Benromach Distillery is located just north of the A96 Forres bypass, and is well signposted from it. The distillery's main distinguishing feature is the dark red free-standing brick chimney, originally installed to vent the long gone coal-fired stills. These days it serves as an additional signpost to those visiting the distillery.
Having turned off the A96 you pass over a level crossing and from there it is only a short distance to the distillery. There is ample space for parking to the rear of the near end of the main buildings, while disabled parking is available adjacent to the visitor centre, which is in the separate building in front of the main distillery.
Every distillery is unique: it's what makes visiting them such a joy, and it's also why their products are so successful worldwide. Benromach has a number of claims to uniqueness. Firstly, it's the smallest distillery in Speyside, with an annual output that it would take some distilleries in the area only a few days to match. And secondly, it is not owned by one of the traditional distilling companies. Rather it is owned by Gordon & MacPhail, an independent family owned and managed firm which has been bottling single malt whiskies since 1895. When they purchased Benromach distillery in 1993 it was their first venture into the distillation of whisky, though it would take another five years, until 1998, before Benromach Distillery could be returned to production.
From a visitor's point of view Benromach Distillery's small scale, complete with a production team of just two, makes it one of the most easily understood in operation. Your visit starts in the attractive visitor centre, housed in the old drier house at the front of the complex. This doubles as reception, shop, and, at the end of your tour, tasting area.
A doorway in the main distillery building opposite the visitor centre gives access to Benromach's museum. This is an interesting area used to display items of distillery equipment that have come into the hands of the owners at various times. Here you find a cut away, open topped, mash tun near a Porteus malt mill with covers removed to show off some of the inner workings. Other items on display range from a spirit safe with a very unusual curved front and top to a traditional bottle labelling machine.
Your tour of Benromach begins with the milling area, home to a diminutive grey malt mill manufactured by by Robert Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds. From here you move on to the main production area. One end of this is home to a mash tun comprising an insulated body and a domed copper top. Beyond it is the largest space within the working areas of the distillery, home to two stills on one side of the room and four wooden washbacks made of larch on the other.
When Gordon & MacPhail purchased Benromach in 1993, all the distilling equipment had been removed apart from the washbacks. The new owners had to re-equip the distillery almost from scratch. Even the washbacks needed rebuilding, using wood recovered from their predecessors, on a smaller scale suitable for the intended capacity of what became, in effect, a new distillery.
The two stills are of very different shapes. The wash still comes with almost flat sides and windows in both sides of the neck. The spirit still has a more rounded shape, and comes complete with a reflux ball in the neck, a spherical expansion area designed to add complexity and richness to the spirit that finds its way through to the condenser. A slight oddity is that both stills have fixtures and fittings painted in red: the industry norm is to paint the elements associated with spirit stills light blue. The lower level of the production area gives good views of the bases of the stills, showing off well the insulated pipework that allows steam to reach the steam plates that provide internal heating to the stills. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
En route from the production area to the side door of the distillery you pass the plaque which marks the official reopening of Benromach Distillery by HRH Prince Charles on 15 October 1998. The first spirit had actually been produced by the new distillery just under two months earlier, on 21 August 1998. This is commemorated by a handwritten sign on the wall of the cask filling area. This was written immediately next to a similar sign marking the filling on 24 March 1983 of cask number 1983/535 with the last spirit produced by the "old" Benromach Distillery before it closed.
Your tour next takes you to one of the bonded warehouses, out to the rear of the distillery, and not far from the amazingly well preserved corrugated iron cottage once lived in by the distillery manager. En route it is worth looking out for a rather larger building further around the rear of the distillery. This housed the traditional floor maltings, and the option remains open to Gordon & MacPhail to restore these to use at some point in the future. Inside the bonded warehouse you get to experience the unique smell of spirit slowly becoming whisky. Pride of place is given over to cask 1998 No.1, the first cask to be filled after the distillery resumed production, which was subsequently signed by HRH Prince Charles to mark the official opening.
Scotch whisky must by law be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years. But most single malts are matured for much longer. As a result, most Benromach available in the early years after reopening came from the stocks acquired with the distillery and dating back to before its closure in 1983. The original plan was to bottle the first of the "new" Benromach as a ten year old. But the real beauty of such a small operation is its flexibility. When it was realised that the new Benromach was turning into an excellent Scotch at a remarkably young age the plans were changed to allow some of the new Benromach to be bottled early. The result, released in 2004, was Benromach Traditional, complete with distinctive packaging designed to appeal to a wider market which owed more to new world wineries than traditional Speyside distilleries. The ten year old duly followed in 2009. Other releases have included an entirely organic whisky in 2006, and a whisky produced using peated malt in 2007.
Benromach Distillery's origins date back to 1898, when the project was launched by Duncan MacCallum, previously of Ben Nevis Distillery. The distillery was designed by Charles Doig, perhaps the leading distillery engineer of his day. Completion of building work coincided with a crash in the market, and it was not until 1912 that new owners began production, which only lasted until 1914. Production restarted in 1919, but the distillery again fell silent in 1926. It was purchased by an American company in 1938, who resumed production, and then by Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1953. Modernisation and expansion followed in the 1970s, but this did not prevent the closure of the distillery in 1983 and the removal of most of its equipment. Ten years later it was purchased by Gordon & MacPhail as a suitable vehicle for their diversification from bottling into distilling.