Built in 1898 by John Duff, the Benriach distillery, in between a few periods of closure, has been producing Scotch whisky in the heart of Speyside for over a century. Not afraid of experimentation, the Speyside malt maker has produced a range of classic, peated and triple distilled whisky, all from a variety of eclectic casks sourced from around the world. Undoubtedly, Benriach has set the benchmark as a beacon of creativity, with their single malts now a staple in any whisky lover's drinks cabinet.
Inspired by its creative past, Benriach has revamped its core range with a refreshed focus on flavour-led innovation. The Original Ten, The Smoky Ten, The Twelve and The Smoky Twelve make up a portfolio of exciting new single malts crafted by Master Blender Dr Rachel Barrie. Whisky fans can enjoy flavours of spiced oak, orchard fruits, and malt sweetness, perfectly packaged in new-look bottles, reminiscent of Benriach’s very first single malt released back in 1994.
Brown Forman Global Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan has been with Benriach since 2004, where he worked as the Production Manager under Billy Walker before taking on the role as the brand's Global Ambassador in 2012. Our chat is via Webex, a virtual platform; this is the 'new normal' at the time of writing, with distillery visits, whisky tastings and festivals being off-limits, or at least very restricted. In non-global-pandemic times Stewart would be taking the Benriach rebrand on the road and around the world, but instead all activations are confined to his home in Elgin, Scotland. Although, after our discussion, it's clear that Stewart has never been busier.
Hi Stewart! How's life as a brand ambassador with restricted travel, and how are you keeping busy from home?
It's great to be up north again but I do miss my travel. The last time I travelled was to Australia in mid-March, based around a big whisky festival in New Zealand. [Pre-lockdown] I wouldn’t have normally spent more than three weeks at home at one time – that would have been a luxury before going out on the road again. My garden’s getting a lot done now, though!
I’ve still been been really busy online. I can be up at 8AM online to Australia, and then I'll have another online event in Nashville. I’ve been across the globe this year – virtually. Even in my ‘downtime’, my calendar is filled with organised homebound visits [up in Elgin] to the distillery. So, really, I've never been busier!
It’s been a great 16 years, and it feels good at this point to get a more concise range together, with a whole big picture of the packaging.
What was the inspiration behind the brand's new colours? They're very Miami Vice.
You know something, I’ve never thought about that – with the pastels suits, maybe!
We wanted to go back to that originally 1994 bottling of the Original Ten. I’ve always loved its simplicity and always had a bottle of it in the house. We’ve taken cues from this bottle and then put it into a more modern day approach.
A lot of the comments we’ve had say that it fits the brand well; it’s got a timeless feel to it and I think when you look at taking that old 10-year-old as the cue, you’ve got to stay in the border of that pastel scheme. We didn’t want to go to dark – there’s always a temptation with the peated expressions to go for darker, mottle tones, and for dark browns. We always wanted to stay light, bright and fresh, because for me, that’s what Speyside is, and particularly Benriach.
Someone described Benriach to me wonderfully at a tasting as being ‘very playful’! It is a very playful, lively single malt and I think that’s what we wanted to keep in the packaging. And you’ve got the reference to the purples of the heather, the blues of the water and that cream tone putting across the minerality of the water, and the sandstone area surrounding it. There’s definitely cues from the landscape that have moved into the brief of the colour portfolio as well.
We would be inclined to agree about Benriach being a playful brand! Our customers have always been a big fan of the Curiositas [now the same recipe as The Smoky 10] as a peated Speyside. What experimental casks are you currently working with?
The great thing about The Whisky Shop, with the single casks that we’ve done for you guys in the past (and I’ve loved doing the tastings), is that there's a real passion for Benriach, especially among The W Club consumers. Anyone who knows Benriach can look at that portfolio and see how, let’s say in some ways, how crazy we were! We had 35 Benriachs in the market at the one time and some people didn’t know what Benriach exactly was - is it all peated or is it all Speyside classic-style? It was maybe a little bit confusing for the consumer. But we liked that. We liked firing out these things – even having names like Septendecim and Importantaticus on the bottles. These things in the past, even if people didn’t particularly like the whisky, were definitely talked about.
Looking at different cask maturations across the board, covering all the red wines and Marsala, Moscatel and tokjai wines – our warehouse is just like walking into a sweetie shop! I think Billy [Walker] was a bit ahead of his time there – I reckon only Glenmorangie and Bruichladdich were doing wine finishes in a big way circa 2006. A lot more people are doing that now but I think we were a little bit ahead of the game there, which meant that we've had a bit more time to experience it and see what worked, to see how the casks react, and to see what happens when our whisky longer in that second maturation, just to keep pushing it and to see where it goes. There’s been a lot of learning on the casks that we’ve used over the years.
Transitioning to Rachel [Barrie] starting with us three and a half years ago, you can imagine the point of view of a master blender walking into our Warehouse 13. It’s like every corner’s got a different barrel! Her head must been spinning with the possibilities - that she could then look at these casks individually, which we would put out as our batch ranges, market exclusives, shop exclusives, and so on. She’s then taken all these together and, I would say, brought some clarity and consistency to the range now, with flavours that we’ve never seen before.
Was there anything that Rachel saw that blew her away in
I’d happily say all of it! But sometimes you’ve got to control yourself and see the bigger picture. We learned over time that sometimes, if we’re looking at a particular cask, we should fill just five or six and see where they're going to go. When Rachel assessed the warehouse she chose what she would want in the future combinations; she’s selecting the barrels, but filling the casks, waiting the time. A lot of time, thought and effort has gone into not only analysing the casks that we’ve had historically, but also making sure we have enough of them to keep that consistency going forward. Unfortunately, there’s no magic tap in warehouses that we can just turn on!
