Interview: Share a dram with Mr. Stewart Buchanan of BenRiach

Just a few weeks ago I have the pleasure to sit down and share a few drams with Mr. Stewart Buchanan, the global brand ambassador of The BenRiach Distillery Company recently acquired by Brown-Forman at Pocket Bar in Darlinghurst. During his travel to Australia, Stewart attended a few major whisky events including Whisky Live Sydney and the Whisky Show. We have a few casual drinks and a relaxed discussion about almost anything about BenRiach, Glenglassaugh and GlenDronach Distillery.

Many ponder about the prospects of the trio after the acquisition by Brown-Forman, one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies which has brands including the famous Jack Daniel’s from the talented hands of Mr. Billy Walker and BenRiach Distillery Company. In this one hour session, Stewart has discussed at length about the three distilleries and their future plans under the wings of Brown-Forman. This article is a pretty long read, so I will dice it up into three major sections and discuss the distilleries one by one as we did during the sit-down session.

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Photo credit to Mr. Matthew Wooler from Dramnation, a very dedicated whisky education and appreciation group active in Sydney

Glenglassaugh Distillery

“Quirky”… is the word

So let’s start with Glenglassaugh, maybe the less-known and a bit mythical among the three distilleries. Interestingly, Stewart uses the term “quirky” to characterize the distillery. “It is something that I cannot wrap my head around it. Maybe it is the unique location – bordering Speyside and Highland, 15 minutes from Sandend Bay, Glassaugh Spring (the spring water source they use) has such a high mineral content and we have one of the most unique fauna landscapes here… This place is meant to be making the sweetest and floral new make and above that, there is something so special that I just can’t put into words to describe it, somehow that has engraved into the DNA to produce such a distinct spirit.” He also says the newly-appointed whisky maker for the distilleries, Ms. Rachel Barrie resonates his view when she visited Glenglassaugh earlier this year. Back then, Glenglassaugh was regarded as a highly individual malt which deemed to be hard to accommodate in blends, while the single malt market was mostly undeveloped at that point, that might have contributed to its demise in 1986. As a result, the distillery was closed and remained silent until 2008, leaving a 22-year gap in stock supply.

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Stewart talking about Glenglassaugh

Coming Releases from Glenglassaugh

The current releases from Glenglassaugh feature a few non-aged works in progress, as well as occasional vintage bottlings from the previous era. Stewart indicated that the distillery will be continue to be experimental (on casks), there will be a small scale of port cask and virgin oak cask releases rolling out soon. Any plans to bring back the age statements? Stewart says, “Yes, when we reach 2018 some of the stock will be maturing for 10 years since the reopening of the distillery from 2008. We are looking to do a 10 years old version of Evolution and Revival next year.” For fans who love a taste of vintage Glenglassaugh, good news! The third batch of single cask bottlings are confirmed to be on the way, the tasting notes have just been completed so we can expect an official announcement soon.

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Very beautiful set up by Mr. Wooler

The BenRiach Distillery

Experimental BenRiach 

I always see BenRiach is big on experimentation. The recent releases on the market have all sorts of funky variations – Peated vintage with full Tawny maturation and you can even see triple distillations bottling from time to time… “Yes, it is quite experimental, and it is a real fruit-bomb whisky.” This is how Mr. Buchanan characterizes BenRiach. Indeed, it does feel the robust fruit character lays a strong foundation for BenRiach to be versatile on its releases. “Although with so many different, sporadic expressions it can be confusing at times.” He admits. “Now we want to stabilize the range, trim it a bit and consolidate our special releases under the name of “Warehouse 13” to give it more structure.” “But we are very much experimental.” He continues, “Probably on the contrary, especially when Rachel discusses her interpretations of BenRiach, how she mentions about the sound of the distillery name. The pronunciation of the distillery “Ben-Riach” has such a strong ring, it leaves a bold and valiant impression and that is how it should be… Such an interesting take, it is one of the best things we get with Rachel joining our team, to approach things in a feminine perspective – this is something that guys will never think of.”

