"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 16 January 2012

BenRiach Distillery, near Elgin

While John Duff’s Longmorn Distillery survived the Pattison crash after his company was sold in 1899, neighbouring Ben Riach-Glenlivet was only in production for a couple of years after its 1898 opening before it was closed by the company in 1900.  No distilling then took place at Ben Riach until it was reopened in 1965 although the floor malting did supply Longmorn throughout this time, the distillery also being known as Longmorn II for a while.

The distillery was another one designed by Charles Doig but it didn’t follow his oft used ‘E’ shape layout.  Here the malt barns and kiln were on one side of the railway spur that ran up from Longmorn junction, with the mash, tun room and still house parallel to it on the other side, perhaps to make best use of the railway access to all parts of the site.

Ben Riach is another of those names with an uncertain Gaelic origin.  Ben we know is from ‘beinn’ meaning mountain and a map from 1905 records the name as Ben Riach-Glenlivet, the merging of the first two words coming at a much later date.  There is an old farm named Riach nearby which was recorded as Rioch as far back as Roy’s military map from around 1750, both spellings from a root that is variously translated as grey/speckled/grizzly, giving us perhaps grey mountain as a translation.  It may also be from fiadh meaning deer, and possibly even from Righ meaning royal or king, and given the boggy terrain that permeates throughout the wider area I wonder if even riasg could be an origin, meaning marsh or wet moorland.  We could be here all day debating this, plus I’m not a linguist and there’s whisky to be having so let’s move on.

Following its silent beginning to last century the distillery was completely refurbished and re-opened in 1965.  I am a little confused about one aspect of this re-opening - Ben Riach is reported to have been refurbished by The Glenlivet Distillers Company Ltd (TGD) in 1965 yet it is also widely reported that Longmorn, Glenlivet and Glen Grant amalgamated to form TGD in 1970.  Did the company already exist in a previous form that bought Ben Riach from the Longmorn-Glenlivet Distillery Co with the objective of re-opening it, or is it a another case of the exact dates of change in ownership being lost in time?  Any accurate and supported information on this would be welcome.

Main distillery buildings after refurbishment
The new owners were then one of the first to reintroduce peated barley into Speyside whisky production in 1972, mainly to add that character to some of their house blends and recreating a style that Barnard would have been more familiar with on his travels through the region.  They also experimented with triple distillation with a third still installed at one time.  TGD were then taken over by Seagrams in 1978 and from there the distillery became part of Chivas in 2001 along with neighbouring Longmorn.  Once more, while Longmorn continued unabated, Benriach production is immediately slowed down and then stopped the following year, the distillery then being mothballed in August 2002.

This time the period of closure is far shorter than the previous 65 year hibernation and after just 20 months the distillery has another new owner.  In April 2004, Billy Walker led a consortium to create the BenRiach Distillery Company who bought the distillery and stock from Chivas.  With the internal workings all still in place they start production in September that year after a closure of just two years.  Although BenRiach is not open to the public I was delighted to be offered a tour with distillery manager Stewart Buchanan who brought me up to date with the recent history.

BenRiach malting floor
The 10 tonne malting floor was last used in 1998 but has been maintained in good order and this large open space could be used for malting again.  The kiln is also still intact beside it, refreshing to see after so many I have been to that have had their heart removed and only the shell remains, a shadow of their former self, no warmth left.  However, the killogie1 at BenRiach, even while still unused, would be an atmospheric and comforting place to sit by some smouldering embers and enjoy a dram in good company.

BenRiach kiln and killogie
The barley used here is both grown and malted locally and the traditional cast iron mash tun takes a 5.8 tonne mash with 16 mashes per week.  There are four waters run through each mash, the water coming from boreholes that draw from spring water deep below the site.  The water is classed as fairly hard, which together with a lower temperature profile for the mashing water contributes to a lighter character in the wash.  30,000 litres of wash are produced from each mash and filled into each washback.

