While at the Whisky Live Festival, in Johannesburg during November 2009, I met up with Billy Walker, the Managing Director of BenRiach Distillery
Your background is in organic chemistry. How has that influenced your approach to whisky?
Well it is a kind of natural extension. Fermentation is a very organic process but most important for me is that I was born in a whisky town. I was born in the town where Ballantines had its roots in Scotland so it was almost inevitable that I would end up involved in whisky in some capacity. The fact that I became involved in chemistry and then became involved in fermentation, the production side, the natural evolution was then to move into the blending side of the business, generally understanding how you put whisky together, what are the characteristics. So for me I don’t suppose it was planned journey, but it was inevitable. I have been involved in the whisky industry for 35 years and most of that time I have been involved in blending and cask selection, understanding maturation, how casks behave, the individuality of the casks, so every day we are thinking what about this, what about that.
The big news in the industry is your acquisition of the GlenDronach Distillery. What was the thinking behind that?
We were very aware that GlenDronach had been available. It has a different provenance, in the Highlands. It is such a beautiful site. It may be the most beautiful distillery in the industry, and I am not saying that just because we bought it. It has values that are very, very historical. Our plan was that we would restore the distillery and restore all the traditional values. It will re-emerge as 100% sherry and it will be of the style it was when Teachers owned it. We have done a lot of work already and we understand what we have to do.
Some of the production was in bourbon casks. Our plan is to re-vat everything into fresh sherry butts. Fortunately the older product that we purchased – 1996 back – is already either in butts or puncheons and we are working very hard at the moment to feel the pulse of that inventory, the personality of the casks.
At the moment the range is a 12 year old and a 33 year old. Very soon we will have a 15 year old and an 18 year old. We will make the offer richer. We’ll also bring some top quality single casks to the market, maybe some limited editions. We’ll get the distillery back to the personality it had 20 years ago.
What is the process you go through before you decide to release a single cask or limited edition?
Let me give you, for example, how it works at BenRiach. Most recently I looked at something like 250 casks and narrowed them down to 7. These casks have to be absolutely special. They have to have the characteristics that set them apart. And that 250 was from a much bigger matrix, but I recognised characteristics that said to me, let’s look at these 250. Then we assess them and narrow it down to what we believe will give the consumer something special and in the process, we hope we are building a cult experience.
What is your role at BenRiach?
You know, one of the challenges for a small company is that you are continually under resourced. Frankly everything is involved, with the exception of shipping. Every day is about what’s happening in the market, what’s happening with wood, what new ideas we have, how things are progressing. For example, we have some fantastic claret, burgundy and rioja casks maturing. They have been in wood for 3 ½ years. We wont bring them all to the market at the same time, but we know that we always have fresh ideas emerging. Its about what’s happening in the casks, what’s different, what wood is available. Another example is that we have some casks that are 50% American oak and 50% European oak. The cooperage we use suggested that to us. If you look at whisky that had been produced before the war, almost everything had been produced in European oak. It was drier, it had more tannins and the characteristic of the whisky we saw then and now are different. I am not saying that one is better than the other, but what I am saying is that is an example of how you can change the direction and flavour profile of the whisky. So we are quite interested to see how this 50 / 50 mix will evolve in the cask.
When your company bought over BenRiach, you inherited a lot of the heavily peated Speyside malts.
I have to say that was a real surprise. We think we say, perhaps in hindsight, when bought BenRiach, we knew there was a very rich inventory support, but we really didn’t know about the peated malts. So we started sampling and the results were absolutely staggering. Some people had been clever enough to have done these peated campaigns and at least in theory these cask expressions should never have come to the party, unless part of a much bigger blending program.
They were doing this in the 1970s and you have to remember that BenRiach did its own maltings and those days the ability to get the peated from the less or non-peated malted barley wasn’t so easy. There were expressions that were made, certainly in the 70s, that were not intended to be very peated. But certainly in the 80s one of the reasons for the peated campaigns was that a lot of the Islay distilleries closed down, were silent or had lowered their production levels, so the blending companies said we have to make sure we have a peated contribution, and I suspect that was a reason for some of the peated campaigns.
Are you going to continue with the peated campaigns?
We do a six week campaign, at the start of every year and are going to carry on with that. And if you come down to the distillery, you will see our peated whisky expression, 100% made by the new owners.
Is it fair to say that as you are a boutique distillery, you are not going to mass production?
I can tell you that as a business, our covenant to our customers is that we will not sell into a multiple retailer. We will not. When we sell to the private, specialist, independent sites, they are pricing it at lets say £ 30 a bottle. You will not find it in bulk in a multiple retail store at £ 5 less. We will not do it. That’s a promise. This excludes us from engaging with the high volume stuff, so we are boutique, we are a bespoke distillery and there is nothing we see in the future that will change the direction of that thinking. We are privately owned, independent, creative, imaginative, selective, chateau. The people involved are totally passionate. We recognise the privilege that we enjoy by owning two very, very nice distilleries and that we have the freedom to bring the personalities of these distilleries to the market.
