Benrinnes is older than you may think, having been established in 1826 at Whitehouse Farm, which is near the site of a previous lost distillery by a Peter McKenzie. Its location is very evocative being on the side of the Benrinnes mountain that equates roughly to 200 metres above sea level. From here Benrinnes draws its water from the various springs that criss-cross the slopes above. Its chimney is another local landmark towering above the foliage and stretching towards the summit.
The wisdom of its original location was called into question in 1829 when a flood down the slopes destroyed the inaugural distillery. John Innes the then owner, took the pragmatic decision to move the distillery to safer ground, which is where it resides today near the village of Aberlour. Unfortunately, the cost of the rebuild may have played a part in Innes going bankrupt by 1834 and being acquired by William Smith & Co. Then in 1864, lightning struck again with this company going bankrupt and stepping into the breach to provide some stability was David Edward. As the owner of Aultmore he had spared no expense creating his Speyside distillery and was also a co-owner at Craigellachie.
Come 1896 and Benrinnes is severely damaged by fire; a huge risk that plagued the industry prior to today’s safety standards. David passes ownership to his son, Alexander, as the distillery is wound up and the title deeds passed to the Benrinnes-Glenlivet distillery limited. It’s just a couple of years later with the arrival of the Pattison whisky crisis that causes repercussions across the whole industry. Then with the arrival of the First World War and the Great Depression (and incoming Prohibition), only the financial savvy and strong survive. Stepping into the well-worn owner’s role in 1922 is none other than the blending powerhouse of John Dewar & Sons.
The distillery goes about its business even as the parent owners are incorporated by large companies until 1955 when the site is completely modernised, sadly with the loss of the original buildings. By 1966 the number of stills are doubled to 6 (2 wash and 4 spirit stills), and unusually Benrinnes sort of, well almost, performs triple distillation which is enhanced by the use of worm tubs. Like Mortlach distillery, there’s a certain quirk and originality to its distillation process that has endured beyond bouts of modernisation until recently, becoming essential to produce the robust nature that we associate with Benrinnes. What certainly did change was the process of traditional floor malting, with a Saladin box being fitted onsite in 1964 and kept in use until 1984. These mechanical devices had been invented in the 1890’s and used in several distilleries, with Benrinnes being one of the last to operate the device. Sadly, the unique distillation process has been changed in recent years by Diageo in favour of a more conventional approach.
Today, Benrinnes is an important blending component for Diageo and produces around 3.5 million litres annually. As such it’s rare to see a single malt release from this distillery. Perhaps the most widely available is the Flora and Fauna expression which was its debut as a single malt. There have been occasional appearances as part of Diageo’s Rare Malts and Special Releases programmes. Thankfully the distillery receives strong support from the independent bottlers and has a loyal following amongst enthusiasts due to its symmetry with sherry casks. This can create foreboding sherry monsters with a huge emphasis on sulphur, which isn’t admittedly to everyone’s tastes. The 2014 Special release, bottled at 21 years of age is particularly fun in this regard, but you’ll also see Benrinnes going into blends such as the export bottling of Crawford’s 3-star and closer to home Johnnie Walker and J&B.