BR Cask Strength Peated Batch 1 bottle in front LR.jpgThe latest release from BenRiach, the Peated Cask Strength Batch 1

Discontinued Releases and Brown-Forman

Then we discuss the now-discontinued BenRiach 12 Years Old Sherry Wood, which is one of my favourite releases from BenRiach, it is a bit sad to see it go. “You know, BenRiach 12 was originally designed for the Taiwanese market, but after picking up a few awards it became a global sensation. The problem was, we did not expect that and there was not enough stock to sustain the worldwide market so we have no choice but to discontinue it. We had the same dilemma with GlenDronach Octarine, which was originally made for the French market, but the demand exploded and it was impossible to keep up with.” So are you keeping the age statements? “Absolutely, We will keep all of them, from 10, 15, 20, 25 and all the way to 35 years old releases will all stay for many years.” That is where the discussion about Brown-Forman pops in. “Honestly, we are really happy with Brown-Forman which has been very supportive with our projects. They think everyone is doing a great job and encourage us go on and do whatever we are doing. It is very reassuring for us.” He continues, “There is no interference at all and we have even drafted up a production plan for the future 20 years.” Talking about the advantages under Brown-Forman, he adds, “The quality of our casks, and also it takes much less time to travel from America to our distillery, the freshness of the casks is very important.”

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The BenRiach 10 in cocktail, very nice…

The GlenDronach Distillery

Sherry Cask Shortage (?)

With not much time left for the one-hour session, I did not beat around the bush and started with a rather difficult question – Is Glendronach running out of its sherry casks after years of single cask releases? Stewart clutched his face in disbelief and probably with a hint of exhaustion, as if too many people has been bombarding him with the same question already. He says, “Really, now I don’t know what I was looking at in the distillery the other day, all those casks! We are not running out of sherry casks!!” He continues, “When Billy took over the distillery, we made sure we have purchased all the casks from third party owners. So don’t worry, we have no shortages.” I just check on Malt Madness it states that when BenRiach Distillery Company bought the distillery in 2009, 9000 of whisky maturing casks were included as part of the deal. You can do the math from here.

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(From left to right) Matt, Stewart and Mr. Stuart Reeves, Brown-Forman Australia spirits brand ambassador

The Cult-Dronach

We also talk about the stellar rise of GlenDronach. In many countries, including Australia, GlenDronach has reached a cult-like status. Stewart contributes the success of GlenDronach to Billy Walker, how he is very persistent on the way of making his whiskies. “When we were tasting the archive whiskies in GlenDronach back in 2008, Billy was so certain that we should recreate that kind of style and so we went for it… Even though we do not have direct coal fire heating anymore but we are keen to emulate that rich caramel profile by dispersing the heat spots around the stills.” It seems long-term planning is also in place for GlenDronach as well, within a couple of years’ time (or less), they are planning to bring back the Revival which was a sensational hit and forced to discontinued for 3 years since 2015. “We are looking to stabilize our regular expressions for many years.” Stewart added.

The New Whisky Maker – Ms. Rachel Barrie

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Ms. Rachel Barrie, the Whisky Maker for BenRiach, GlenDronach & Glenglassaugh in action

Signifying a Change of Times

A couple of months ago Brown-Forman announced the appointment of Rachel as whisky maker for its Scotch whisky portfolio which includes the BenRiach, The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh distilleries, effective March 1, 2017. She succeeds Billy Walker who grows The BenRiach Distillery Company into one which is recognized throughout the industry for innovative and exceptional quality single malt Scotch whiskies. Walker will continue to support the distilleries and share his whisky expertise throughout the transition.

Rachel has served as master blender of Morrison Bowmore Distillers for the last five years where she led whisky creation for Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch, most recently including Laphroaig and Ardmore. Prior to joining Morrison Bowmore Distillers, she worked with the Glenmorangie Company for 16 years, eight of which were spent as whisky creator and master blender for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg single malts as well as James Martin’s and Bailie Nicol Jarvie blended Scotch whiskies. During her time at Glenmorangie, Brown-Forman had a minority ownership in the distillery and this new role brings her back to some of her earlier distilling roots with the company.

Any Changes with Rachel?

Talking about the changes that are brought forward by Rachel, Stewart comments, “Nothing. Really, when she first come into the distillery for our first meeting, with my notebook opened and ready. After a few minutes I realize that I don’t need to and simply set it aside. She is in the same wavelength as we are and we are basically completing each other’s sentences. Nothing has changed production-wise. Of course she will have her prints on the new products, everyone has a different palate, her interpretations and the casks she chooses for each expressions will be quite different to what Billy did.

Finally, A big thanks to Matthew of Dramnation setting this up and it was a very informative session! Cheers!

-Esmond