Smoke and Scotch are synonymous in the minds of many, but in reality that flavor profile tends to be one found in whiskies from Islay, rather than other regions of Scotland. Benriach, however, has brought that flavor profile into its new Smoky 12.
Benriach Smoky 12 was released as part of the Speyside distillery’s new core range, which hit shelves last year. The whisky was made with Highland peat, which differs from the Islay variety. It’s less medicinal and creates flavors and aromas closer to barbecue. It’s also a style with which Benriach is familiar, with peated expressions being part of regular production since the early 1970s
In this week’s Bottle Breakdown, we sat down with Benriach Brand Ambassador Greg King to discuss the Smoky 12, the details behind its creation, and how best to enjoy the new whisky.
The Smoky 12 is part of the Benriach’s new core range. Can you take us through the new collection and tell us why the distillery felt it was time to explore something new?
Historically, Benriach has created a world of flavor from its three distilling styles (classic, peated, and triple distilled) as well as its inventory of eclectic casks styles. And our Master Blender, Rachel Barrie, has been able to build off of this history, fine-tuning and evolving the Benriach recipes while remaining true to its heritage.
No detail in the new collection has been overlooked. Everything from the color of the tubes, which represent the colors of Speyside, to the exact cask make-up, and flavor notes listed on the labels. The new labels were inspired by Benriach’s first Single Malt release back in 1994. All four new expressions are three cask matured. Our flagship expression, the Original Ten is comprised of ex-bourbon, virgin American oak, and ex-sherry casks, creating a classic Speyside whisky with luscious orchard fruits and sweet barley notes. The Smoky Ten utilizes ex-bourbon, virgin American oak, and ex-rum casks creating a whisky with notes caramelized pineapple, honey, and applewood smoke. Both of our Twelve year expressions are brand new to the portfolio. The Twelve (non-peated) is matured in ex-bourbon, sherry, and Port casks, which produces wonderful notes of rich fruit, cocoa, and maple honey. And for our Smoky Twelve, ex-bourbon, sherry, and Marsala wine casks are married together to create an elegant whisky with notes of dark chocolate and fruit with a long smoky finish.
The Smoky 12 digs into that classic smoky flavor profile that people so closely associate with Scotch overall. What does BenRiach do in this new Whisky to make it stand out from other peated malts?
A peated expression from the Speyside region is quite rare, typically the flavor profile produced in this region is fruity and floral, similar to that of our Original Ten. But peated expressions have been a part of our regular production at Benriach since the early 1970s. Even though Scotch whisky has a reputation for being smoky, in reality the vast majority will have no smoke influence at all. The whiskies that we typically think of to be smoky come from Islay, which will tend to have a salty, sea, and maritime influence. The smoky whiskies from Benriach will utilize Highland peat, which creates a sweeter smoke profile. The result is a full flavored yet approachable whisky with flavors of sweet malt, orchard fruit, and an added layer of smoke.
What’s unique about the peat used by BenRiach and how do you incorporate the peat into the Whisky?
We use local Highland peat from the mainland to smoke our barley at Benriach, this produces sweet notes of campfire and woodsmoke. Again, because the peat we are using has no sea influence it will not have those intense iodine medicinal notes commonly associated with smoky whiskies. The flavor notes of Highland peat could be compared to that of a sweet and smoky BBQ. In addition to a sweeter flavor profile, more notes of vanilla will be found in our portfolio. Benriach Smoky Twelve is also crafted using a combination of peated and un-peated spirit, which creates an even more balance of flavor.
The Benriach Smoky 12 is matured in oak and a combination of Bourbon, Sherry and Marsala wine casks. How did Master Blender Rachel Barrie decide upon these casks types?
At Benriach we have a multitude of different cask styles maturing in our warehouses. Rachel Barrie takes inventory of each and every cask in our warehouses and it is her skill and expertise that allows her to see what combinations work in harmony when creating any new expression. In the case of Smoky Twelve, she has created a luscious expression that has balanced both the sweetness and the smoke.
How long does the Whisky spend in the various barrels and what makes them pair so well with BenRiach Whisky?
It’s the skill and artistry Rachel Barrie possesses that allows her to determine when a particular cask is ready for bottling. Because whisky is handmade, we cannot control when the whisky has reached its final maturity. Think of the whisky being ready when its ready, versus an assembly line. This process actually allows for more options when marrying casks together to be bottled. The backbone to Benriach is orchard fruits. The casks selected for all of our expressions work in harmony with this flavor profile as its core.
From what I understand, Marsala wine casks are her secret ingredient. What’s unique about these Sicilian wine barrels and what impact do they have on the final product?
Marsala brings out the sweetness in Benriach, creating flavors of brown sugar on the palate. But it’s how the Marsala casks work in balance with the ex-bourbon and sherry casks that tie everything together. The smoke level is slightly higher in the Benriach Twelve, so the Marsala influence will help balance out the flavors while allowing the authentic character of Benriach to come through.
Should the Whisky be given time to sit after pouring to let it open up? And if so, how long?
It really depends on the occasion and what experience you are looking for. With a peated whisky a little time in the glass will help the whisky breathe and soften the intensity of the smoke. I’ve even heard people recommend you to let the whisky sit one minute per year of the expression. However, during educational tastings we will actually cap the glass with an aroma savor to lock in and concentrate as much flavor as possible. The beauty of tasting whisky is that there are no rules set in stone. So it’s really up to you how you want the experience to unfold.
What should we be looking for when tasting the Whisky?
The Smoky Twelve is the perfect combination of fruit, oak, and layers of sweet smoke. On the nose you will find intertwined flavors of smoked dark chocolate, orange peel and hazelnut. And on the palate you’ll experience a multi-layered whisky with those chocolate and orange notes carrying over, as well as vanilla, nuts, and spice. All working in harmony with the rich, sweet, smoke.
How do you recommend enjoying The Benriach Smoky 12yr and what should be paired with it?
When drinking for enjoyment, I always recommend sipping and savoring your whisky in a way that will give you the most pleasure. But, if it is your first experience with a particular expression, I recommend trying it neat and then adding a few drops of water. This will give you an appreciation for what the distillery was trying to create. And because the Benriach Smoky Twelve was recently voted the #3 Whisky of the Year, I highly recommend trying it in its most natural state.
Pairing peated whiskies with food is always a lot of fun. Because there are so many different directions you can go from oysters, lamb, to smoked salmon, even chocolates. For me one of the most memorable experiences with our peated line-up was a pairing with wild game. Charcuterie, venison, wild boar, were all served throughout the meal and because the whisky has both a sweetness and a heavier body, it worked in perfect harmony.