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Sunday, 3 December 2017

Distillery in Detail: Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail!


The last distillery visit of my recent pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one, and it was also one of the highlights of the whole experience. Benromach has been one of my favourite mainland distilleries ever since I tasted the two versions of their delicious 10-year old bottling (reviews here). The distillery is located near the town of Forres, around 20 minutes drive west of Elgin, or around 50 minutes drive east of Inverness. It's actually the smallest distillery in the Speyside region, with an annual production capacity of under 250,000 litres, and the distillery itself is beautiful with a very nice visitor's centre, and a very well-stocked shop (including a distillery exclusive bottling!). In fact in my experience this is one of only a few Speyside distilleries where you can still get a sense of traditional and careful production, and painstaking manual labour, all in the pursuit of excellent quality single malt.


The distillery was originally built in 1898, and passed through a number of hands and quite a few closures until winding up under the ownership of DCL, one of the companies which would later form Diageo. While in the hands of DCL the distillery was mothballed in 1983, and it sat silent for 11 years, often being raided for parts and equipment, until it was rescued by Elgin-based family owned independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail, otherwise known as G&M, in 1993. G&M then spent over five years carefully refurbishing their new distillery, even replacing the stills, before production began in 1998, when it was officially reopened by HRH Prince Charles. The goal from the outset was to produce a classic Speyside whisky. And by "classic" they mean old style: medium bodied, rich and lightly peated (to 10-15 ppm) spirit, with the idea being to get as close as possible to a pre-1960s Speyside whisky. And although owned by an independent bottler, none of Benromach's whisky goes into blends, it's all bottled as single malt.


Despite Benromach's ethos of producing a classic Speyside whisky, they're certainly not afraid to also try new things. For example, they produce a delicious heavily peated (up to 67 ppm) whisky, not a commonly found thing in Speyside, which is aptly named Peat Smoke; they're bottling one of the world's only completely certified organic whiskies (which is a hugely difficult thing to do) and they were the first to do so; and they've recently released a triple-distilled Benromach made from the same lightly-peated barley, which to my knowledge is the only peated triple-distilled Scotch whisky currently on the market. All of which is not a bad showing considering they've only been distilling for 19 years since re-opening!


Alongside these new and unusual releases they've managed to stay traditional and "old school" when it comes to production. The distillery uses only the aforementioned lightly-peated barley in all but one expression (the aforementioned Peat Smoke), and it's all Scottish barley by the way, and uses both brewers and distillers yeast in their wooden washbacks, along with long fermentation and slow distillation, and everything is done by hand. There's no automation software or computer assistance involved in the production at any stage, which again is not particularly common in contemporary Speyside. They only use first fill casks to mature their whisky, generally using ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, so there are no refill casks involved, and they're only using traditional earthen-floored dunnage warehouses to store those casks. You certainly do get a sense of this small-scale traditional production inside the distillery, with all of the production equipment being housed in a single building, including the shiny stills with their downward-angled lyne arms which are obviously crucial to Benromach's heavier and more characterful style of spirit.


The distillery offers a range of tours, priced from 6 pounds for a basic tour and tasting of the 10-year old, through to 125 pounds for a personal tour with the distillery manager which includes a bottle of the distillery exclusive to take home. While there is no photography permitted inside the distillery buildings, all tours do take a look inside a dunnage warehouse, which is often not the case on many distillery tours and is an absolute must see in my opinion. These cold, dank, and often dirty & dusty warehouses are an essential part of the process and should be celebrated as such!  


I was lucky enough to catch up with Alastair Milligan, export representative for Gordon & MacPhail, at Benromach, who very generously showed me around the distillery, before a quick tasting in the visitor's centre. It may have been a quick tasting, but it was very, very special since I was lucky enough to taste the then-new triple distilled Benromach (review coming soon!), the current distillery exclusive bottling, and one more... Benromach 35 year old! We started with the new triple-distilled, which is bottled at a higher strength than most of Benromach's expressions at 50% ABV. I'm not usually a big fan of triple-distilled whisky, I often find them too light and a little lacking in character, but this is definitely one of the best that I've tasted. While I'm sure the lightly-peated malt and first-fill bourbon casks help, I'd say that it's also the heavier, more robust Benromach spirit that is largely responsible for that. It's a very fresh, fruity and lightly smoky dram that was way down on the acetone notes that I usually find prominent in triple distilled whiskies, despite being only eight years of age. Which is yet another testament to the skill of the distillery team.


