Stewart Buchanan, the distillery manager of Benriach, held a most interesting tasting of his whiskies at the Spirit of Speyside Festival in Duttftown. It started out like your usual distillery profile tasting with a cross-section of the current bottling range, tasting notes of which will be added in the near future.
After five or six drams your usual distillery profile tasting would have been finished, but here it turned out that this was only the prelude for something very special: The anatomy of the Benriach 16.
For their standard single malt bottlings most if not all distilleries use a specific “recipe” of cask types that go into the vatting in order to create a flavour prolile that is both sufficiently complex and balanced enough to attract as many buyers as possible. Very often these recipes are just about as secret as the Coca Cola formula. Try to ask Rachel Barrie what goes into the Glenmorangie 18 or Richard Paterson what casks he used for the Jura 16, and chances are that they will just smile at you. Some brands will at least tell that they for example use a mix of first fill bourbon and and refill sherry, but this is about as close as you can get to the real composition of the bottlings.
Stewart Buchanan had no secrets. He poured five cask samples of the elements that make up the Benriach 16 and even disclosed their proportions in the final vatting. But first, the tasting notes for the 16 yo:
Benriach 16 yo – 46%
Colour: Medium gold
Nose: Almonds, fresh hay, banana, pineapple, candied ginger.
Palate: Banana, marzipan, honey, vanilla, hints of liquorice and nutmeg.
Finish: Rather long and slightly spicy.
Overall: A smooth “classical modern” Speyside dram with a slight driness that makes it a pleasant aperitive dram.
Element #1: 34% First Fill Bourbon Barrel – Body
Colour: Dark gold
Nose: Vanilla, caramel, resin, banana, polished wood.
Palate: Honey, tinned peaches, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, hints of pepper.
Finish: Long, fruity and slightly sweet.
Overall: Rich and creamy with a great densitiy of flavours.
Element #2: 21% Refill Hogshead – Spice
Colour: Pale straw
Nose: Vanilla, lemon zest, porridge, wet leaves.
Palate: Vanilla, porridge, cabbage, pepper and chili.
Finish: Short and very spicy.
Overall: Extremely spicy, a lot of punch but not very enjoyable.
Element #3: 10% Virgin Oak – Dephth
Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: Marzipan, lemon zest, orange zest, polished wood, cinnamon and cloves.
Palate: Vanilla, caramel, orange marmalade, peaches, mixed oriental spices.
Finish: Very long, dry and fruity.
Overall: After 16 years in fresh casks, this malt is very dry, but the other flavours are intense enough to act as a strong counterpart to the wood. A true flavour bomb.
Element #4: 32% Refill Sherry – Richness
Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: Raisins, prunes, burnt sugar, cinnamon.
Palate: Raisins, dried figs, oranges, fudge, nutmeg and pepper.
Finish: Long, fruity and spicy.
Overall: A decent sherry dram, a bit on the spicy side.
Element #5: 3% Peated Refill Bourbon – Smoke
Nose: Cold smoke chamber, lime, nutmeg, pepper.
Palate: Peat, smoked ham, vanilla, caramel, pepper, hints of chili and dried herbs.
Finish: Long, smoky and slightly spicy.
Overall: Very enjoyable with a good balance of peat, sweetness and spice.
Some very interesting things could be learned from this.
- The extremely spicy refill hogshead component that is no pleasure at all if enjoyed on its own can still be put to good use in such a vatting to give a little punch to the mix.
- 16 year old virgin oak whisky may be a bit too much to take for some (I liked it, though), but it is an excellent method to add depth to the vatting.
- The minuscule amount of peated whisky is virtually unnoticeable in the final dram, but I guess you would notice it, if it was missing.
I liked three of the elements better than the original bottling. Does this mean that vatting a standard expression is alwaws connected with a loss of overall quality? My answer to this is a decisive “Yes and No”. The Benriach 16 is bottled at 46% which is the nice drinking strength often demanded for standard bottlings. The components we tasted were cask samples, the individual strengths don’t really matter here as they differ from cask to cask anyway.
Of course cask strength whisky has a significantly richer taste than a bottle diluted to drinking strength. I suspect most of you have already wished to taste a cask strength version of a nice but not sensational standard bottling, just to see the difference. Well, I had a litle chat with Stewart while he loaded his stuff into his car before heading back home, and all of a sudden he poured me a dram of the undiluted Benriach 16! I was abslutely stunned, both by the surprise of being given the rare opportunity to taste such a dram and by the sublime quality of the vatting at original strength. Of course this wasn’t a situation for a formal tasting, standing on the pavement in front of Stewart’s car, but still I had the impression that at cask strength, the vatting was indeed at least as good as the sum of its parts.
It is moments like this, that make whisky festivals like Spirit of Speyside worth attending. Dramming alone at home or even in company with your friends is only one part of the whisky experience. But the possibility to get in touch with the people who actually make the nectar is priceless.
Buy Benriach 16 at The Whisky Exchange