Monday, July 9, 2018

Scotland 2017, day 9

It looks like I’ve let a bit more time slip by than intended since I took a break from writing about my trip to Scotland last year. I’m going to try to get caught up with the topic at hand sooner than later.

Day 9 was the last day of travel before I settled in to the heart of Speyside for most of the remainder of the trip. After initially planning out a very rough itinerary, I had looked over a map of the distillery locations I was most likely to visit and chose Aberlour village as the location of my home base for the five nights I would spend the area.

I only had a drive of about an hour and a half from Inverness to Aberlour, and the Benromach distillery was roughly mid-way between the two, so that was an easy choice for the first tour of the day.

Closer to my destination was the relatively new Dalmunach distillery, opened by Pernod Ricard / Chivas Brothers in 2014. Dalmunach isn’t open to the public for tours, but I made contact with the proper Public Relations representatives and tried to make arrangements for a visit. Unfortunately they weren’t able to accommodate my request for any of the dates during which I would be in the area.

Another option that I considered was the nearby Ballindalloch, a small (100,000 lpa), single-estate distillery built in converted farm buildings, which began producing in September of 2014. When I looked into the details of a visit I learned that the tours were quite expensive, by appointment only, and 3 hours in duration. I decided to pass, but do feel a bit of regret about that decision now; it looks like a pretty cool little distillery and from all accounts offers an impressive tour.

Ultimately, I decided to stop by Glenfarclas in the afternoon. I had a tour scheduled there the next day, but this was the second of two “must visit” distilleries (along with Edradour) on this trip, so stopping by to spend a little time in the visitor center the day before seemed appropriate. I was also hoping to take home a special bottle from the Glenfarclas Family Casks series and I thought it would be good to have a preview of availability and pricing so I could sleep on the decision before making my big purchase.

I ended up booking a room in a B&B that was on a hillside overlooking Aberlour Village   and about a 10 minute walk from the pub I was most likely to frequent. The owners of the Fairy Knowe House were a retired couple with two rooms for rent and while staying there I felt a bit more like a house guest than the patron of a business. The price was very reasonable, but they only took cash or checks for payment. I had made the reservation somewhat last minute and didn’t bring enough UK currency to cover my stay, so I knew I’d have to exchange cash in Scotland.

I remembered using a currency exchange in a Tesco grocery store in Oban when I visited Scotland in 2012. The Tesco website shows which stores have currency exchanges, and there were several to choose from in the Inverness area. After catching up on some much needed sleep, my first stop of the day was at the Tesco that was a few miles out of the city and just off of the main road that led to the Benromach distillery. It may sound like sort of an odd thing to enjoy as a tourist, but spending a little time wandering around a grocery store and getting a glimpse of everyday life in Scotland was a nice departure after spending most of my time in places that are heavily frequented by tourists.

About four months prior to leaving for Scotland, I had met Richard Urquhart, one of the owners of Gordon & MacPhail, at a tasting in Boston. I talked with him about my upcoming trip and he mentioned the possibility of getting me in for a tour of their warehouse in Elgin. I reached out to him a few weeks ahead of my arrival in Speyside to make arrangements for that visit, noting that I planned to visit Benromach (also owned by G & M) on my way from Inverness.

Richard asked for my planned arrival time at Benromach so he could arrange for my tour there as well. I wasn’t really sure what he had planned for me (if anything, I didn’t make any special requests). I arrived a little before 11:00 and there seemed to be a bit of confusion at the visitor center when I mentioned that Richard had booked me in for a tour. Apparently there had been some miscommunication and they had me in the calendar for the day before.

This really wasn’t an issue; I was still able to take the 11:00 tour. Unfortunately though, this was another tour where I was part of a large group where most of the people knew very little about whisky making and English wasn’t their primary language. This being an independently owned distillery, I had assumed that photography would be allowed on the tour. I was wrong. I guess it was my own fault for not figuring that out ahead of time and seeking permission to do so, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

On the positive side, the entry fee for my tour was waived and the visitor center staff members were very accommodating; they spent a great deal of time answering my litany of questions about Benromach after the tour and tasting had ended.

