly with peated malt. Kilchoman's Port Cask and Longrow's Red Port Cask, for example, are both fully matured, rather than only being finished, in ex-Port casks. And both of those are fantastic whiskies. So let's have a quick look at Port, shall we?
Port is a fortified wine, and although it's produced in many different countries around the world, like Champagne, Sherry, and others, only wine produced in Portugal may be called 'Port'. It is produced in the same way as most fortified wines, with grape spirit being added to the wine, to stop fermentation (keeping a higher sugar content) and boost the alcohol content. There are quite a few different styles of Port, using different grape varieties and production methods, but the one we're interested in here is Tawny, which must be made from red grapes, and must be matured in wooden barrels. Usually served as a dessert wine or aperitif, it's typically sweet, spicy and rich in flavour.

Let's see how, or if, the port cask finish has worked with this Benriach...
Benriach Solstice, Second Edition, 17yo, 50%, Speyside, Scotland.
Heavily peated, matured in ex-bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time, before finishing in ex-Port casks. Non-chill filtered, and natural colour.

Colour: Rust

Nose: Smoked strawberry jam, interesting! Sweet red berries, some rich malt. Stone fruit, currants, toffee. Earthy, dry peat.

Texture: Medium weight, oily.

Taste: Quite smoky & peaty. A dab of heat, sweet red fruits and spiced strawberry jam. The smoke and peat seem to overwhelm the fruit a little, but I don't mind!  

Finish: Short to medium, more spicy, earthy peat and wood smoke, light malt. 

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Enjoyable, nicely peaty, but not a great deal of complexity here. Definitely a decent example of a port cask finish, certainly different from your typical sherry finish, but doesn't have the wow factor of the aforementioned Kilchoman or Longrow. 

Great quality whisky though, and decent value. If we compare to Lagavulin distiller's edition (finished in PX sherry casks), for example, the Solstice is aged approximately one year longer, is not chill filtered or coloured, and is bottled at significantly higher strength (50% compared to 43%). And yet the Lagavulin DE sells for $30-50 more, in Australia, at least. With those points and that price difference, the Solstice is in with a serious chance!

The Solstice is still available from a few online specialists, but the cheapest I've found it is here, and it's well worth trying. In fact I'm very impressed with Benriach as a distillery, they're doing excellent work, and they seem eager to try new things, which is excellent. Long may it continue!

Cheers.