gavin smith

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by Gavin D Smith

Back in 1983 the old Distillers Company Limited closed nine distilleries in an effort to cut over-supply and lower the level of the 'whisky loch.' Two years later, the firm went on to shut a further ten distilleries. Some of those silent distilleries are long gone, buried beneath retail and residential developments, but others have happier tales to tell. Tales of restoration and revival.

   One such distillery is Benromach, built in 1898 on the outskirts of Forres, close to Elgin. Benromach closed in 1983, but was saved from oblivion by the internationally renowned Elgin-based independent bottler, wholesaler and retailer Gordon & MacPhail, who purchased the site in 1993 and set about reviving the distillery. It was subsequently reopened by HRH the Prince of Wales in its centenary year.

It can be argued that Benromach was lucky to fall into the hands of a company like Gordon & MacPhail, with its impeccable Scotch whisky heritage dating back to 1895, and its deep commitment to Speyside and to Scotch whisky in general. So why did the firm decide to acquire a distillery, and why specifically Benromach?

According to Gordon & MacPhail's managing director Ian Urquhart, "My grandfather John was interested in buying a distillery back in the 1950s, and we had various ambitions after that, but then Benromach became available. We knew it, because we had been bottling it for a very long time, and we thought it was good whisky. We wanted somewhere quite small to fit our ethos, and with Benromach we had the opportunity to re-equip the distillery to the scale we wanted and work it at the level we wanted. Plus it was close to Elgin and quite easy to integrate into the overall operation."

Benromach is the smallest distillery on Speyside, and is run by just two men, one of whom is manager Keith Cruickshank, formerly employed by Chivas Bros. He has now been in charge of Benromach for six years. "There's just me and the stillman, Mike," he notes. "If Mike is away, I run the stills myself. It is that sort of a hands-on operation."

Although Benromach is technically a reopened distillery, it is, in essence, a new distillery within the shell of an old one. Keith says "We only use half the space for
production now. We could double up distillation with the equipment we've got, and there's plenty of space to expand if we ever want to."

When the Distillers Company Ltd closed Benromach they stripped out most of the plant, and as Ian Urquhart explains "We had to replace virtually everything and we put in new, smaller stills, and therefore smaller washbacks. Basically, the only thing the same is the water! Yet Diageo were kind enough to find us some new make spirit from before they closed the distillery, and we compared it with our new make. While there were differences, the same 'footprint' was there, with the same floral, spicy, malty notes. Essentially, we set out to make spirit that would be quite quick to mature but also has enough character, body and depth to last for 20 or 30 years."

Keith Cruickshank recalls that "We rescued wood from the old larch washbacks and had four smaller ones made from it. We wanted to keep something from the old distillery. The flavour of the spirit is the sum of many parts, some large, some small. The wooden washbacks do give certain beneficial flavours, so we stayed with wood. The other thing we kept was the vat in the filling store, which we still use. We had to put in new milling equipment, mash tun and stills, but the spirit safe we have came from Millburn in Inverness.

   "The whole process is controlled by one man, there's nothing automated, there are no computers in the production. We have Monday to Friday production all year round, and we go for long fermentations, which is good for the quality of the spirit, and quality is crucial to what we do. We do three to five day fermentations. We found shorter ones didn't give enough complexity to the new make. Longer fermentations made it richer, fruitier and more estery when we experimented early on.

"The shape of the stills came after lots of research. They were made by Forsyth's in Rothes and are
fairly small, but they have quite broad necks to catch the heavier flavours in the first distillation. If you don't have them in the first distillation you certainly won't get them later! During the first half hour of your low wines distillation you get lovely fruity, estery notes, and we're really gentle distilling it early on. We run the spirit nice and slow to give us elegance. We have a big reflux ball in the second still to give us a lighter, fruitier flavour. We get five barrels from each distillation, that's about 25 barrels per week, or 132,000 litres of alcohol."

One of Benromach's two warehouses was demolished by DCL, but the remaining dunnage warehouse is still in use, and a second has been added by Gordon & MacPhail. As Keith Cruickshank notes, "Very unusually the new one is a dunnage warehouse too! It's extremely rare to build a dunnage warehouse now, but we feel that a traditional dunnage warehouse is the best environment in which to mature whisky. Two-thirds of your flavour comes from the wood, so warehousing is crucial. We keep about 4,500 casks on site, and a small number in Gordon & MacPhail's warehouse in Elgin."

the whiskies

Benromach new make
63.4% ABV. Lovely, clean spirit, toffee and fruity, extremely drinkable. Keith Cruickshank says "We try to get a rich fruitiness, as well as a hint of smoke into the new make. We wanted a traditional Speyside you might have got when the floor maltings were going - with just a bit more peat influence."

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