I’ve gone over the story of Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail in a few previous posts, so I’ll just start with a brief recap here.

Benromach is in Forres, which is a town in the northern portion of Speyside, near the coast, and about 2/3 of the way from Inverness to Elgin. The distillery was established in 1898 by Duncan McCallum and FW Burickman. The architecture was by the well-known Charles Doig and construction took place over the course of two years, with operations starting in 1900.

This was one of 18 malt distilleries established in Scotland during the three year period of 1897 through 1899; and that was the end of the whisky boom of the late 19th century. Only one malt distillery was constructed (Inverleven, 1938) between then and the post-WWII distilling expansion, which kicked off with establishment of Tullibardine in 1949.

The downturn that started just before the turn of the century impacted the industry quickly; Benromach closed almost immediately after production began. The distillery was often silent during the next 50+ years and had several changes of ownership through that period.

After the brief start in 1900, the distillery remained closed until 1907. It ran for three years, closing again in 1910. That closure lasted until after WWI (1919 or later). Another shutdown lasted from 1931 through 1936. Finally, like most distilleries in Scotland, it was shutdown at some point during WWII (early 1940’s). Then, in 1953, Benromach went back online after the distillery was purchased by Distillers Company Limited (an industry behemoth and the predecessor of today’s Diageo).

Under DCL’s ownership and with the success that the industry saw after WWII, Benromach had her longest uninterrupted run, 30 years straight. Then, in 1983 the distillery was shut down again, being deemed surplus by DCL as the industry slid into one of its more pronounced downturns. Over the next 10 years, much of the equipment in Benromach was sold off or put to use in her parent company’s other facilities. With not much left besides the buildings and some aging stock, it probably looked like Benromach was closed for good before it was purchased by Gordon & MacPhail in 1993.

Gordon & MacPhail is one of Scotland’s oldest and most well known independent bottlers of Scotch whisky. The company was established in Elgin in 1895 as a family grocers and tea, wine and spirits merchant. John Urquhart joined the company in its first year and became a Senior Partner by 1915. At some point the Urquhart family took full control of the business but kept the long established name. John developed the company’s whisky brokering business and made deals for them to bottle single malts under license for several distilleries; this eventually led to Gordon & MacPhail filling and bottling casks of their own.

Ambitions for a Gordon & MacPhail owned distillery go back quite far; John attempted to buy the Strathisla distillery in 1950 after its owner was jailed for tax evasion and his assets were auctioned off. Unfortunately he was just barely outbid by Chivas Brothers. The dream never died, but the conditions for a distillery purchase weren’t right again until the early 1990’s, when the industry began to rebound from the massive downturn of the 1980’s.

As I mentioned above, DCL had stripped the distillery of almost all of its equipment over the course of its 10 year closure. Gordon & MacPhail had purchased little more than the shell of a distillery and its aging stock when they bought Benromach in 1993. Restoring the buildings and essentially outfitting a new distillery within them took the better part of five years; Benromach officially reopened on August 3rd, 1998.

A few turns and a very short distance of driving off of the A96 brought me to the distillery. A group of adjoined buildings house the production areas. The front of this structure presents a straight façade with a variety of rooflines, but the ends and the center section extend further to the rear, forming two alcoves in the back. Directly across a paved driveway from the front of that building is a smaller building which houses the visitor center. Although obviously an older structure as viewed from the outside, the visitor center was quite modern and well-appointed inside, with the full Benromach product line on display. I later learned that this building was the former barley store and drier house. Once the tour group was assembled, we made our way across the street and into the distillery.

