As March has been all about breweries and distilleries in Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink, I set off to find out more about the distillery that is nestled into the edge of my home town – Benromach Distillery.
My appreciation of whisky has been rather like the maturation process of a single malt itself – it has happened gradually, over a period of many years. I was brought up in Moray Speyside, home to the world famous Malt Whisky Trail, I lived for four years in Dufftown (known as the Malt Whisky Capital), I write about Scotland for a living and I have an avid whisky-drinking husband, so it is perhaps inevitable that my interest in our national drink, and the stories that individual distilleries have to tell, has peaked.
To find out more about its history and what a tour of Benromach entails I headed to the outskirts of Forres to what was, until recently, Speyside’s smallest distillery. I must have looked a rather odd sight at almost 8 months pregnant – no whisky tasting this time for me then which is, admittedly, rather more helpful for note-taking. My guide was happy to answer my questions (even those such as: ‘If whisky gets all its colour and two thirds of its flavour from the cask, the drink that was made before the use of sherry and bourbon casks must have essentially been a different drink?!’). She really helped me to better understand the six stages of whisky production, explaining each process in a way that my non-scientific mind could easily follow (the proof being that I could recite the entire process back to my husband later that evening without looking at my notes). The process of whisky making is essentially the same, it’s just that each distillery does things their own way, in their own style. So what makes Benromach stand out?
The word which I kept scribbling down was ‘traditional’ and this is a whisky tale that centres around tradition. Whisky first started being produced at Benromach in 1898 using water from the nearby Romach Hills and it had been closed for ten years when Gordon & MacPhail bought it in 1993, seeking to take the whisky back to the way it had traditionally been made. I love that the Urquharts of Gordon & MacPhail were keen to recreate the hint of smokiness that had largely been lost in Speyside whiskies. In the past the Speyside distilleries dried and malted their own barley and local peat would have been used in their coal fires, giving the whisky its subtle smokiness. In the outsourcing of the malting process, they decided to include some peat to bring back this slight smokiness. A rekindling of the flames of the past.
Benromach is one of the smallest full scale distilleries in Scotland and the distillation process is all done by hand. The three distillers use traditional methods of sight, touch and sound to determine when the whisky is ready, even checking the temperature manually. They are one of the only distilleries to use both distillers’ and brewers’ yeast (which enhances the whisky’s fruity flavour) and all the casks are hand-filled. They are ‘first fill’ casks, having only ever had sherry or bourbon as a previous resident. Benromach was also the first distillery to produce fully organic whisky. These are just some of the things that make the distillery that bit different.
A standard tour takes you from the mill to the warehouses, detailing each stage of the process (one of my favourite facts is that of the 4,500 litres of liquid collected in the spirit safe only 1,000 litres is actually turned into Benromach whisky). But I’m not going to share all the insights and anecdotes here – to find out more you will just have to visit for yourself (there are a number of tour options starting at £6 per person).
Now when my husband pours a dram of Benromach I will look at in a different light: seeing in the amber the glint of the copper stills; smelling the swirling fermentation in the washbacks; and appreciating not just its long journey from the fields to the bottle, but the stories of those who make it the spirit it is today.
Images courtesy of Benromach ©.