BENRIACH SINGLE MALT CASK STRENGTH WHISKY
Batch #2 (2018)
MASH BILL – 100% malted barley
PROOF – 121.2 proof
AGE – NAS (includes whisky distilled in 2006, 2007, and 2008, batched and bottled in 2018)
DISTILLERY – BenRiach
PRICE – $73 (on sale from $109)
WORTH BUYING? – Oh yes.
With a few options of what to taste, and rainy weather outside, I was inclined to reach for something Scottish. Of course, it’s not cloudy and rainy everyday in Scotland. But it’s more often so there than where I live in San Francisco, itself known for its foggy days. As I looked at the rain out my window, a cask strength scotch—with those scotch tendencies toward bright fruit flavors that can help cut through the damp and cold—seemed very appealing. So here we are.
Prior to this bottle, I’d had no experience with the Speyside distillery, BenRiach. Having tried and pretty consistently enjoyed other Speyside scotch brands—Aberlour, Balvenie, Craigellachie, Glenfiddich (my first bottle of scotch)—I took this BenRiach’s going on sale as an opportunity to make an introduction.
In terms of taste profile alone, I can’t tell you from conscious experience what separates Speyside from other regional scotches. Some whisky fans and critics argue there is no such clear distinction—as there is with the Islay whiskies, for example, which overwhelmingly emphasize peat smoke flavors. But even peat smoke, as a flavor note, can’t be used to isolate Islay. Peat can be found in Highland, Speyside and other regional scotches as well.
Bottled at cask strength, with no chill filtration or added color, this BenRiach release seemed a great way to start getting some unadulterated insight into whatever the Speyside “thing” is, if there is indeed such a “thing.” Or at least what the BenRiach thing is.
At uncorking, the aromas exploded out of the bottle the moment the cork popped. In the glass, I admired its pale russet-amber color. The nose showed butterscotch and caramel like old fashioned candies, dark tropical fruit, plum, and a very strong ethanol from the proof. The taste then also featured the butterscotch and caramel, with tart dark fruits up front flowing into a dark fruity caramel, all surprisingly smooth for the proof, but still that ethanol edge. The equally smooth finish also followed through on the caramel, butterscotch, dark red fruits, and touch of ethanol.
It was really good. Too bad about the ethanol aspect, though. Despite the overall smoothness in terms of heat, the alcohol content itself permeated the flavors from the nose through the finish. Bottled at some slightly lower proof, I wondered if this whisky might even be flawless. Over time I tried it with various amounts of water. I always enjoyed it. But it never got beyond being just good.
And that’s not at all bad, of course! Something about it, though, seemed held back from its full potential. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
So here we are, about three months after uncorking and a wee over halfway into the bottle. I’ll taste it today in a traditional Glencairn and two ways: first with 7 drops of water, then again with no water added.
WITH 7 DROPS OF WATER:
COLOR – honey amber with orange glints
NOSE – bright toasted honey, malt, fresh sliced wheat bread loaves, salty shoreline, a whiff of tropical fruits like pineapple and mango
TASTE – caramel, custard, the honey now darker, the tropical fruits now warmly stewed in their juices
FINISH – dark rich honey and those stewed tropical fruits, surrounded by a lovely glowing warmth
OVERALL – a great dram to warm and brighten a grey and drizzly day
WITH NO WATER ADDED:
COLOR – honey amber with orange glints
NOSE – same as above only very slightly more pronounced, with the exception of the tropical fruits that are slightly less pronounced, and a caramel note that wasn’t so apparent in the watered down glass
TASTE – rich caramel and rich honey smothering those tropical fruits now baked into bread
FINISH – deeply warming, with strong, dark caramel and honey notes lingering…
OVERALL – a great dram for later in the evening when it’s still cold and wet outside and you need a warm fire in your chest
This was an interesting experiment. Tasting these in succession and then side by side, they were very similar and yet distinct enough to conjure individual experiences and feelings. A half-shot, watered down just slightly with 7 drops of water, and my grey day was brightened. A half shot at cask strength, and my cold night was warmed.
Notably, gone is the ethanol note that hung around distinctly at and after uncorking. That note now seemingly dissipated with time, the distinctive honey and caramel notes take prominence and are delicious, sweet, and comforting. The custard and bread notes serve as a grounding foundation for the caramel, honey, and tropical fruit.
I personally don’t go for brightly sweet whiskeys that often. This BenRiach strikes a wonderful balance between the bright and the dark. It’s enlivening and cozy. Not a party whisky. But a cozy afternoon or night at home whisky.
The blending here is excellent. With bourbon barrels, virgin oak hogsheads and Oloroso sherry casks all contributing, no one of them leaps to the fore. It’s a very cohesive and balanced blend.
At 121.2 proof, a little goes a long way. This is not a guzzler, for sure. It’s a sipper. Whereas at uncorking I found it almost overpowering, now, just over half the bottle and three months in, I find it as comforting as a soft wool blanket, couch, and crackling fire.