(Update 6/13/2016: I’ve reviewed the newer 46% ABV bottling with better results.)
When I think of BenRiach, I think of asceticism. The house style is very un-Speyside: light, airy, dry, minerally, and spare. Tasting blind, I would think it was a lowlander of the Auchentoshan variety. BenRiach is now owned by a small, independent consortium known as The BenRiach Distillery Company, which also owns GlenDronach and has done wonders there. The company bought BenRiach in 2004, saving it from a brief period of mothballing, and promptly began releasing the built-up stocks as a variety of single-malt expressions which won it a lot of fanfare.
BenRiach is one of those insider darlings that doesn’t yet have the mass-market appeal to make it ‘uncool’, just like GlenDronach. While I’m a big believer and fan of GlenDronach, I seem to have trouble seeing eye-to-eye with BenRiach’s malt. I was underwhelmed by its ‘Curiositas’ expression (a peated 10 year-old), and this 12 year-old standard bottling is just too dry and lean for me. BenRiach has vocal proponents, so don’t write it off solely on my disliking of it. If you enjoy particularly light, airy malts where one must search for the complexity, definitely give this one a try. Note: There seems to be both a 40% ABV and a 43% ABV version on the market – probably one for the UK and the other for the US. This bottle was from UK retailer Master of Malt, and is 40% ABV.
Nose: Light, with some tart fruit notes (kiwi? green apple?). A bit on the hot side for 40% ABV. Some light toasty oak notes underline the fruit, and a bit of vanilla. The tart notes verge on vinegary, especially right out of the bottle.
Palate: Nicely creamy body. Hay and raw oats followed by light brown sugar and a nice even maltiness. Clean and crisp.
Finish: Honey and malt. Some light oaky bitterness fades out with nondescript florals.
With Water: Water releases a very nice array of florals and some green grass notes and aloe. Definitely try it with a few drops.
Overall: Not my new favorite, although I can see the tart notes in the nose being a draw. The palate is even and crisp, with clear flavors of barley and light oak. It seems to me, however, to be a bit of a blank canvas, and the vinegar on the nose is a bit more sour than I’d like. In fact, the leanness of the malt is such that I’d wonder if it was a lowlander – it bears a lot of resemblance to younger Auchentoshan. I do believe that while going through a full bottle, this style will grow on you, but upon first impression I’m not a fan.