The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that this is not a picture of distillery. It’s the coast near Findhorn, not far from Forres and Benromach. Although mountains are good there is something about the coast and an empty sea that is magical. You can sit and watch the endless movement of the waves, smell the air and just be. It is refreshing. Always there are things to notice: on the other side of the inlet a colony of seals basking, as still as rocks, alongside the estuary sandpipers picking around. Birds circle, there is the smell of brine and seaweed and right here, right now, everything is at peace. Yes thinking of Findhorn when thinking of Benromach is good, even if it is not a maritime malt. It’s a compensation for its rather dull location, on some flat lands just off the A96, on the edge of Forres, the sort of place you might have a supermarket or a car dealership. Other Speyside distilleries settle into the beauty of their surroundings but not this one. The buildings are nice enough but not outstanding (though they do have a nice red chimney – if you like that sort of thing, and the buildings are painted a bright white, as they should be) but there is no sense of arriving somewhere special – even if you are, as it is one of the more interesting distilleries in Speyside.
For a start it is the nearest thing to a craft distillery in the region. It has the smallest capacity at 500,000 litres and is a stand alone, owned by Gordon & MacPhail. In themselves Gordon & MacPhail are an interesting company who have had a significant role in the whisky industry. They pioneered the idea of single malts before distilleries did so themselves. From early in the Twentieth Century they have been buying new spirit and storing them in their own casks. They are now the largest independent bottler in the world as well as a wholesaler who carries ever official bottling of all the distilleries. Over the years they have expanded and developed but it has always been owned and run by various member of the Urquhart family (well almost always, the firm was of course started by Messrs Gordon and MacPhail). Having their own distillery is almost a natural progression from their other activities, from their deep involvement in the trade, why wouldn’t they want to try to make their own? It is also a familiar path in whisky history, after all John Walker started out as a grocer
When Gordon & MacPhail bought Benromach in 1993 it had been closed ten years and was an empty shell, as the previous owners DCL (now Diageo) had ripped out the plant. So it took 5 years before the distillery was ready for production and it was formally opened in 1998. During that time they made some experiments into the type of spirit they wanted to produce but the aim was always to make a traditional Speysider, similar in character to something that would have been made before 1960: fairly rich with a subtle base of peat (about 2%). There is a touch of romance about trying to recapture the past but as time and the past is an integral concept for whisky why wouldn’t you want to play with the idea; especially as the company, with its stocks of old malts is ideally placed to know the character of past eras. Whether they have fully succeeded I cannot tell, as I have no comparators, but I do know they have succeeded in producing some cracking whiskies and that is all that matters (as I write there is a glass of the 15 year old is beside me and I am feeling very benign towards the place).
There is though a rather odd story that supports the idea that Gordon & MacPhail have been successful in recreating an old style of whisky. After the refitting Benromach was essentially a new distillery as all that remained from before were the walls and the water. It was a new beginning. However Diageo, the previous owner, had some new-make from the old days and gave it to them to compare. Spookily enough the character was almost the same. (Source Charles Maclean’s Whiskypedia). The research and testing they did before the distillery reopened obviously paid off.
But enough of that and on to my impressions of the tour. The first thing to say is that it is an incredibly friendly place and although this is true for almost all distilleries it’s nevertheless worth mentioning. Here there seemed to be a sense comradeship and people enjoying being at their place of work. We had easy conversation with everyone we met and the tour was relaxed. there was though a ‘however’ as there was no photography. I really don’t understand why and I would love someone to provide evidence of how a modern camera, taking a high ISO photo, with no flash, could be a risk. I normally don’t worry about this too much (OK I do a little) because it is common to ban photography in the still room but Benromach had an exceptionally harsh interpretation of the rule. They have a very cute looking little mill that dates back a hundred years or so, and is a nice piece of agricultural machinery. I wanted to take a photograph, because I like old machines, but was stopped. Eh? No I really don’t understand the problem and it was at odds with an otherwise laid back atmosphere.
Hey Ho! It is not a big deal and I do like the place and will forgive them because of the whisky but it is the reason this post is headed by a photo of the beach at Findhorn and not one of the distillery.