Next up was the current distillery exclusive bottling, which was a 15-year old ex-bourbon single cask bottled at 59.9% ABV. This one was very nice, again it was fresh and fruity, with plenty of character, and the typical Benromach "touch of smoke" was amplified nicely with the high strength. But the star of the show was definitely the 35-year old. This very special whisky is beautifully presented in a dark wooden box, and still carries hints of that excellent Benromach packaging design. Obviously this whisky was distilled long before G&M took ownership of the distillery, and there's not many casks left from that era, and it was fully-matured in first-fill sherry casks. Although bottled at a relatively low 43% it was full of character and flavour. Liquid toffee apples in fact, with a little wax, and some leather and oak mixed in. It wasn't dominated by the sherry or the wood either, which is quite an achievement for a whisky that was matured in first-fill casks for 35 years. Absolutely delicious! That was the end of the Benromach part of this incredible afternoon, and like all of the best distillery visits do, actually seeing, touching, and smelling the working distillery, and then tasting the results, on site at the distillery, gives you a new degree of appreciation for the whisky you find in your glass long after the experience itself has ended. It's a gift that keeps on giving!


But that's not all folks! Alastair was also kind enough to show me around Gordon & MacPhail's headquarters in Elgin, including an incredible warehouse and an absolutely mind-blowing tasting. After a quick drive-by of Diageo's massive Roseisle distillery plant to give me a sense of scale (and did it ever!), we toured the famous George House, before finishing up in the original Gordon & MacPhail shop in the centre of Elgin. What a way to spend an afternoon!


Gordon & MacPhail started out as a grocery store and whisky brokerage in 1895 in Elgin (so pre-dating Benromach Distillery by 3 years!), and the company is still privately owned by the fourth-generation descendants of John Urquhart, who joined the company in 1896, and went on to become a senior partner in 1915. It was Urquhart who began purchasing new make spirit from various distilleries and filling it into his own casks, which were then matured at their place of origin, with the intent to either use them for blends or to bottle them as what we now call single malts. G&M produce a huge range of bottlings, including both blends and single malts, perhaps most famously the Connoisseurs Choice and Cask Strength ranges.


G&M strongly believe that the wood makes the whisky, and after visiting one of their incredible warehouses I could easily see that being put into action over many decades of hard work. Unfortunately no photography was permitted inside the building (for understandable reasons), so you'll just have to take my word for it, but this was like an Aladdin's cave of extremely precious whisky. Thousands of casks were sitting quietly in this massive racked warehouse, waiting for their time in the spotlight to finally come. I can't go into specific details here, but I'd wager that G&M have the largest range of very old casks still maturing than any independent bottler, and quite possibly more than many distilleries as well. After a quick walk through the bottling hall and packaging area, which is responsible for bottling both G&M and Benromach products and shipping them all over the world, I was led up to the incredible new tasting room for a dram.


This tasting room itself has to be seen to be believed. The fittings & fixtures are truly beautiful, including light fittings made from barrel hoops, and the walls are lined with Urquhart family portraits, a copy of the original trading license from 1895, and lots and lots of whisky! One end of this large room is home to hundreds of cask samples, and this alone could easily be mistaken for a whisky museum. 1952 Ardbeg anyone!?! But that's definitely not all, because on the other side of the room, in a very pretty (and very secure) display case you'll find four extremely special bottles of whisky. We're talking about a 75-year old Mortlach, two 70-year old Glenlivets, and a 70-year old Mortlach. These are the longest matured single malt whiskies that have ever been bottled, so we're in some serious company here!


