“I have a crazy proposal.”
When they start like that on WhatsApp, many possibilities swirl in your mind, but never would you think of a three-day trip to Scotland, visiting two distilleries and a cooperage.
And instead, thanks to Brown-Forman and its Italian distributor, Fine Spirits, here I was catapulted in no time into a trip organised to discover two of the many jewels nestled between the Highlands and Speyside: BenRiach and GlenDronach.
Founded in the late 19th century, BenRiach shared with many other distilleries on Speyside (and beyond) the dark days of blended-only production, but thanks to the intervention of first Billy Walker and then the current ownership with Master Blender Rachel Barrie, the spirit has returned to their core range.
The strongly mineral water extracted from the subsoil contributes to the character of this speysider, which stands out from its many siblings scattered throughout the territory also thanks to other production peculiarities: the four-waters infusion of the barley, fermentation between 70 and 100 hours and slow distillation lead to the classic fruity profile of the whisky.
Since 2016, the core range has been entirely redesigned, now offering four different styles: classic, peated, triple-distilled and made from on site malted barley, which produces the limited Malting Season version.
Thanks to the passion and enthusiasm of Douglas Cook, Global Head of Scotch Advocacy at Brown-Foreman, my fellow travellers and I were able to walk among the mash tuns, pot stills and the many (and very mature) casks left to rest in the splendid Warehouse 13, in what by choice remains a non-full-scale production facility devoted to experimentation.
Inevitable (and not to be missed) was the final tasting, preceded by the tasting of the three different new makes (classic, peated and triple distilled), with five expressions: the 10 and 12 year old, Smoky Twelve, Smoke Season and an extraordinary 21 year old.
Very interesting was the opportunity to compare the new makes with the mature whiskies, capturing the nuances present in each, with the Smoke Season perhaps the most interesting of the five.
And after the eclectic BenRiach, it was the turn of the more classic GlenDronach, where after several years there was a return to the distillery’s more strongly sherried profile, in which the casks that contained the Spanish fortified wine, with a few forays into port and a few other fortified wines, are the main feature.
More classically three-water mash tun, long fermentation and distillation in stills whose shapes allow for a cleaner spirit, with the waters of the Dronac River flowing under the building to act as a coolant in the condensers.
Production is much broader than its speysider sister, but more devoted to recovering the flavours and aromas of the past.
Final tasting with four goodies: the Port Wood, the very recent Cask Strength Batch 11 and two distillery exclusives, two bottles that can be filled directly in the very elegant visitor centre, the two vintages 2012 and 1993.
I have a soft spot for CS, I admit, but tasting the almost 30-year-old hardly leaves indifferent…
A final treat, a visit to Speyside Cooperage, a true multinational giant in the creation of casks, with a strictly artisanal process in which the use of machines is reduced to a bare minimum, with the great manual skill of the young coopers still making the difference.
A true war machine, in which an impressive number of casks are created and repaired at a speed and safety born of four years of apprenticeship and painstaking work.
It’s really hard to compress into a few lines the emotions, feelings and fun of this short but intense trip to Scotland, for which I must thank not only the organisers but also my extraordinary fellow travellers, with whom I shared drinks, excellent dinners, anecdotes and ‘life lessons’ that I will carry in my heart for a long time…