Traditionally, Scotland was divided into four producing regions: The Highlands; The Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. Both the number and the proliferation of distilleries along the River Spey led to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) recognising Speyside as its own distinctive region. Thus, legally, there are currently five recognised regions. Whilst some consider the Islands (Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney, Skye and Raasay) as a separate sub-region, the SWA doesn’t – so these are all bundled into the Highland regional category. Provenance and particularly terrior have become increasingly important to both production and marketing, but with an ever diversifying industry do these categorisations hold the importance that they once did?
Back in the day, it might have been possible to blind taste five whiskies evocative of each of the five regions and recognise the unique flavour profiles of each. Maybe. Nowadays, distilleries across Scotland have largely broken from these regional norms to produce extremely varied profiles – oft times tangentially different from what one might consider their regional DNA to represent. For example, there’s much more consumer interest in peated whisky that Islay alone can sate – as such, you’ll find smoky whisky being produced by a large number of distilleries – not just the Ardmore’s of the world but, some you previously might not have expected – Glenfiddich and Glendronach (up until recently at least) in Speyside or perhaps even Aisla Bay – a peated Lowlander. Location and flavour are no longer linked.
The blending side of the industry still has use for the classifications – some marriages are incredibly complex and, with production needing to be consistent over decades, stock acquisition is more about overall profile than the precise liquid contents of every single cask. Nick Morgan from Diageo has described this as ‘shorthanding’ – I.E. accepting a rough level of flavour accuracy from the whiskies produced within the separate regions before creating a final blend from parcels of these different regions. But, if you consider this in terms of emerging flavour profiles, and changing consumer preferences, again the whisky world has moved on. Being stylistically part of a multi-liquid blend is completely different to branching out into single malt expressions (where the focus is on a distillery’s individuality). At this point, a distillery will try to maintain the generic regional profile for the casks destined for blending, but at the same time diversify the flavour profiles of its single malt releases to appeal to different parts of the market.
Both provenance and terrior start to become extremely vague when you consider that most distilleries (especially those owned by big multinationals) currently rely on centralied maltings. The days where each distillery would source and dry (either with peat, or not) their own barley to very individual specifications are long gone. Nowadays, baring a few sites who still operate malting floors (usually only for a percentage of their overall requirements), barley is simply ordered in and delivered. It still certainly is precisely detailed, but it’s probably not coming from the regional the distillery is located in, nor is it likely to be tangentially different enough that it is highly distinctive. At the other end of the spectrum, there are distilleries (for example Bruichladdich on Islay and Waterford in Ireland – there’s a common human link between them) who are trying to buck this trend and inherently link terrior into the profile of whisky. The results from Bruichladdich are tasty, but whether they’re regionally identifiable to all but the most honed and trained palates is another question. Waterford, we’ll just have to wait and see, but they’re certainly talking the talk.
Regionality is certainly declining – but whether it has had any modern relevance at all is also questionable. Whilst one might generically suggest that Islay whisky is ‘peaty’ (and even that’s not true when you consider Bunnahabhain’s, Bruichladdich’s and Caol Ila’s unpeated releases), no one is going to be able to simply describe the character of all whiskies in the Highland region. Likewise, up until recently there has been so few active distilleries in the Lowlands region, that is almost seems laughable to suggest that a regional flavour profile has existed there for decades.
Perhaps, the only region where categorisation still just about holds true is Campbeltown. Where once there was 28 distilleries, now there’s only three (Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle). The flavours from these distilleries are of course distinctive, but they do still have ties that bind them together – from their coastal location that translates minerality into their new make spirit to locally sourced Campbeltown peat, which is idiosyncratically different to both its Islay and Highland cousins. Nevertheless, at best it’s still only a marker rather than a rule – unpeated ‘Hazelburn’ from Springbank is yet another style of whisky that deviates away from any sense of regionality.
Today’s review is a peated whisky from Speyside – far from unusual nowadays. Perhaps, what is more unique is the fact that the distillery that its produced at peats all of its whiskies.
Benromach Peat Smoke was first released in 2007. It has been produced annually every year since except in 2009 (I’m not sure what happened in 2009, but no Peat Smoke that year) and forms part of the distillery’s ‘Contrasts’ series. The barley used to create the expression is peated to 47pmm – that’s quite a lot of phenols – especially if you compare to the likes of Laphroaig (usually 45ppm) and Ardbeg (around 55ppm as standard). It’s bottled at 46% ABV and is available from retailers like Master of Malt for around £38.
Nose: Expressive and fairly potent – but highly mineral. The peat here is not akin to either heathery in-land smoke, nor coastal Islay smoke – it has a sense of pungent dustiness about it – chalk, coal and granite. This minerality continues with shale, shingles and limestone. It’s slightly sweetened by both citrus and vanilla and then reinforced by both orchard (apple) and tropical (pineapple) fruits. The end result is quite an interesting combination of sweet, but steely peat smoke. The addition of water reduces the pungency, and adds sweetness from toffee as well as a touch of anise.
Taste: The arrival is slightly oily and presents both sweetness (tart apple and vanilla) as well as a slightly unusual sourness, that develops into bitterness. It’s hard to describe, but the best example might be Haribo sours gummy sweets steadily being soaked in astringent wood juice. Odd. In the mid-palate, sweet, but cutting citrus, the mixes with engine fumes and chip pan fats – these are certainly smoky, but nowhere near the level of the nose. I suspect, that despite the 47ppm of the barley, much of the inherent peatiness has been lost in production and maturation. As such, it remains ever-present on the palate, but subdued rather than leading. Reduced, this develops more of a tropical character with charred pineapples and stewed orchard fruits.
Finish: Quite long, quite mineral and with pervasive chalky/ashy smoke.
Benromach 2008 Peat Smoke is an interesting one. The smoking is quite unique and certainly different to what you’d experience with the (lower) peating in across the distillery’s core range. The nose is quite successful – presenting a combination of defined fruits, mineral smoke and steeliness. The palate, is less coherent – it offers similar flavours, but suffers from a lack of development and definition. Nevertheless, this is solid, good whisky – but, it’s impossible not to compare it to the core range 10 year old, which at around £3-4 cheaper seems a much more obvious bet.
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