Obviously these aren't exactly open for tasting, but Alastair had selected a few extremely special drams to finish off the visit to these hallowed grounds, which just happened to include the oldest whisky I've ever tasted! We're talking a 15-year old Linkwood, a 21-year old Mortlach, a delicious 23-year old Glen Scotia, and then the stars of the show: a 52-year old sherry cask Glen Grant distilled in 1961, and a 56-year old sherry cask 'Speymalt' Macallan distilled in 1950! Both of these were absolutely incredible, as you'd expect, with the Glen Grant still being full of fruit and not at all overly oaky, and the Macallan (labelled as Speymalt by G&M) being full of dark chocolate, fruit and spice. Somebody pinch me!


All five drams were very balanced, as is G&M's goal with all of their bottlings, and it has to be said that compared to some official bottlings these very old G&M whiskies are actually quite reasonably priced. I know that sounds silly when you're talking about $30,000 and upwards for 700ml of whisky, but compared to similar very old whisky from the big brands that are on the market, which are considerably younger to boot, it's actually quite reasonable!


After this phenomenal tasting we were off down the road to Gordon & MacPhail's shop for a quick look around. Which is still the original shop that first opened in 1895, located on the other side of Elgin. What's amazing here is that the shop is still a working delicatessen, a grocery store, and a wine & spirits store, as well as having a dedicated whisky section with over 1000 bottles on the shelves! The shop often has exclusive bottlings as well, which at the time included an 8-year old Bunnahabhain and a 19-year old Mortlach, both bottled at cask strength. While there's obviously a huge range of G&M bottlings available there's also a massive range of official bottlings from various distilleries, Scottish and otherwise, and all are priced very reasonably. Unfortunately it was now after closing time and I was holding everyone up, so I panic-bought a miniature Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig (which was delicious) and got out of the way. But it was incredible to get the chance to look around this 120+ year old shop, which is still family owned, and to see it still operating as a 'normal' shop with such history is pretty amazing. I highly recommend stopping in here on your way through the Highlands, and I suggest you save some luggage space for the occasion!


With that it was on the road again, still beaming from the whole experience! If you'd told me that morning that by that evening I would have tasted a 35-year old Benromach, a 52-year old Glen Grant and a 56-year old Macallan, after looking at & touching some casks that are older than my father, I'd have laughed at you. What a way to spend the day! Gordon & MacPhail have long been one of my favourite independent bottlers, and this visit has of course reinforced that feeling. They do consistently good work through both their independent bottlings and their beautiful distillery, and long may it continue. A massive, massive thanks to Alastair for showing me around and truly going above & beyond, it's very much appreciated mate! And thanks to Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail for having me. I can't wait to get back over there and do it all again!


Since this is also the final part of the pilgrimage write-up, there's another more sombre experience which deserves a mention, and which definitely deserves a visit if you're making this pilgrimage yourself: Culloden Battlefield. We stopped in on the way back to Inverness, and although the visitor's centre had closed for the day we could still walk the tracks. This meant it was practically empty which certainly added to the already heavy atmosphere. Culloden Moor was the site of the last stand of the failed Jacobite rebellion in 1746, and it's now regarded as a war grave. Over 1500 outnumbered Jacobites (mostly Scots) were killed on this field, compared with around 300 British army troops, and the battle itself lasted less than an hour. It's a very sobering, sombre and almost spooky place, especially so in the dying light of a cold evening with mist rolling over the hills. There are flags on the field that mark the lines of both sides, along with memorial stones dedicated to the various Scottish clans that were erected in 1881, along with a memorial cairn. The battlefield and visitor's centre is only around 15 minutes from Inverness, and I highly recommend that you visit. It's all too easy to forget about Scotland's tumultuous history and past hardships when you're touring distilleries and drinking glorious whisky, so if you ask me this should be on everyone's itinerary when visiting the Highlands. Personally it served as a reminder that this stunningly beautiful, friendly and welcoming country hasn't been treated too fairly in history...


Cheers!