Benriach doesn't have the cult following of it's sister distillery Glendronach, but they're making some excellent whisky, including some very good heavily peated expressions, with my personal picks so far being the excellent value 10-year old 'Curiositas', and the 17-year old 'Septendecim', both of which are matured in ex-bourbon casks. In fact all of Benriach's peated whiskies use the same 55 ppm peated malt, which is the same level as Ardbeg, although they're using mainland peat which is quite different (and some might say more approachable) to what you'll find on Islay. Speaking of malt, Benriach re-commissioned their own floor malting facility in 2012, which means they're now one of the seven Scotch distilleries that are malting some or all of their barley requirements on site. Obviously we won't see the results of this return to the traditional methods for a few more years, but it'll be very interesting nonetheless.
Much like Glendronach, or perhaps even more so, Benriach aren't afraid of toying around with different cask finishes, particularly when it comes to their peated expressions. In the recent past there have been limited releases that were finished in port, sherry, madeira and even dark rum casks, and for that matter they recently released a whisky that has been fully matured (not finished) in ex-bourbon quarter casks, simply named 'Peated Quarter Cask', which to my knowledge is the first time any distilleries have attempted this. You'd would think that full-term maturation in these smaller casks would result in too much wood influence over time, and I'm yet to try it, but it's a very interesting idea which has certainly piqued my curiosity. Anyway, back to the cask finished whiskies!
Today's expression is an 18-year old peated expression which has been matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in Pedro Ximinez (aka PX) sweet sherry casks, and it's been named 'Albariza', which refers to the chalky white soil preferred by the vineyards in Andalucia, the sherry-producing region of Spain. Despite the relatively heavily-peated malt used, we can expect those 18 long years to have reduced that substantially. The Albariza was released at the same time as two other limited-release 'finished' peated malts, the Madeira cask finished 'Latada', and the dark rum cask finished 'Dunder'. All were 18 years old, and all were bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. PX sherry casks aren't used anywhere near as often as Oloroso for maturing whisky, but the results can be beautiful when it works (looking at you Laphroaig PX), so I have high hopes for this one.
Benriach 'Albariza' 18-year old, 46%. Speyside, Scotland.
Heavily peated. Matured in ex-bourbon casks, finished in ex-Pedro Ximinez (PX) sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. Limited release of 3800 bottles approx.
Colour: Dark red-y amber.
Nose: Sweet & fruity, syrupy. Rich sweet stone fruit, musty red grapes and raisins. Light soy sauce, wet copper and a hint of earthy peat. Red licorice, mint and dried herbs come out with more time.
Texture: Light-medium weight. Quite light & soft, no heat at all, and well balanced.
Taste: Sweet stewed fruits in syrup, soft hint of earthy peat. Musty sherry, slightly salty which is surprising, some peppery oak and brown sugar.
Finish: Short-medium length. Bitter oak and slightly burnt toffee. Getting drier. Stewed fruit, white pepper and something earthy and savoury - possibly mushrooms?
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: Good stuff, and good quality as usual with Benriach. I would've liked a little more weight and heft to the mouth feel, and a little more peat despite the age (I find the 17 year old Septendecim much peatier), but it's very approachable without being bland or boring. Nice and complex on the nose, but the palate didn't quite live up to my expectations. Still a nice dram though, maybe even a summer's day dram without being too light. The Albariza seems to be sold out everywhere, which is understandable considering the relatively small limited release, and it was quite reasonably priced when available.
So far I've preferred the ex-bourbon cask matured Benriach's to the others, particularly when they're peated, so it's probably down to my personal taste as well. I must admit I preferred the 12-year old 'Heredotus Fumosus' PX finish to this older version, it had a little more peat and a little more weight to it from memory. Benriach are doing great work, and the news of them re-commissioning their malting floors is very exciting. I'm predicting we'll see some local barley-type expressions in the future, which will no doubt be excellent. Let's just hope the new owners have the same outlook as the guys who brought this distillery back to life.