The Halo Effect I Support: BenRiach & Glendronach Single Casks

Normally I try to avoid commenting here on whatever is going around in the whisky/spirits echo chamber on Twitter and other blogs. I feel like it’s too easy to get caught up in the passions of the moment. However, the recent release of a $150,000 1957 Bowmore helped make my thoughts a lot more concrete on this long-running discussion on ultra-premium whisky.

I virtually guarantee I will never get to try this, and there will be no review on Scotch & Ice Cream.

No one reading this blog (well, almost no one – perhaps John or Dominic will get a crack at this) is going to ever taste this; nor will I. Really, I don’t care in the truest sense of the phrase – it just doesn’t matter to me. It’d be a fun experience, but there are so many other rare-expensive whiskies that now have a legendary reputation that I’d much rather try (Black Bowmore, you’re top of that list).

I’ve rarely held back from taking shots at Dalmore and their string of special releases which tend to be marketed/priced the same way. The occasional old Macallan releases are similarly amusing to me. These are, generally speaking, as has been observed by several in the commenting class of the whisky universe, “whisky for oligarchs”. While I’d like to imagine that these could have had a release as a $1200 edition (after all, Glenfarclas does a $500 40 year old), these are as much a marketing strategy as anything, and they happen to have the advantage of a marketing strategy which can directly pay for itself.

These whiskies tend to annoy the hardcore whisky fans and connoisseurs. We’re generally thrill-seekers and would love to try them (who wouldn’t?), but these price points  generally put them out of our budget. They tend to fall in the hands of the anonymously wealthy (and Mahesh Patel, slightly less anonymous but probably equally wealthy), who we imagine can’t possibly have the palate to appreciate these things. Hell if I know anything about the palate of these wealthy businessmen who apparently don’t mind dropping tens of thousands of dollars in the duty free shop in Singapore. Since I’ll probably never try these, I don’t really see much point in getting worked up by it.

However, they seem to make the category ridiculously aspirational for the benefit of the casually interested. I’d love to know what kind of sales bump Johnnie Walker saw on Black Label after their $150,000 Diamond Jubilee blend hit the press-release circuit. I felt like coverage of that was inescapable and it showed up everywhere from Fark to Reddit to marginally-interested-in-whisky Twitter streams on a seemingly constant basis earlier this year.

Maybe they sold them all; I don’t know. The exposure they’ve got probably didn’t hurt.

There’s a concern among some that this will become an all-encompassing trend in the category and that the category will eventually price itself up and out of the common man’s pockets – however, I think single malts are generally pushing themselves out of the casual drinker’s pockets as it is. While certainly there’s some aspirational pricing and upmarket branding happening on some of these reinventions, stock shortages due to increased demand (such as what likely was the driver behind Macallan’s decision to make the core of their line drop the age statement) will also have an upward push on price.

I tend to have a pragmatic view of markets, and there’s always someone willing to sacrifice per-unit margin if they think they’ll come out ahead on volume. If Macallan, Dalmore, Ardbeg, and Bowmore price themelves out of the reach of the everyday drinker, that still leaves dozens of distilleries who might see an opportunity to create a name for themselves and replace the hole left in the market.

Aside from the aforementioned Glenfarclas 40y for $500, there have been some high-30s and low-40y whiskies released by the distilleries themselves that have been very exciting and of exceptional quality. I really can think of no one doing this better currently than the BenRiach Distillery Company, who owns both BenRiach (imagine that) and Glendronach. In the last few years, they’ve released some absolutely stunning single-cask whiskies which have done well in various whisky competitions (whatever worth that may have to you) and rated highly among those of us prone to rate whiskies and blog about it.

For the common man as well as the connoisseur, these whiskies are the ones that should be very exciting. The message BenRiach has for the average person with these whiskies is essentially that luxury is within your reach — and make no mistake, a Glendronach from the early ’70s is about as great as it gets. This sort of thing makes me far more interested in buying the standard expressions of both distilleries both to support them as well as to see if they measure up to the lofty quality of the single-cask releases.

While $500 to $700 is a lot to spend on a bottle of whisky, I urge you to never forget my advice and split purchases with friends. $80-$120 may be a lot to spend on a dram or two, but sometimes the experience is worth it. These are rare whiskies which, unlike the $150,000 whiskies, you actually stand a chance of trying in your life.

I find myself in a strange position: a very left-leaning person generally having the view that “the market will sort itself out” (I think I need a drink). However, in this case, I truly do believe that there’s money left on the table and as soon as producers see that, someone can, will (and has already) step in to take it with a price that undercuts normal premiums.

I most recently had an opportunity to sample a 1976 BenRiach (which I’d been curious about due to WhiskyNotes’ excellent coverage of a massive BenRiach tasting earlier this year) courtesy of my friend Chris. He supplied me with a 35y 1976 BenRiach from cask 3032 (a bottling for the Japanese market).

