Having angered the whisky gods with a lineup of no age statement single malts at the previous tasting, it was time to atone, and thus we found ourselves, once again, before the sacrificial altar at the chapel of Bruce Mclaren, with seven single casks from BenRiach.
We’re all searching for a way to crack the conundrum that is purchasing single cask whiskies - that hack or cheat that will demystify the problem and avoid the disappointment of getting home with a $250 whiskey and realising you should have just bought another bottle of a’Bunadh. You can go by colour, or type of cask and number of fills, but, as this tasting proved, there’s really no other way than tasting the damn things.
In essence there were only two cask styles on show, port and sherry casks, and two styles of malt; peated and unpeated, so they’d surely be easy to pick right? But as any chaos theoretician will tell you - simple procedures can often result in highly complex outcomes, and like a fractal of flavours unfurling before us, these whiskies presented a diversity of style, and to be fair, a diversity of quality too, so much so that to simply pick these whiskies at face value by reading the cask type off the label would be nigh on impossible.
There were two un-peated sherry casks that were light years apart in quality, despite being from the same batch and vintage, a port pipe masquerading as an oloroso cask and four peated malts that had integrated so well into the cask profile, that they too became hard to decipher in terms of cask provenance.
Here’s how they tasted (and scored for those who are interested).
BenRiach 2006 11yo #2406 Batch 15 - (port pipe) 58.7% (score 8.6)
Honey hits the senses from the get go - is this really a port pipe? The nose opens further with hints of stewed pears and apricots and develops into caramel, vanilla, xmas cake and walnuts and certainly seems more reminiscent of oloroso. After time, licorice spice and and overripe bananas soaked in something strong and eau-de-vie-like appear and give it an ester-driven lift. The palate is all sweet caramel and ginger spice served in a bowl of sugar puff cereal. Where’s the port? Who cares, this is top notch European oak (I’d imagine) and tastes marvellous.
BenRiach 2005 12yo #5014 Batch 15 (oloroso sherry butt) 58.1% (score 7.2)
The first of our unpeated oloroso butts - the tasting having started with two clean cask styles to hopefully guide us onwards and give us a taste of what was to follow, however, this one is a ultimately a red herring, with way less of an oloroso quality than number one from a port pipe, and proves that a below-parr cask is a simply a below-parr cask - no matter the style. Savoury linseed, pine and butyric notes akin to a minted yoghurt on a Doner kebab certainly have it appearing complex - but this is xmas tree not xmas cake as we might have hoped. Rum and raisin notes try to quiet the exaggerated oak but fail. The palate is a touch out of balance, and with a savoury profile it misses the mark; Xmas turkey, onions and sage stuffing and sprouts - but no Xmas cake unfortunately. Did this need a dose of peat to bring it together?
BenRiach 2005 12yo #2682 Batch 15 (port pipe, peated) 53.9% - (score 8.07)
Ahh, here’s some peat, it jumps out the glass and grapples with the nostrils before surging straight into the brain and evoking all manner of strange recollections that manifest as a lurid and slightly surreal dream. A game of chess, with plastic pieces, played in a dusty old church hall, the floors of which have just been disinfected. Your opposition, sat so close he is invading all senses, is rolling a cigarette, his fingers stained green from the fresh tobacco, and is struggling with one arm in a sling and bandaged from recent surgery. He stares at you as he plans his next move - has he spotted the obvious chequemate you have unfortunately given away with the last, stupid move? As he ponders, he eats salami and strawberries from a plate at his side - and as he spots the killer move, he drops a strawberry and it lands in his ashtray. Lost in the game and focussed on the killer blow he is about to administer, he mindlessly plucks the strawberry from the ash and places it in his mouth, and you watch as he chews it down unawares….
BenRiach 1995 22yo #7383 Batch 15 - (peated, oloroso butt), 51.1% (score 8.34)
Another imposter in this lineup of pleasingly dirty, grunge-some yet characterful whiskies. The dusty old man of the tasting, surrounded by boisterous youth, and happy to put his be-slippered feet up next to the coal fire and smoke a pipe as the others vie for attention. The nose is all dried fruits and cough sweets, licorice and dusty old furniture and an appearance by some black doris plums could have it confused for a port pipe. The peat has receded with age, like an old, sherried Bowmore and the palate is gently spicy and finishes long like a spoonful of spotted dick with extra custard. Gorgeous stuff that could have won another tasting IMHO but was overpowered on this occasion.
Mystery Whisky - Benriach 2005 12yo Cask#2679 Batch 14 (1st fill port pipe/peated 53.1% 700ml (score 8.48)
Pleasant earthy forest floor qualities combine with stone fruits and waxy, snuffed candles that develop into savoury, dried, meaty aromas. The palate is sweet with toffee and coffee notes and finishes with woody sultanas and spiced complexities.
BenRiach 2005 12yo #2565 Batch 14 - (1st fill oloroso butt) 58.8% (score 9.07)
Our winner on the night - and the first oloroso cask to fulfill its promise. But wait, this is so caramel and vanilla driven that surely there’s a good bourbon cask hiding in there somewhere? Was this re-racked from bourbon to oloroso at some stage - or is this just quality American oak? The nose is like a visit to the sweet shop - caramel candy, crunchy bars and vanilla milk chews. There’s Xmas cake in there too, served with generous dollops of brandy butter. The palate continues in the same vein, with sweet vanilla and caramels that combine with a crispy skinned, chinese, chicken dish of some description.
BenRiach 2008 9yo #2047 Batch 14 - (port pipe, peated) 63.2% (score 8.49)
It’s an evening with uncle Pete, who Mum calls dirty Pete and would rather you didn't spend too much time with, and who she claims she saw eating a bacon sandwich off the dirty floor of the pinball hall after having dropped it. The smell of cigarettes follow him around and combines with cherry cough sweets that he habitually takes to dull his tickly smoker’s cough. As an amateur comedian, he often performs at the local pub as the “Stand Up Chameleon” and tonight you’ve been dragged along for support. As he returns from the stage to a ripple of muted applause, the smell of his rubber chameleon outfit combines with aromas of leather upholstery and turkish delight air freshener from his ford fiesta (which you’ve been told never to get into) and mingle in the dank confines of the tar stained ceilings and thousand year old, booze soaked carpets of the Nag’s Head. As he sips his vodka and grapefruit juice laughing loudly to Mum’s disapproval, he’s definitely a hero in your opinion, after all, how many other uncles tell such funny, dirty jokes...