A friend and I were recently discussing holiday plans for 2014, as one tends to do at the start of any year.
When asked where I would be off to, I said I’d be unlikely to take a proper vacation this year.
But then I quickly corrected myself, adding: “Any spare time I get will likely be up to Scotland or over to Ireland, checking out distilleries.”
His response was that I should be sure to take some proper time off, to not only focus on work.
But, that’s the thing: visiting beautiful distilleries in Scotland or abroad is very rarely a chore.
In fact, when I needed a few days break away in December, I decided to do just that – flee to Scotland for a mini-break on my own, take in the stunning Banffshire coastline and, of course, pop into a couple of distilleries.
Which is what led me to twee BenRiach, just outside of Elgin. I was on my way northeast anyway and couldn’t resist the chance to take a quick detour off the A96 to the distillery.
There I met up with Ewan George, distillery manager, who had kindly offered to take time out of his busy end of the year schedule to show me around.
As background, BenRiach has had a bit of a topsy turvy history. It first opened in 1898, having been built by John Duff who also owned Longmorn Distillery next door. He even built a wee railroad to run between them. But only two years later, the distillery was forced to close due to the negative effects of the Pattison crash.
What stands BenRiach apart from other distilleries that were harmed by the crash was the fact it continued to produce floor maltings up until 1965 for next-door Longmorn.
In that year, the distillery was purchased and reopened by Glenlivet, who helped to get it back on its feet.
Then, in 1978, it changed hands again after being bought by Seagrams. At that time, it mainly produced spirit for blending and it wasn’t until 1994 that the first single malt was launched. When Seagrams became a part of Pernod Ricard in 2001, the distillery once again dropped down in production, operating for just three months, before finally being mothballed the following year.
While poor BenRiach could have turned into a lost cause, it was with music to many whisky lovers’ ears that a small consortium led by Billy Walker – a longtime player in the Scotch industry – had come together to buy the distillery. It reopened in September 2004 and the story continued. This is also when the capital ‘R’ came into use in the name.
Today, the distillery produces around 2.4 million litres per annum, working on a six-day week. It uses a mix of peated and unpeated barley, the former of which is done to 35ppm – a rather hefty level for Speyside, which has few heavily peated whiskies coming from the region’s distilleries.
According to George, there are 23 mashes per week, using around 5.8 tonnes of barley per mash, while eight stainless steel washbacks (installed in the Seagram days to replace the wooden versions) run on two mash cycles: 15 mashes at 48 hours, and 8 mashes at 68 hours. The two mash runs are mixed post-distillation before casking is done.
The aim for BenRiach is to make a floral, fruity, heathery new make spirit, and this is done on two wash and two spirit stills, which run for six hours and 12 hours, respectively. The distillery has outdoor shell and tube condensers and takes its cut between 72% and 61%. The new make is very palatable, with loads of character and depth, but without too much alcohol kick, even at that strength – I really got the heathery aspect of it when I snuck a wee drop full.
The company does its filling and reduction for its single malts on-site as well, with spirit for single malt accounting for about 1/3 of total production, and the other 2/3 for reciprocal blending agreements. For the core range, the whiskies are first batted together in one of four large vats, before being re-casked once married for around 6-8 weeks.
According to George, the company does around 1500 samples at the start of the year of the casks which are likely to be bottled to ensure they’re ready. “They have to be ready for the bottle; we can’t just put a stamp on it and bottle it because it’s reached 12 years of age, for instance,” he said.
On-site the company has room to store about 20,000 casks, while the rest are spread out at various rented sites, such as at North British.
BenRiach currently has quite a wide range of releases, from its ‘Classic Speyside’ range to its ‘Wood Finish Expressions’ and ‘Peated BenRiachs’ amongst many others. The idea is to slim this down, according to George, to focus on a slightly tighter selection of releases but he didn’t comment on exactly which those would be.
As I left BenRiach and headed back on the road northeast to Banffshire, it was with a renewed sense of vigour; whether that was from the cold or the invigoration that visiting whisky distilleries gives me, I was unsure. But I do know this: seeing lovely casks resting and smelling the damp cool earth in warehouses, or warming up by a gleaming copper still and taking in the sweet, fruity smell as they chug away, is a vacation in itself. Who needs a beach in Spain when you have all the beauty of Scotland so nearby?