I'm definitely a fan of Benriach, particularly when it comes to their peated releases, and this one is far & away the oldest Benriach I've tasted. We shouldn't expect to find much peat influence hanging around after those 29 long years, but let's find out anyway, purely for science of course...
Speyside distillery Benriach may not have the same cult following that its sister distillery Glendronach enjoys, but they do share some common practices, thankfully including skipping the chill filtration and added colouring, and also the single cask program. The lack of a cult following also helps in the pricing department, with Benriach's single cask bottlings coming in at much more reasonable prices than the current batch from their sherry-bomb counterparts. Neither distillery's single cask bottlings have been particularly easy to find in Australia thus far, although that does seem to be improving, unfortunately alongside a massive price increase in the case of the recent batch from Glendronach. You won't find any peated Glendronach single casks though, which is where Benriach takes centre stage!
Modern peated Benriachs use surprisingly heavily peated malt, to the tune off 55 ppm in fact, but I can't be sure what ppm the distillery used in 1986 when this bottling was distilled, in fact I don't believe it was even measured back then, but I think it'd be safe to assume it was less. In those years the distillery was producing peated whisky for use in blends, under then-owner Seagram's, not for bottling as Benriach's own single malt. Along with Glendronach and Glenglassaugh, Benriach was purchased last year by American drinks company Brown-Forman, and despite wide-spread concern in the whisky community, thus far there do not seem to have been any major changes, perhaps with the exception of Rachel Barrie coming on board recently. Rachel was formerly the master blender for Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch, and it's widely believed that she will eventually replace current master distiller and blender Billy Walker at the Benriach Distilling Company, who has been an integral part of the widespread success that the three distilleries have enjoyed in the last decade or so. I don't have any doubts that Rachel will be entirely up to the task, she already has an impressive resume of successful whisky releases, and it'll be interesting to see what she comes up with in the future.
Anyway, this particular bottling I'm looking at is from cask number 7569, and is a 29-year old peated Benriach that was finished in an Oloroso sherry butt (500-litre cask), which yielded 568 bottles. It's important to note that the Benriach single casks follow the same practices as Glendronach's, so this whisky may not have spent its entire life in the same cask, a few different casks of a similar age may have been finished in the same sherry butt, which is then bottled as a single cask release. It's only a technicality really, it's still a single cask bottling after all, but it's something to keep in mind. But enough of that, it's a 29-year old single cask peated Benriach; it's exciting stuff, so let's get into it!
Cask 7569, peated Oloroso sherry butt finish. Distilled 12/1986, bottled 6/2016, 568 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Polished bronze.
Nose: That was one effective sherry finish! Fresh figs, currants, musty stewed berries. Oiled leather, plum jam, sweet cough lozenges, and a light earthy-ness behind it all.
Texture: Medium weight, rich & spicy. Warming, but no rough or harsh heat.
Taste: That assertive sherry finish is throwing its weight around again! Sweet oranges, plum jam again but un-sweetened this time. More leather and cough lozenge as well, and a good pinch of ground ginger.
Finish: Quite spicy here, with wood spices and some chilli powder, but it passes. Surprisingly short length too, at least for the age and strength, and not a great deal of complexity. Hints of that leather and those stewed berries return, as does a bit of the earthy-ness.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: The nose was lovely on this one, and it was reasonably enjoyable on the palate, but it fell over a bit on the finish. That sherry cask finishing was definitely very assertive, I can see why they didn't let it go through to the full 30 years of age, it had already done its magic. Perhaps a bit too much, in fact. There's hardly any trace of the peat either, but that's understandable given the nearly three decades of maturation, and an assertive sherry finishing, and what I suspect was a relatively low ppm level compared to modern peated Benriach.
Still a very nice experience though, and quite a unique take on Benriach that I haven't experienced before. And let's be honest, it's always tough to resist the allure of an old whisky, particularly a single cask one. Having said that, I'm not sure this one was worth the rather high price it commanded, which was around $500 AUD when it was more widely available. There are many younger and cheaper whiskies that will happily tick the same boxes, and then some. I'm still very lucky and thankful to have tried it though, and thanks to the anonymous donor for the sample!
So let's all wish Rachel luck in her new role, and let's hope the three distilleries under her guidance continue to go from strength to strength, so we can keep enjoying the results!