Benriach distillery is located to the south of the city of Elgin in the Speyside whisky region. The distillery was founded in 1897 by John Duff & Co, who had already built the Longmorn distillery on a neighbouring plot of land in 1894. The original name was the slightly unimaginative Longmorn 2, before this was changed to Benriach in 1899.
Benriach had a very short early history – it was closed and mothballed in 1903 and not reopened until 1965, when it was bought and restarted by the Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. It was closed and mothballed again in 2002 by the owners at the time, Pernod Ricard. In 2004, an independent group named Benriach Distillery Company took over the distillery and the maturing stock. This group was headed by Billy Walker, a former director of Burn Stewart Distillers, and this makes Benriach one of the few distilleries in Scotland that are independently owned.
On our recent trip to Speyside we were lucky enough to have a personal tour around Benriach with the distillery manager, Stuart Buchanan. Benriach is not open to the public so this was to be a tour with a difference! We thank Stuart for his fantastic hospitality and Peter Semple of The Whisky Shop for arranging the tour for us. We had a great day.
The day was rainy and we arrived at Benriach slightly windswept. We knew that the distillery was not open to the public but did not expect to have to help the taxi driver with directions from Elgin (which is three miles away!). When we arrived Stuart was working in the warehouse preparing some casks to be sent for bottling and once we had located him and he had finished, our tour began. These moments of wandering around outside on our own made us realise just how few people actually work at a distillery. We only saw two more people there, other than Stuart, and we later found out that Benriach is designed so that all the processes (from start to finish) can be operated by just one person.
The tour begins in the milling room where Stuart explains to us the milling process and the importance of having the correct final grist. The grist is made up of three parts – the husks, the centres and the flour. Each part contains soluble sugars that are useful in the mashing process. The husks break up the grist and supply drainage, the main sugar content is in the centres and the flour provides further sugars. If there is too little husk then the mash will not drain properly and if there is too much flour then the grist will stick together like dough when mixed with water. Each distillery has its own specification for the grading of its grist but on average the split is around 20% husks, 70% centres and 10% flour.
Stuart continued by explaining the mashing process and we got to see the latest run of the mash tun in action. Benriach has one mash tun. We tasted the mash and it was sweet, malty and slightly syrupy, reminiscent of a malt extract drink. He explained that during the mashing process they mix the grist with water at different temperatures in order to extract the most soluble sugars possible. This is done by adding warm water to the grist and then draining the resulting solution off, before adding more water at a higher temperature and repeating the process. Most distilleries do this three times and on average the water temperature for each stage is 65, 75 and 85 degrees Celsius. Benriach do an additional fourth run of water that is just over 90 degrees.
We moved on to the washbacks and witness the fermentation at various stages of the cycle. Benriach has eight stainless steel washbacks and we the opportunity to taste the newly fermented liquid, which is called wash and has an approximate alcoholic strength of 8% ABV. If you ever get the chance to do this, then just take a sip as the wash is rumoured to have severe laxative qualities if drunk in any quantity! It tasted sweet, malty and reminiscent of a heavy ale or beer.
The stillroom at Benriach houses two wash stills and two spirit stills and these produce 2.8 million litres of spirit a year. Stuart explained the workings of the stills and also told us that they produce the peaty version of Benriach for one month a year. This is normally in January and it then takes them over a week to clean all the equipment thoroughly, from the mill to the spirit safe, to clear the system of the residual peatiness. The stills are very much onion shaped and the lyne arms run through the wall to the outside, where the alcohol vapours return to their liquid form with the help of condensers that are supplied with cold water from the local river. The water is heated by the hot vapours and this water is then cooled and returned to the same river under Environment Agency guidelines.
Stuart then showed us the spirit safe, which is located at the far end of the stillroom. The spirit safe is the piece of equipment that measures the different parts of the distillate as it comes off the stills and helps the stillman determine when to start collecting the 'heart' (the part of the distillate that is matured to become whisky). The spirit safe is kept padlocked with only the distillery manager and a Customs & Excise man having the key. This is done by law and was started to stop people stealing the spirit. As can be seen on the adjacent image, the spirit is clear when it comes off the stills. It has an approximate alcoholic strength of 65% ABV at this stage and is then collected in a huge tank, where it waits to filled into casks.
After viewing the cask filling room and trying some of the new make spirit (this is fresh and full of sweet grains, crisp green fruit - especially pears and apples - and just a hint of warm spice), we are taken to one of the warehouses. Here, Stuart shows us around and explains that Benriach warehouses have the perfect conditions for maturing whisky - thick stone walls, earth floors and low ceilings. He also told us about the cask colour coding system (this can be seen in the adjoining image). This system is used in a similar way across the whisky industry. At Benriach they paint the ends of the casks with different colours to indicate what type it is - green indicates a cask that is on its first filling, blue is for a second fill cask, maroon/red for a third fill and white for 3+ fills. If a cask is left unpainted, then this shows that the whisky is maturing in a wine cask with the type of wine written on it. We did not know about this coding and it was one of the many things that we learnt in our three hours in the company of Stuart Buchanan.
We sampled a number of whiskies directly from the cask including two that were to be bottled the next day for release in mid November (both 18 years old - one finished in a Moscatel wine cask and one in a Barolo red wine cask) and a couple from Stuart's favourite casks in the warehouse. This sampling in the warehouse was a fantastic experience, as was tasting the 'whisky' at every stage from the grains through to the new make. We have never had the chance to do that before. In the warehouse, it was evident that Stuart was passionate about and proud of his whiskies.
It is a shame that all distillery tours can not be like this one, but of course the distillery tours for the public could never be this detailed or personal. If you ever get the chance to do a similar tour at a distillery such as Benriach, then grab it. You see the reality of life in a distillery, worts and all. We moved on finally to the Benriach boardroom. This exhibits all their single malts along one wall and after more chat with Stuart and a couple more quality drams, we staggered off in to the dark rainy evening to try and find our cab, who incidentally had managed to get lost just as the first one had done!