People and distilleries; or computers and distilleries. What’s your view on how computerisation is going to affect what goes on in distilleries?
It doesn’t affect us. What the computer offers to us is that it tells us how many casks we have, what year they are and approximately what’s in the cask. It tells us nothing about quality.
So you use computers for stock control alone and the human element is present from start to finish?
Absolutely. Passion. Touch. Involvement. Touch. Feel. And if it is at all possible we will bring in even more traditional aspects to our operations. For example, GlenDronach is very much a hands-on operation. My suspicion was that there was a plan to make it more automated. We would definitely not allow that to happen.
Do you have any special plans for the growing South African market?
I think this is an exciting moment right now. As consumer awareness grows, and as people become more enquiring, that is when BenRiach and GlenDronach will actually start to kick in. It takes time in our sector, the end of the market where we operate. It takes time to convince the trade and the consumer that we are worthy participants in the market. I think we have got to that point, climbed over it and these types of shows are hugely helpful for us.
And the fact that BenRiach won major industry awards also helps.
It is nice to be recognised by people that are generally quite well informed about what is right and what is wrong in the industry. The biggest strengths are the quality and variety we bring to the market. The products are not simple interesting finishes, with our wood management, the casks are audited every two weeks for about two years, so we know the optimum time to bring the cask to the market. It is not by chance. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t go into the bottle.
What steps do you take to safeguard the integrity and quality of your water source, yeast and barley?
The water source is not a problem. We have our own subterranean springs. The barley we use is Scottish Barley, all grown within ten miles of the distillery, so there is a relatively close historical provenance. With the yeast, we monitor patterns of behaviour and have good sources for excellent products. My background helps a bit to know what different lengths of fermentation bring to the party.
Difficult to say, it seems that the most popular one at the moment is the 16 year old, but we have so many expressions that are produced in relatively small quantities that they simple fly off the shelves. The peated products are unique and sell extremely well.
The peated Speyside confused me and a lot of other people at blind tastings.
It sends them off in the wrong direction, that’s for sure. But with the peated expressions, remember that this is mainland peat, not island peat. It is sweeter, less dry and is not salty. Our peated expressions are a different kind of phenolic smoky experience. It is a case of if you look at Speyside whisky 150 years ago, every one of them was peated on some level as peat was the only source of heat for drying the malted barley, so you can see that peating, as surprising as it was for us to find, is really a journey back to the past.
We do neither. We don’t add caramel. Our whisky is bottled at its natural colour. We don’t chill filter. The reason we don’t chill filter is that a lot of our expressions are bottled at 46% ABV and above. Also, we use a very very old method of cutting the whisky to bottle strength. We don’t add water to the whisky; we add whisky to the prescribed amount of water. Alcoholic strength is helpful, but even at low strength if you add whisky to the water either the cloudy effect will not happen or will be very minimal.
You said GlenDronach is going to be sherry casks only. How difficult is it to get good Sherry casks.
Look, it’s not easy but it is encouraging to know that Sherry is also in a healthy growth phase. If you had asked me that question 5, 10 years ago, I would have some anxiety about giving you an answer, but I am confident that we have sufficient casks already secured.
Are you going to be tailoring any of your whisky to tastes required by specific markets?
That’s a difficult question. Our experience is that it is only in the Far East that there is a demand for a richer sherry style. The European market by and large have a very catholic approach to taste, so its not a different style that will win the hearts and minds of the people, but it has to be choice and quality.
How are you planning to get more involved in the South African market?
My partners are very close to the market. This is a very difficult market. Our importer and distributor is Pernod Ricard and they welcome that we have a brand and they especially welcome the fact that we have an extraordinary range of products, to satisfy everyone. The plan will be to continue to engage with the consumer, with tastings and other events, and get closer and closer to the consumer.
Has this perceived global whisky shortage affected your plans for the future?
I am pretty certain that the inventory situation at the moment doesn’t really affect single malt. That is more of an issue for blending whisky. The fact of the matter is that you know for a long time exactly what the profile and the aging pattern of a whisky is. What is happening today is not going to change what we do. It might change how you think about production in the future though, but small distilleries only have a limited production capacity, so our thinking has not changed at all.
Describe the importance of Whisky Live Festival and similar festivals around the world to whisky in general and your brand in particular? This is only your second year and BenRiach has built up a very good reputation in a short time
A good reputation and hopefully a cult reputation. For our business model these events are absolutely essential. It allows us to get closer to the consumer. We get quality feedback, at this festival in particular. The number of people that come through the doors here, it’s staggering! 3300 on the first night alone. What an opportunity to get people to taste our whisky and communicate with us about our plan and our products. People are now asking for our whisky. That’s as good as it gets for us.