Whilst writing about whisky requires a broad appreciation for the myriad shapes that it’s possible to craft the spirit into – like the rest of you I have my partialities. Styles of whisky and my preferences for them wax and wane – appeal and thirst varying according to my mood, the weather, and even the company I’m presently with (+++currently expunged from memory+++). Nevertheless old habits die hard – and throughout my whisky exploration I’ve always tended towards the heavier styles of spirit – whiskies which in more common parlance you might describe as ‘dirty’.
Dirty whisky is not really a thing. That is to say, that for the most part, production processes actively refine the spirit to a point where it’s not chemically classifiable as ‘dirty’ – I.E. the bad things such as fusel alcohol have been removed. There are of course notable exceptions I’ve sampled over years, where I’ve been genuinely concerned that this refinement hasn’t been conducted with the vigour required and that consumption might well result in blindness or a lost limb. But 99% of the time whisky should be thought of as a ‘clean’ product. Nevertheless, there is still a sense that some distillate styles and some expressions bring with them a sense of industrialness, funk or simply filth. Often, but not always, peated in style these whiskies usually float my boat.
This heavy or industrial character can be ascribed as resulting from a very number of variables. Still construction and function – its tendency for reflux - the angle of the lyne arm - both inherently affect the composition of the spirit collected. So too will the use of worm tubs for condensing or on a more rudimental level – a wider distillation cut which brings in a greater volume of tails. Sulphur, virtually always described as a scourge, is not, as so many seem to want to believe, the sole purview of cask fumigation candles – its formation is primordial within the distillation process itself. And it too adds to a heavier style of resultant spirit (without necessarily also adding the discernible aroma and flavour characteristics that everyone loves to point out into the eventual whisky).
Casks of course play a large (though not precisely definable) role in the formation of dirty whiskies. In a somewhat similar fashion to the purifying effect of still copper, the oak, and in particular the charcoal on the inside of the staves continues to clean the spirit during its maturation period. And the style of precursor liquid and the relative condition of the cask (1st fill, refill, knackered etc) will similarly play a large part into defining the volume of heavier compounds left within the liquid – wine and fortified wine cask both removing, but also adding weightier elements into the spirit.
Peat – as varied as everything above. Sourced from different locations, with different topographies. Kilned to different temperatures, in different capacity kilns – for different periods of time. A variable which to my mind can absolutely add a sense of dirtiness into a spirit – be that the funk of pungent earthy Campeltown smoke, the medicinalness of some Islay whiskies, or the je ne sais quoi of my long time bestie Ledaig.
That’s not to say that any one of these variables is solely responsible for a whisky erring towards the dirty side of things. A combination of production regimes and cask selection can always be joined by happenstance to forge something wonderfully filthy – and I’ve few problems with things getting a little unruly from time to time.
As the great lockdown continues here in the UK I’m deliberately varying my whisky consumption between finishing off older bottlers which have sat opened for far too long and cracking the seals on some of the accidental accumulation. The point of the exercise not only being an attempt to wrestle back some much-needed bottle storage space – but also to ensure that once some semblance of normality returns to the world, that visiting friends don’t find my selection to be exactly the same as it was when they last visited. A phenomena we’re all going to have to get used to when re-frequenting our favourite whisky bars – reopening with a perceptible but unrecorded date stamp of March 2020.
This brings me onto today’s review – a limited release Benromach, bottled towards the end of 2018. Matured in 1st fill sherry hogsheads, the 2010 Peat Smoke Sherry Cask Matured flew off the shelves – indeed I quickly snaffled up a bottle – and then did what so many of us do with the expressions we’ve earmarked as ‘drinkers’ – I stashed it away.
The composition was the first sherried Peat Smoke bottling – which, when combined with early positive reviews is likely why the major retailers sold out of their allocation in fairly short order. However, you’ll still, 18 months later find a few lurking around surprisingly still at the original RRP of £65. 6,500 bottles were released at the high strength of 59.9% ABV.
Nose: Open on an assortment of fruits - jammy raspberries, dried cranberries, macerated cherries and sour plums. These are joined by an discernible meatiness – barbeque glaze, and crispy chicken skin – and appreciable fabric cues – leather and hessian. Smoke is soft, but also earthy and rubbery – dry and dusty, cracked earth, bicycle tyres, salinity and creosote fencing. Water reveals orange peels, apples and honey alongside crushed walnuts and fermenting ale.
Taste: A fatty arrival with combined brown sugars and soured fruit juices (cherries and berries) with bituminous tar, bike repair kits, polythene and a dusting of cocoa powder. Hints of sulphur are detectable, but for me fade quickly in the glass. The development is cask-led with building pepperiness and chilli heat sitting with leather sofas, dusty soils, flaked concrete walls, gravel and tail-end saltiness. Reduction quickly softens things up revealing oranges and additional tart berry fruits alongside wood lacquer and balsamic.
Finish: Quite long with mentholated oakiness, shaved chocolate, earthy smoke and persistent salt-forward minerality.
Benromach 2010 Peat Smoke Sherry Cask Matured is likely a divisive whisky. Expectations of the distillery’s spirit character combined with 1st fill sherry would set this at the intersection of sweet and peat - but the end result seems several strides away from being that simple to define – or indeed, being instantly accessible. This is not an everyday dram. Whilst the 59.9% ABV is well-integrated the aroma and flavour combinations are challenging – never being as sweet as expected, never being as smoky as it could be – and seemingly treading a line which feels unclean, but doesn’t dive head first into true dirtiness. Despite some glowing reviews from fellow commentators being set against some stinging criticism from other quarters, I’m actually feeling quite Liberal Democrat about this, and am therefore scoring it somewhere in-between.