When the new owners started to rebuild the distillery in 1993, they decided to minimize the use of modern technology, keeping Benromach as a manually operated distillery. They also chose to change the style of the whisky a bit from what had been produced in the years leading up to its latest closing. It would now have a moderate level of peat, which was the classic pre-1960’s Speyside style.

The distillery did operate its own floor maltings until 1968 and, sadly, the pagoda roof over the former kiln was replaced with a simple pitched roof during a period of renovation and modernization in the mid-1970’s. The old malting floors are still intact and currently used as storage space for empty casks. Today, the barley, which is all grown in Scotland, comes from commercial maltings with a peat level of 10-12 ppm.

Each batch uses 1.5 tons of barley, which is run through a Boby Mill. This relatively small unit dates to 1913 and was restored in 1996. Its origins are unknown as it was already at Benromach when the distillery closed in 1983, but it likely came from one of the three distilleries that operated in the Inverness area until the 1980’s.

Once milled, the malted barley grist is combined with hot water in an auger tube that feeds the mixture into the copper-topped, modern style, semi-lauter tun. After mashing takes place in this vessel, the wort is cooled and pumped over to one of the washbacks for fermentation.

The four washbacks are somewhat unusually located in the still room, directly across from the two pot stills. The apparent age of the wood that they were made out of immediately caught my eye. I soon learned that original (pre-1983 at least) Scottish Larch washbacks had stayed in the distillery during its 10 year closure and all of the wood that could be salvaged from them was used to make the current washbacks. The former held 23,000 liters each, but the latter have been downsized to 11,000 liters each. A combination of brewers and distillers yeast is used and the fermentations last from three to five days, producing a wash of 7% to 8% abv.

The two stills, which were newly commissioned as the distillery was rebuilt, were inspired by the original stills, but not exact copies of them. Medium sized in the grand scheme of things, the wash still has a capacity of 10,000 liters and the spirit still 6000 liters. Both are heated by internal steam plates. The old stills were direct oil fired for some time, but I was unable to determine if they were converted to indirect steam heating before the 1983 closure.

The new stills are shaped a bit differently from each other; the wash still has tapered sides on the pot, where those on the spirit still are straight. The shoulder of the wash still is straight with a somewhat shallow angle, while the shoulder of the spirit still has a pronounced curve. The tapered neck of the wash still contrasts to the neck of the spirit still with its reflux ball and minimal taper above that. Both lyne arms go almost straight out, with only a slight downward angle. These extend through the back wall and feed into shell-and-tube condensers, which sit outside in one of the two alcoves, where the original worm tubs were once located. The new make comes off the spirit still at 70% abv and at a rate of 10 liters per minute.

I noticed that some sections of the stills were much darker than other sections and the copper at the base of the reflux ball appeared to be heavily worked. When I asked about this, I was told that the neck of the spirit still had recently been replaced and the neck of the wash still had been replaced a few years prior to that. It seemed odd to me that such repairs would be needed after less than 20 years in service, but a little research has shown that this is quite normal.

In one corner of the still room was the brass spirit safe. It was dated 1980, and said to have come from the Millburn distillery; one of the lost Inverness outfits, which closed in 1985 and was dismantled in 1988.

From the still house we continued outside and around to the back of the building. After a quick look into the closest alcove to see the shell and tube condensers, we entered the cask filling store. The spirit is diluted down to 63.5% abv in the wooden cask-filling vat (it looked like it had some age on it, but I neglected to ask if it was a pre-closure relic) which sits up on blocks, allowing the casks to be filled by gravity.

Benromach uses a mix of bourbon and sherry casks, all of which are first-fill. The flagship 10 year old is aged in those two cask types separately (20% sherry, 80% bourbon) for 9 years. Then, that whisky is married together and entered into Oloroso sherry casks for one further year of aging.

All of the whisky produced here is matured for a minimum of five years. Benromach Traditional, the first bottling from the reopened distillery, was always held to that standard even though it carried no age statement. In 2014 the Traditional bottling was re-launched as Benromach 5 year old.

