Whisky Conversations – Keith Cruickshank – Distillery Manger – Benromach

During a recent press trip organised for the launch of the Benromach 50 year old I spent a little time wandering around the distillery chatting with Distillery Manager Keith Cruickshank.

Keith started at the distillery in 1998 at the time the Urquhart family (of Gordon & MacPhail fame) had purchased the mothballed distillery. Initially he was the Stillman but over his 21 year career at the distillery has worked his way up to become manager, a position he has held since 2000.

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Keith talks lovingly about being involved in making the product and seeing both the distillery and the brand evolve, watching as the production increases and the warehousing extends. He tells me it has been a privilege to have been part of the journey of the distillery, to be a part of it from the very start.

It seems only fitting that the manager has been there longer than the distillery equipment itself.

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AD: What excites you most about the launch of Benromach 50?

KC: The exciting thing for me was looking back at a product. We can always look forward to what we want to do in the future but you have to have a look back and see what has already been before you. This 50 year old was distilled in the Summer of 1969, the month before Neil Armstrong decided he was going to go and leave the planet to jump on a big white rock.

It was laid down in a refill sherry cask, and has matured just over there for all those decades and now we can open up that cask, look at it and see what a fantastic product it is. We can see how fresh the fruity notes are, it’s not overpowered by the sherry cask. 

It still has a hint of smoke, we don’t know why it has that hint of smoke, might be the cask, might be the malted barley but that is probably highly unlikely as the floor matings would have been stopped here at that time. So unless they did a special batch, I don’t know, but a hint of smoke seems to come through in all the tasting notes. We do have a hint of smoke in the Benromach now, but there probably shouldn’t have been a hint of smoke then. It could be the cask to be completely honest with you.

But for us to plan and look ahead at the future you have to look back and you get a chance to do that with this, and that for me is the most exciting thing, to look back at a whisky like this and see that this is the final product of spirit they laid down 50 years ago, this is what it tastes like and this is the character that comes through.

This is a fantastic whisky for 50 years in a sherry cask, a lot of other whiskies wouldn’t be able to stand up to that sherry cask and it’s down to the individual distilleries to match their beautiful spirit that they make with the right casks. Luckily Benromach has that body within its spirit. It had the body back then and it still has that same body now.

AD: Looking to the future, when another distillery manager is sitting in that chair talking about some spirit that you laid down 50 years previously what would you like them to say about it?

I probably won’t be at the distillery then, but what I would like him or her to say is similar to what I am saying now, that they can look back and say the people here put in the time and the effort to make good quality whisky using traditional methods.

Producing a good quality spirt but maturing it in the right cask matching that, recreating that, old style. It’s [the Benromach 50] an old whisky with an older style, made in the 1960s. It maybe doesn’t have that delicate smoke that we have now, but in 50 years from now that delicate smokiness will be very, very delicate. The cask will mature, react and mellow that smoke so hopefully the distillery manager will be thinking they made some really good whisky, they knew what they were doing and the people enjoyed what they did when they made it.

AD: What is your favourite expression from the core range? 

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KC: Asking me that is like asking me to pick a favourite child! The 10 year old is fantastic and encapsulates everything that is Benromach. It has got the lovely maltiness, the spice and the fruit from the cask. It’s got this level of smokiness that I like. The 15 year old has won some fantastic awards and is that little bit more sherried. It’s got the DNA of the 10 year old right through it as well. 

I do love the 10 but its so, so difficult to pick a favourite between the two.

AD: What makes Benromach, Benromach?

KC: The essence of Benromach? I’d say the people, the place and the product.  For me personally it’s the people and the place primarily, but the product is so, so important. Without the people and the place you will never have the passion to make the product. The most important thing is always the people that make it. It’s the  people you work with that give you the passion you need to make that end product.

AD: Now a few quickfire questions. Succinct answers only please…

What bottle would your whisky shelf never be without?

KC: Benromach 10 year old. Absolutely.

AD: Rate the following four things n order of personal preference: complexity, balance, age, spirit character.

KC: Spirit character, balance, complexity, age. 

AD: Whisky or Whiskey?

KC: Whisky

AD: Bourbon cask or Sherry cask?

KC: Sherry cask

AD: Single malt or single grain?

KC: Single malt

AD: Peated or unpeated?

KC: Peated 

AD: What was the last whisky you had?

KC: Benromach 10.

AD: Forres Mechanics or Elgin City?

AD: Neither – Keith FC!

Trying to steer Keith to giving one word answers to the last few questions was like trying to herd cats. Keith is so involved and invested in what he does I’m sure he could chat quite comfortably about whisky all day such is his depth of knowledge and his passion.

And I, for one, would be more than happy to listen to him do so.

Look out for a review of the Benromach 50 in the forthcoming weeks.

You can find more interviews, as well as all my tasting notes in the Archives.

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