BenRiach washbacks
The washbacks were changed from wood to stainless steel during a refurbishment around 1977 when there were six in place, a further two added in 1985.  The house style at BenRiach includes a fairly long fermentation of between 3-4 days which produces green apple notes in the wash flowing through into a dry, light spirit off the still.  The switchers in the backs are run generally between hours 12-18 of the fermentation to control the froth at peak activity.

In 1985 the stills were increased from 2 to 4, and although the old third still used for triple distillation was removed in 1998 there is still a small amount of production triple distilled each year.  The two wash stills have a capacity of 20,912 litres each and the 30,000 litres from each washback is split into two charges of 15,000 litres.  The spirit stills have a capacity of 12,729 but are charged with 10,000 litres each time.  All the stills are fairy tall with a shallow downward angle on the lyne arms leading to shell and tube condensers placed externally, all helping to keep the spirit light.  The middle cut averages around 2 hours, down to a relatively low 60.5% cut off and slightly lower again for peated spirit.

BenRiach stills, wash near side
The new make averages around 67% as a result and has a dry yet full mouth feel with those apple and cereal notes sitting comfortably together.  Although the distillery has capacity to produce 2.8m litres p.a. they have recently been producing around 1.4m litres p.a., with around 200k litres of peated spirit.  The peated barley starts with a hefty phenol count at 55ppm dropping to a still robust 30-35ppm in the bottle.  The new make is casked at a standard 63.5% abv.

BenRiach dunnage warehouses, looking towards Longmorn
A warehouse numbering system applied from earlier days when Longmorn and Ben Riach were worked together is still maintained here, from number 1 in the east beside Longmorn up to 17 to the west beyond Benriach.  Low and high numbered warehouses are still owned by Chivas and BenRiach have the middle numbers, all dunnage warehouses with earthen floors, currently holding around 28,000 casks.  The oldest cask on site dates from 1966 and there is also some of the old triple distilled whisky in the warehouses.

Benriach was first bottled as a Single Malt in 1994 by Seagram, as a 10yo release, and given the quality and age of some of the whiskies in the warehouse it is no surprise that the current owners have taken to releasing far more expressions.  Some experimenting took place at the distillery in the past including lots of different wine finishes alongside the triple distilled and peated spirit, and the current owners have been releasing one of the widest ranges of whisky styles of any distillery along with a classic range of aged whiskies and some vintage bottlings.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a big fan of wine finishes but their peated spirit has produced the 10yo Curiositas and 21yo Authenticus bottlings that I do find very appealing.  In addition, the very first bottling of whisky produced entirely by the current owners is the young and heavily peated Birnie Moss, launched in 2009.  It is named after an area of moorland in the hills a few miles to the south of the distillery and this is a fantastic dram with lots of flavour for its young age.  If Birnie makes you think of burning then you may not be far wrong as it is almost as if the peat is still smouldering in your glass, just the way I like it.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of taking part in an archaeological excavation on an Iron Age site called Birnie which was not far from the distillery.  One of the central features was a large timber built roundhouse that had been burnt-down at the end of its occupation.  If Birnie Moss had been available to us then it would have been a fitting dram to offer a toast to the people who had lived there around 2000 years ago and who had left a fascinating story to uncover.  Curiositas is also an appropriately named whisky for all archaeology and nothing better than a hit of peat smoke to revive you at the end of a long day of hard digging.

BenRiach is an independently owned distillery that is going from strength to strength and who knows what may still be lurking in those mid-range warehouses for future release.  Hopefully that extensive closure after it was founded was just the postponement of a long future that will continue on from the near 50 years that have now passed since it was re-opened.  My thanks go to Stewart, and also to Alistair Walker at the company headquarters in Newbridge.  We will see more of the company story when the journey reaches GlenDronach Distillery near Huntly.

1 Killogie is an old Scots word for the space in front of a fire or kiln, see the middle of my Bowmore report for some more thoughts.

Additional information in this post is from the BenRiach website.