That magic tap sounds great to us...
Speyside is so dense with history and distilleries What is it about Benriach's new look and new flavour range that sets it apart?
Every distillery is proud of the dimensions inside their spirit. I love every whisky no matter where it’s from in the world, not just in Speyside. Although, I personally have never seen a new make spirit or developing cask that opens so much into that orchard fruit note like Benriach.
When I take people round the distillery, I tell them to shut their eyes in the mash and still house; it’s like being in an orchard, even standing in production. The fruit development is awesome, and when you open a bottle of The Original Ten and pop that cork, it’s just apples and pears jumping out. That’s what I see in Benriach that I don’t see in other Speysides: that huge fruit forward nature of the spirit and maturation. And what a great base to have - if you have that base, you can throw more bourbon barrels to lift up more sweetness; throw more sherry barrels to transform that fruit into the dark raisins or sultanas; or you can fire virgin oak at it and add more spice to it. Sometimes, if you have a thinner or purer spirit, it can’t carry the weight of a virgin oak. But with Benriach's big shoulders and body in the new make spirit, it can carry the weight.
What I also love about Benriach is that we’re not just moving one barrel to another, to another, to finish in the styles, finished in the styles, and so on. There's a proper good length of maturation in each cask, with small quantities in one case for one barrel, just to tweak that dimension. It's about real-time casks coming together, rather than just moving A to B to C. And as a master blender, that gives you far more flexibility to look at your recipes and get that right every time and build more flavour possibilities. But that does take time, takes longer to achieve, and you have to wait till your stocks are the right level. It’s been a long project.
Will we be seeing more single casks from Benriach? They're always a big hit.
Definitely. We’ve got plenty of potential and we’ve still got barrels that will go into our batch release programme. Prior to Brown Forman, we’d get barrels from Speyside cooperage. Now, in Alabama and Louiseville, we're looking at toasting levels of virgin oak that would be bespoke to Benriach, which is one of the first things Rachel looked into under Brown Forman. That wood ratio will give you more intensity, and then of course there's the bespoke charring. This new range has a more viscous body that’s bigger and bolder than it used to be.
Vibrancy and sweetness are present as before, but now it's almost like the green apple-skin is more on the citrus front. I think what’s happened with this bespoke toasting of the virgin oak elements is that it’s bringing more oils, more depth and more caramelised flavours. I think it’s because of these smaller bespoke toasted virgin oak barrels, as a comparison of before and after.
There's some lovely things we need to look at internally, but stay tuned!
We will! We'd love for Benriach to release something like Glendronach's recent Kingsman expression. Just for fun, which film speaks to Benriach for this purpose?
Grand Budapest Hotel [Wes Anderson film] for quirkiness and comedy value. The pastels would all fit together too - we'd be harking back to a nice time there with that!
I actually usually compare Glendronach and Benriach to cars. For me, Glendronach is like an E-Type Jaguar 1968: you don’t have to touch it - just have to polish it every now and again! Benriach, on the other hand, is more like a Steve McQueen – a custom race car!
Glendronach has definitely had the limelight for a while now! Would you say that Benriach's time to shine is here?
Its definitely Benriach’s time now. I do sometimes wonder where would it be today if the brand had 100% focus between 2004 and now. Would it be much bigger than it is? Probably. Unfortunately - or rather - fortunately, Glendronach stole its thunder for a while. But it takes years to build up your brands and commitments, and now there's a real push behind Benriach, especially with the relaunch. I can see a push for Glenglassaugh coming after - we've barely touched it [since the Brown Forman takeover].
When you’ve been promoting Benriach around the world, where have you the best feedback from?
All over! I'd say that Poland’s one of our strongest European markets. I think Poland’s going to blow a lot of traditional European markets out the water quite soon. The single malt growth there is through the roof; they’ll be knocking on the doors of countries like Belgium, France and Germany within five years.
Why Poland? I don’t know! They seem to have just made this transition into single malts. They've been on a journey from vodka, to USA whiskeys, to single malts. The demographic of the whisky drinker there is definitely younger, with a more even male to female ratio. The country is full of young and vibrant bartenders pushing the single malt category, and they seem to really enjoy it.
The new Benriach design does lend itself to a younger market. Will Benriach be working more with bartenders, making cocktails and serving the range in a different way?
Definitely. It’s an avenue we didn’t really go down before because we were more about the specialist shops – that was our focus. We didn’t have the time or the teams to go to the bars as often – they more or less came to us rather than us going to them. But with Brown Forman’s strategy and the teams they have that focus more on the on-trade, we’re doing some fantastic work.
The boys in the London office have already created a tasting pack with five different bars contributing cocktails to that pack. It'll then go out to different bars to experiment with, like Bramble in Edinburgh and The Gate in Glasgow.
Benriach works well with cocktails. When you look at what we’re doing using marsala barrels, or rum casks or port casks, it's just big mixology.
Have you made a home-made perfect serve with Benriach?
Of course! The Smoky 10 has historically been my favourite since day one - it's the most versatile of the range and doesn’t get lost amongst big flavours. With flavours of honey, ginger and citrus, it's perfect for a penicillin, every day of the week!
Yep. Keeps the doctor away!
Please note that neither Stewart or The Whisky Shop recommend a daily cocktail for medical purposes.
You can now shop refreshed Benriach core range at The Whisky Shop. What's more, we're giving away a free Benriach card wallet with each purchase. Shop the range here.