Whisky Review #12: Benrinnes 21 Years (Diageo Special Releases 2014)

Benrinnes is a distillery that doesn’t usually produce bottlings of its own, primarily due to it being part of the great Diageo stable of workhorse distilleries whose first priority would be to produce whiskies that go into the company’s vast blended whisky portfolio.

The whisky has been a component of blends such as J&B, Crawford’s 3 Star and of course, the Johnnie Walker range. This also means that the vast majority of the distillery’s production goes into these whiskies, leaving little room for a single malt whisky to be introduced.

For years, the only official bottling from the distillery was a 15 year old expression which was bottled under the Flora & Fauna label. In fact, it was more common to see a single malt bottling of Benrinnes from independent bottlers such as Douglas Laing and Hunter Laing under various labels such as Old Malt Cask and Old & Rare Platinum.

However, a few years ago something rather interesting occurred. Sometime in 2008-2009, Diageo began seriously evaluating the distilleries within their portfolio and deduced that there were some rather good hidden gems within which might benefit from further exposure to consumers.

One of these hidden gems was Benrinnes.

Alongside the 15 year old expression, the distillery released a little known 23 year old sherried expression in 2009 before releasing a 12 year old refill bourbon version under the Manager’s Choice label in 2010. These three expressions represented the official bottlings from the distillery for the next 3 years.

In 2014, the distillery released another official bottling, a 21 year old sherried offering that was bottled under the Diageo Special Releases label. This expression caused quite a stir in the whisky community as it was the first 21 year old expression from the distillery.

Benrinnes 21 Years Old (Diageo Special Releases 2014).
Benrinnes 21 Years Old (Diageo Special Releases 2014).

The release of the 21 year old expression also brought the previously released 23 year old sherried expression back into the spotlight. The latter, which didn’t receive much attention when first released, was now being compared favourably with its slightly younger sibling.

The 21 year old expression was distilled in 1992 before being aged for a full 21 years in a sherry butt. It was bottled in late 2013 in order to be released as a part of the 2014 Diageo Special Releases.

The character of Benrinnes whisky is seen as somewhat sulphury and meaty, which can be attributed to the use of old cast iron worm tubs in the condensation process rather than the use of the more modern copper condensation column seen in most distilleries today.

I actually came across this distillery when I was perusing my copy of the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2015, which I purchased at Laphroaig during my trip to Islay earlier in the year. While it was one of the many listed in the yearbook, I was rather intrigued by its background as it was a lesser known distillery within the Diageo stable and didn’t seem to generate as much buzz as the likes of Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Talisker.

After conducting further research, I came across the 21 year old expression and read the reviews associated to it. Most of them mentioned the rather meaty and sulphury character of the spirit as well as the intensely sherried profile. This intrigued me quite a bit and I was quite keen on sampling this whisky in order to experience this rather unusual flavour profile for myself.

As it was rather difficult to acquire in Singapore (and also rather expensive), I decided to wait until I was back in Melbourne in order to sample it. Imagine my luck when I realised that my favourite bar in Melbourne, Whisky & Alement, had procured a bottle. Armed with this knowledge, I headed down to the bar in order to sample it.

A dram of the Benrinnes 21 Years. Look at that burnished copper hue!
A dram of the Benrinnes 21 Years. Look at that burnished copper hue!

Now, bear in mind that this was a limited edition release and a 21 year old at that. As such, I paid $46 for a dram of this whisky. But something told me that it was probably worth it. And with that, I dove right in.

Benrinnes 21 Years (Diageo Special Releases 2014, 56.9% abv)

Colour: Burnished copper

Nose: Initial entry presents a big sherry hit, but unlike other sherried whiskies this one is rather muted in terms of the sweetness. Dried fruits, raisins and some nutmeg are also apparent on the nose. The characteristic meatiness of the spirit is quite evident as well, which reminds me somewhat of a medium rare steak.

Just a hint of sulphur in the nose as well, another hint to the characteristic of the spirit and a nod to the cast iron worm tubs. The nose also presents some rather surprising green, sappy notes as well.

Palate: Phwoah, sherry bomb! Quite a big sherried character to this whisky, but not in the same way as you’d expect in a Macallan or Glenfarclas. The muted sweetness from the nose carries through to the palate, which suggests that the casks used to mature the whisky once held medium dry sherry.

The dried fruits and raisins from the nose also carry through, along with some nutmeg and cloves. The overall sweetness is rather restrained and allows the other nuances to shine. The meatiness of the spirit is quite evident on the palate, intermingling beautifully with the sherry. Mouthfeel is slightly oily and yet drying towards the end.

Finish: Long and rather lingering, with the sherried meatiness and some nutmeg closing things off. Quite a complex whisky and somewhat more-ish as well.

Rating: 90/100

I was rather surprised with the flavour profile and can definitely say that it lives up to the reviews. The meatiness and restrained sherried sweetness makes for an interesting but complementary experience and the overall complexity makes this a wonderful dram.

I would have rated it higher but decided that a score of 90 was fitting as this is a whisky that has the ability to polarise opinions as some might not enjoy the flavour profile as I have. That being said, I am very keen to try the 23 year old expression next so as to do a proper compare and contrast.

I would definitely recommend this whisky to established drinkers as it would provide them with an unconventional experience as well as the opportunity to try a whisky from a lesser known distillery.

Slainte!

Brendan

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