The nose was unlike anything I can recall in recent memory. It led immediately with fruit and hay (apples, green grapes and pears) as well as a liberal dose of white pepper, but almost immediately gave way to woody notes that seemed more like fresh-sawn lumber. There was a malty note underneath and some pineapple at the margin. That fresh-sawn lumber was a real eye-opener and kind of fun.

The palate led with wood and the fresh-sawn lumber; there was kind of a grape juice or dry white wine taste dominating the palate. Malty sweetness was behind that, in the form of a more aggressive malt (think diastatic malt powder instead of the more gentle maltiness of other whiskies – if you’ve had Malts of Scotland bottlings, this maltiness may be familiar). There was a hint of pineapple as well as grapefruit and a touch of orange.

The finish led with wood; grape juice and wine was behind that with maltiness on its heels. There was a gentle heat and some sweetness; it dried over time and there was some grapefruit and passionfruit.

As I said – this was a profile I haven’t encountered much of if at all. It’s very punchy and woody, but it’s not overoaked at all to my palate. There’s a lot of unusual fruit notes happening, but it’s got a sweetness to underpin it that doesn’t cause it to become a syrupy mess. While this was my first ’76 BenRiach, I sincerely hope it’s not my last. Thanks, Chris!

The other great whisky that I had the privilege of having a good amount at a recent LAWS meeting was a 1972 Glendronach for the Kensington Wine Market in Calgary. This particular ’72 Glendronach was distilled on 2-3-72 (where were you?), bottled 9-2011, in cask 711, an oloroso sherry butt. If it’s not overoaked, the pieces are in place for this to be a ridiculously good whisky.

The nose on this was exactly what you want from a sherry bomb: deep sherry notes, rich leather and a nuttiness. It’s dense, dark, but fruity in a way that you would be content to nose until the end of time.

The palate was rich, thick and full, wearing its sherry influence on its sleeve. Again, the nutty oloroso character was on full display, and really marked this as (in my opinion) a phenomenally great cask. There was a pleasant heat and some leathery notes; late on the palate there was a slight struck match note. (LAWS commented heavily on its sulphur content, but this has an average grade of A at LAWS, so it wasn’t a major problem for them).

The finish was warm with lots of leather; the nutty oloroso again showing through as well as a slight medicinality and a late struck match note.

This Glendronach was really, really great. It was half empty when I got my first pour – easily the whisky getting the most generous pours all night – and I grabbed a second pour. Nothing else was even in the same league on that particular night.

While I wish I could justify another Glendronach purchase on my own, for the time being the price is above my personal ceiling. However, these are absolutely incredible whiskies for the money, and you should definitely try to have one. If there was ever a whisky to split with friends to reduce the individual cost, this is the one.

For every whisky that is produced in a bespoke, ultra-limited, hand-crafted (and frankly, beautiful) decanter, I am willing to bet there are two of these casks sitting in the warehouses waiting to be enjoyed by collectors. Yes, the price is dear, but the quality is great. Brands such as BenRiach and Glendronach which release these for the enjoyment of the common man (with disposable income) are ones that I expect will see lasting brand loyalty – the best kind you can hope to get. And my experiences with these high-end whiskies have me ever-more curious in their standard expressions (which we’ll see reviewed in the future) – the exact kind of halo effect you would hope to have.

At a Glance:

BenRiach 35y Cask #3032 (Distilled 1976, Bottled 2011) 44.2% ABV
  Fruity initially, with a little bit of hay. Some apples and pears, a touch of green grapes and liberal white pepper. Moderate wood which almost smells like fresh-sawn lumber. Malt underneath. Some pineapple hiding out as well.
Palate:  Wood upfront, again with the fresh-sawn lumber note; going in the direction of grape juice or a drier white wine. Malty sweetness, but more of an upfront maltiness (diastatic malt powder) than a gentle sweetness. A little hint of pineapple and maybe a touch of orange alongside; a bit of grapefruit as well.
Finish:  Wood leads; the grape juice/wine is right behind it with maltiness on their heels. Gentle heat and some sweetness; drying slightly over time. Grapefruit as it ends and a little passionfruit too.
Comment:  This is a profile unlike many I’ve encountered – very punchy with some wood but not overly woody; lots of unusual fruit notes, but a good sweetness to underpin it. The ’76 series seems to be worth investigating.
Rating: B+

Glendronach 1972 Kensington Wine Market 39y 49.80% ABV
Distilled 2-3-72, Bottled 9-11
Deep shery, rich leather and nutty notes. 
Rich, thick, full, with big sherry. Nice heat and a bit of leather. Late on I get a slight struck match thing.
Warm, leather. Nutty and almost slightly medicinal for a second, with that struck match note again late.
Really great. The bottle was half empty by the time it made its way to me – nothing else got even close to that.

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