September Scotch: Benriach Distillery’s Malting Season and Smoke Season

Exploring flavorsome limited edition expressions from the Speyside single malt scotch brand

Not all headline-worthy limited edition single malt scotch whiskies cost tens of thousands of dollars. Two recent releases from acclaimed Speyside whisky-maker BenriachMalting Season, which first debuted in October 2021 and is now in its second annual edition, and the magnificently unexpected Smoke Season—retail for $150 and $60 respectively. Both of these expressions impress by way of the noticeable attention to craft that defines the liquid, and the way each highlights a specific part of the whisky-making process. In this final installment of our September Scotch series for 2022, we delve into these single malts and more with Stewart Buchanan—the global scotch ambassador for Benriach, The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh—who was tasked with reopening the then-mothballed distillery in 2004 and later took on the role of production manager in 2006.

From its reopening onward, the Benriach distillery has thoughtfully expanded its portfolio—telegraphing its values along the way. “Benriach is all about exploring the full flavor possibilities of single malt, creating some of the richest, most multi-layered whiskies in Speyside,” Buchanan says. “All of our current and new expressions are reflective of this tradition under the guidance of our master blender, Rachel Barrie. Through the various eclectic casks in our warehouse that once held Madeira, sherry, bourbon, red wine and Marsala, we showcase how Benriach is a hidden gem in the Speyside region.”

Knowing that Benriach is rooted in the Speyside region, which has a historic reputation for producing smoke-free, lighter and sweeter whiskies, aficionados may wonder why the brand has introduced the small-batch smoky single malt, Smoke Season. It’s a nod to the brand’s deep history and “reflects Benriach’s time-honored seasonal production techniques where peated spirit runs through its stills,” Buchanan explains. “If you look back at our distillery’s archives, you’ll see that heavily peated single malts were the preferred palate of the region in the 19th century.”

Benriach achieves something masterful with this special edition that’s both “intensely smoked and exquisitely sweet.” On the palate Smoke Season “tastes different from most peated scotches simply because the majority of peat [used by other brands] is sourced near the sea on the west coast and Islay,” he continues. “Our Highland peat is sourced from the mainland and derived from ancient trees and heather. This character produces a distinct aromatic smoke that toasts the barley at Benriach, resulting in an intense thread of sweet smoke interwoven with Benriach’s staple orchard fruit character.”

Parallel to this, the name of the Malting Season release nods to the flavor-yielding process of malting barley—from its historic prominence at the Benriach distillery to the fact that it’s still done on site today. “There are only eight traditional floor maltings left in operation across all of Scotland’s distilleries now,” Buchanan says. The distillery revived the rare practice in 2012 in order to explore more traditional characteristics and styles. As the historic process is low yield, Benriach uses their own malted barley mindfully.

As the name implies, flavors in this limited edition single malt align with those historically derived from the malting process. “The flavor of Malting Season is the result of the barley being steeped in water, then spread across the malting room floor and turned by hand over several days to allow for optimum germination of the barley,” Buchanan says. “The malting team decides when the barley is ready to move to the kiln and the iconic pagoda-shaped chimney comes alive. This time and attention leads to barley that becomes sweet with a little mandarin orange undertone and white chocolate.”

After last year’s successful debut of Malting Season’s first edition, Barrie returned to Concerto barley as the grain source. This year, however, she produced a liquid that is .2 degrees stronger in alcohol by volume. Further, Buchanan adds, “The difference between the two editions is the barley’s drying time, leading to a slightly different flavor profile, as well as the cask maturation. The first edition’s malting process focused on highlighting the malt’s sweetness, whereas the second edition’s malting process honed in on the earthy flavor profile of the barley.” The second edition was also only matured in first-fill bourbon casks. The result is lasting creamy notes, ranging from a light nuttiness to rich honey.

This year has also seen Benriach unveil delectable Cask Editions in the US for the first time. “Each of the expressions range from 12 to 24 years old and have been drawn from individual casks selected by master blender Rachel Barrie to offer a rare and unique insight into the versatility of Benriach’s eclectic cask styles,” Buchanan says. “We call these casks our sleeping beauties, and source them from all over the world.” This process allows them to test the flavor limits of the Speyside single malt category. For instance, a “Marsala wine hogshead cask brings out clementine, apricot, nectarine and cherry blossom flavors. The Pedro Ximénez puncheon has intense notes of heather honey, butterscotch and sultana. The Oloroso puncheon, on the other hand, gives off flavor notes of chocolate orange at Christmas time, with hazelnuts, sultanas, dried apples and apricots.”

These are milestone releases for a brand that Buchanan helped to build—as he explains, “from painting nearly every wall, stripping down all the equipment and fixing the boiler to tightening the nuts, bolts and screws.” He’s observed so much change over his tenure. “Benriach has evolved its style over the years, where they used to release a large amount of expressions in the past to now showcasing their approach to flavor exploration and telling the story through a concise range of expressions,” he concludes. And with pricing that’s more accessible than most competitors, and an emphasis on quality, the brand will only continue to grow.

Images courtesy of Benriach