We were told that casks are hand-filled on site two times per week, with a total of 50 hogsheads being filled per week. This led to a conversation about how production has increased at Benromach over that last two decades.

After re-opening, a minimal amount of whisky was made at Benromach in 1998 and 1999. By 2000 they were consistently processing five mashes per week. That resulted in a production level of roughly 130,000 liters per annum, which continued on through 2013. The first significant increase came in 2014, when a second daily shift was added. With nine mashed being processed each week, production rose to 240,000 liters per annum. Three years later it was time for another increase, but this time there was a bottleneck; the washbacks. Nine new European Larch washbacks were constructed and housed in the former kiln (our tour didn’t go through that part of the building). This allowed production to increase to three shifts per day and 14 mashes per week in January of 2017. Four months later, at the time of my visit, they were projecting a production level of 380,000 liters for the year.

From the cask filling store we went back outside and walked just a short distance to enter one of the warehouses. Aerial photos from the 1970’s show two traditional dunnage warehouses on the left side of the land behind the distillery buildings. The larger of the two had fallen into disrepair and was removed by the previous owner prior to the 1993 sale of the distillery. The smaller one was still there during my visit, but I was told it was crumbling and slated for demolition.

Four new warehouses are located behind and to the right of the distillery building. They are of the traditional dunnage style (low roof, earthen floor and casks stacked two to three high on wooden stows), but made with modern materials (steel frames and composite, insulated cladding). The first one was likely built during or shortly after the 1990’s restoration. The second was added in 2007 and the third and forth were added in 2014.

The first three of the new warehouses are each 1600 square meters and the forth is 900 square meters. This gives a total capacity of 15,000 casks and at the time of my visit there were 11,000 casks aging on-site.

We spent a little time chatting with the tour guide inside Warehouse #3 (the numbering system takes the two original warehouses into account, so this was actually the first of the new ones). One cask of note which we saw was Cask #1; the first to be filled after the distillery reopened in 1998. We were told that this could possibly be bottled the next year as a 20 year old, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the re-start of operations and the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the distillery.

In mid-May of this year Benromach released their 20th anniversary bottling; a cask strength 19 year old, of which 3000 bottles were produced. I doubt that Cask #1 went into that vatting, but it won’t be 20 years old until August, so it could still be used as a separate 200th anniversary bottling later in the year.

Back to the visitor center, we all sat at tables in the tasting room to enjoy our samples of the flagship 10 year old Benromach. I’ve already opined on this whisky in a previous post, so I didn’t bother with tasting notes at the time.

Once the bulk of the tour group had left I spent a good bit of time talking with the visitor center staff and filling in a lot of the details which I’ve written about above. I also garnered some interesting information regarding the Organic and the Peat Smoke expressions of Benromach.

Peat Smoke is quite heavily peated, but it’s made in a single batch each year and the exact peat level varies from year to year. The whisky is matured for roughly nine years in first fill bourbon barrels. These bottles are vintage dated and at 46% abv. The peat levels for the last five years have been:

2013 – 53ppm
2014 – 67ppm
2015 – 62ppm
2016 – 57ppm
2017 – 47ppm

In 2006 Benromach became the first producer to put out an organic single malt Scotch (Bruichladdich wasn’t far behind, introducing their organic bottling in 2009). Benromach Organic is bottled at 43%, vintage dated (with the distillation year and bottling year) and non-age-stated. It was originally in the 5 to 6 year range, but I’ve seen bottles distilled in 2010 that that were bottled in 2015, 2016 and 2017, so they appear to be letting the age creep up.

I’ve been pretty indifferent to the organic single malts I’ve tried in the past. I think they are often fairly young (and usually non-age-stated), but I learned that there may be some other factors that influence the flavor profiles of these whiskies. They are all unpeated, assumedly because there is no certified organic peat. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of no one having made the effort and expenditure to have a peat bed certified organic, or if it’s just not possible to do such a thing since the peat that is dug out of the ground today was the plant material on top so long ago.

