Spirit of Speyside with Benriach

This press trip was organised by Benriach for the launch of their second batch of the expression Benriach Malting Season. All thoughts and opinions are, as usual, my own. 

Every time I come back to Speyside, I fall even more in love with this wonderful corner of the world. This trip coincided with The Spirit of Speyside Festival which is an annual whisky event where most distilleries in the region organise various different happenings – from tastings and tours to ceilidhs and adventures, so the area was buzzing with people that were ready to explore their favourite distilleries. I had never been to Benriach Distillery before, but had the pleasure of attending a masterclass with global brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan whilst on the Cinderella Whisky Fair, just the other day, so it was lovely to see him again and get to experience some of their other expressions as well. 

Paddle Boarding on the Spey

After an hour delay on the train for hitting a telephone pole, we arrived in Craigellachie and almost immediately got in to wetsuits to go for some paddle boarding on the Spey. The Spey is the well known river, and the fastest flowing in the UK, that runs throughout Speyside and passes many distilleries. It’s hard to miss if you’re in these parts. 

We started on our knees and after a few minutes of feeling comfortable and reaching a section of calmer water some of us gave it a go to try to stand up. I ended up immediately in the water as I realised way too late that I had my weight too far back. The water was cold, but not too bad and it’s actually quite refreshing to get an involuntary dip. We were paddling from Aberlour to the Craigellachie Bridge and in this section the water isn’t very deep so I could easily just stand up and get on to the board again. We had so much fun and I definitely will try it again. If only we had a little loch nearby so it was possible to do every week. When we arrived back at the bridge, we all enjoyed a Benriach Smoky 12 to warm ourselves up before heading back to the hotel. 

Benriach Distillery

Along the main road, before you reach Elgin, you’ll find Benriach Distillery. You won’t miss it as it now has the iconic black writing on the side of one of the white buildings displaying the distillery name. Benriach dates back to 1898 and is since 2016 owned by Brown-Forman. They recently opened up their brand new Visitor Centre and are now able to welcome visitors to the distillery. If you don’t recognise the branding of Benriach straight away it could be because it has went through a rebranding in the past few years. Many of the core expressions has been matured in a combination of three or more different cask types, but master blender Rachel Barrie has managed to balance out these flavours to create some interesting whiskies. 

During our visit we started off with a little wander around and then sat down to a delightful brunch consisting of fruits, bagels, granola, charcuterie – and of course a dram. Along with the dram we also got to try the new make, which is quite delicious on its own. When trying the new make it is easy to see how it can evolve pleasantly with the casks as it seems to be a great starting point and after trying some different expressions it is nice to see how the spirit character is maintained even in the older expressions as well as underneath the various cask combinations. I must admit that I become slightly sceptical when there’s a lot of different casks involved in maturation since it can result in whisky that is too “busy” or sprawling, but Rachel has done a great job with this range.

We also got a little tour of the distilleries where we got to see the water source, the still room, the warehouse – and of course the malting floors.

It is always such a pleasure to listen to Global Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan talk about his distillery as he used to work in production and you always feel like you get to take part in his memories and emotions about the place when he is telling his stories. One of the things I found particularly interesting is to hear how they mark the casks, for example Stewart introduced pink colour on the wine casks and then they also have a system of numbers for peated or unpeated spirit as well as other colours for first fill, second field, third fill and so on.

Seeing the malting floors was definitely a highlight as there’s only a handful of distilleries that still have malting floors on site as the vast majority of malting is now done by commercial maltsters. Every time I see barley it makes me think about how incredible it is that these grains along with just water and yeast can turn in to a spirit. When we had a look at the kiln we also got to have a little taste of the barley is well, standing underneath the Doig Ventilator and it’s quite tasty!

The most recent release of the Benriach expression Malting Season is the second release in the series but they also do another expression series called Smoke Season which probably is my favourite Benriach expression. The Malting Season is created entirely with barley malted on the historic onsite malting floors as a celebration of these traditional production methods that nowadays are a rare commodity.

Whisky Safari with Ghillie Basan

When I saw that we had a whisky safari with Ghillie on the itinerary I immediately got excited! I’ve had the pleasure of visiting her before and her food is just amazing. When we arrived and I saw the line up for the pairing, I got even more excited. 

Benriach The Twelve, Benriach The Twenty Five, Benriach Smoke Season and a Benriach 1993 Madeira Cask Distillery Exclusive was waiting and Ghillie had put together some absolute brilliant pairings. We got to help with grinding spices, mixing mixtures and bashing both chilis and green juniper berries before assembling our own tasting plates. The plates held everything from spiced labneh dip filled rose-soaked apricots, salmon wrapped in garlic mustard leaves, cinnamon dusted pheasant with gin soaked black currents and wild garlic, pickled rhubarb, sorrel leaves, oranges with pomegranate molasses and preserved lemon and blue cheese with poached pear and stemmed ginger. Just writing this makes me so hungry again… And that’s not all, in between certain tasters Ghillie also brought out small haggis balls that were delightful and a cheese and aubergine oven bake as well as offering us lapsang tea and coffee with chocolate slices in her barn in front of a fire following the meal. My favourite pairings where the spiced labneh dip filled apricots with the twenty five year old and the blue cheese with poached pear along the madeira cask expression. Oh and the haggis balls with the Smoke Season – and the cinnamon dusted pheasant with the twelve and twentyfive. As you can probably tell – I was a very happy – and full – person leaving Ghillie’s yesterday.

The fascinating thing with food and whisky pairings is how they can enhance each other and allow a different tasting experience. Lately, pairings like these has been my favourite way to explore and discover whiskies.

Staying at The Craigellachie Hotel & The Craigellachie Lodge

I was thrilled to return to The Craigellachie Hotel, after having stayed here on my last press trip to Speyside. It’s such a lovely hotel with a friendly welcoming atmosphere, super comfy beds and elegant Scottish touch to their design. 

Also worth stopping by just for a lunch or dinner and I would highly recommend the haggis bonbons, oysters and their sirloin steak. They also have their own house cocktail – the Apple Dog – made with whisky and apple juice – which is just so refreshing and delicious.

For breakfast I decided on porridge with honey and banana this time and was not disappointed. It’s quite a hefty portion as well!

I’ve recently heard a lot about The Craigelleachie Lodge, which is located about a five minute walk uphill from the hotel, and was so curious to check it out. The house was taken over by a couple, who are originally from the area, and transformed it into an accommodation which offers 7 rooms, a bar, breakfast area and events space. 

The bar has a lovely selection of whiskies and on the menu they are organised by the distance between the lodge and the distilleries,  meaning distilleries like Craigellachie and The Macallan are within a mile of the lodge and grouped together, whilst distilleries in nearby Dufftown are slightly further away and fall in the 4 mile section. 

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Check out my Instagram @swedishwhiskygirl or @scandinavianabroad to see even more photos and follow along on future adventures.

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Moa Nilsson

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