The other issue is the casks. I suspect that the wood may have to be certified organic, but the bigger problem is the former contents of the used casks; if it wasn’t certified organic then the residual liquid is in the cask would preclude the organic certification of the next fill. As far as I know, there are no certified organic Bourbons or Sherries being made. For this reason, virgin oak casks are used for organic single malt Scotches.

After my question & answer session with the Benromach staff, it was time to head into the heart of Speyside. My next stop was the Glenfarclas distillery. Rather than sticking to the main roads and passing through Elgin and Craigellachie (I’d see both in the coming days), I chose to take the more direct but less traveled route. While it was nice to pass through some very rural areas, the scenery through this area wasn’t as spectacular as I had hoped.

Once I reached the long driveway to Glenfarclas that all changed. As I approached the distillery, I was treated to a wonderful view of its buildings with Ben Rinnes (the highest peak in Speyside) standing in the distance as a perfect backdrop.

I’d seen photos of the outside of the Glenfarclas visitor center before and it seemed a little odd to me, architecturally that is. But there’s a good explanation; Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to open a visitor center, way back in 1973. The new construction utilized the architectural style that was in vogue at the time, hence the slightly unusual look. Thankfully they had the good sense to crown the entrance with the pagoda top from their former kiln, which had been decommissioned the year before, rather than sending it off as scrap.

I was warmly greeted and had a nice time chatting with the visitor center staff (I think they were impressed that I stopped by for a pre-tour visit). The bottle displays they had set up were quite impressive. The full standard lineup alone is a beautiful thing to see. A few of those bottlings were available in the midi size (375 ml) as well, and almost every bottling was there for sale in the miniature format. The only mini exception was the 30 year old, whish they told me was in short supply in general because it was now coming from the mid-1980’s when the last downturn peaked and production was at its lowest. Every available Family Casks bottling was displayed in a large glass case across the end wall of the room and there were separate cases showing off some rare historical bottles.

After talking for a bit with one of the staff members, he mentioned that I could wander into the tasting room to sample something if I wanted to (other than the 10 year and the 15 year which I would taste as part of the official tour the next day). I couldn’t pass up that offer! They had a bottle of 50% abv 15 year old (the standard 15 year is bottled at 46% abv, where the rest of the age-stated lineup is at 43%) which had been a special limited release that was only available in the Canadian market. I’m a big fan of the regular 15 year, especially since it isn’t generally available in the US, so it was a nice treat for me to be able to sample this 100 proof version.

I took a few photos inside the visitor center, including one of the price list for the Family Casks bottlings so I could consider the options for my big purchase the next day. I also spent a little more time wandering around the distillery grounds and taking pictures, getting some nice shots of the iconic red warehouse doors.

From Glenfarclas it was just a short drive of a little over 5 miles on the A95 to Aberlour village, and another mile off the main road to my destination. The yard of the house featured well tended gardens and beautiful views of Ben Rinnes (this view was from the north, while at Glenfarclas the mountain is seen from the west).

Once I had settled in and reorganized my belongings, it was time to head out for dinner and a drink. A ten minute walk brought me back to the heart of Aberlour village, and just a few hundred feet beyond Main Street was The Mash Tun. This iconic establishment is a Bed & Breakfast, restaurant and whisky bar.

As much as I enjoy traditional Scottish food, finding an exceptional meal in the UK can be a bit of a hit or miss affair. I was impressed enough with dinner at The Mash Tun that I dined there for four of the five nights spent in the area.

After sampling some of the local ales with dinner, it was time for a whisky. With the Benromach tour fresh in my mind, I decided to sample their 15 year old expression. While not a great departure from the flagship 10 year old, it was nice evolution of that whisky; a little more maturity, depth and complexity compared to what is already a solid performer.

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