I sometimes ponder the idea of a sixth sense and, in those quiet moments of reflection, sitting on a bus or waiting in a queue, I’ll consider the man sitting next to me or the woman standing behind. I’ll muse about whether they enjoy an instinct that separates them from us mere mortals, those who journey through life with the standard five senses.
Are these gifts they’ve simply inherited, I debate, or are they developed, learned or passed down? I’m ruminating on the topic as I raise a dram of the newly unveiled Benromach 20th Anniversary Bottling, drinking in its fresh citrus and sweet demerara sugar notes, imparted by two decades spent quietly maturing in first-fill oak casks.
‘I’d like to think we all share a sixth sense here!’ laughs Keith Cruickshank, with a twinkle in his eye. As he is Benromach’s Distillery Manager, I decide to probe him further on the highly developed senses enjoyed by his close-knit team of distillers.
The setting for our conversation is his office, surrounded by the plans for the original distillery, which first opened its doors in 1898. But it’s the past two decades of memories that we’re talking about today as the distillery celebrates 20 years since the Urquhart family bought and lovingly refurbished it after many years of closure.
Back in 1998, Keith was a young distiller, honing his senses on a daily basis as he worked to develop his craft. Manually taking down the mash and selecting the sweet heart of the spirit run by hand, he relied on his senses of smell, touch, sound and sight, without reference to temperature or pressure gauges to guide him. The same traditional and time-honoured methods are employed today with the senses of the team so highly developed that it’s like watching them dance to the tune of a silent aria as they glide between the mash tun, washbacks and stills.
I ask Keith to share some memories from the past two decades that have been inspired by his highly tuned senses and he’s quiet for a long time. ‘There’s so many’ he smiles, ‘that I’m not really sure where to begin.
’So, we start at the beginning, back in 1998, when Keith and his wife first set foot in the distillery.
‘I’ll always remember my first visit. Judith was 8 months pregnant with our son at the time and the distillery was still under construction. Yet, there was a charm and an atmosphere that excited me from the start,’ he explains as he relaxes into his chair for an afternoon of storytelling:
‘We celebrated so many firsts during our opening year, sharing each small but historic milestone with our colleagues and friends. As I became a father at home, our new make was also born. The first spirit cut was witnessed by the Urquhart family who own Benromach and the first filling was watched by Brian Grine, the excise man who’d observed the last filling at Benromach back in 1983 before the distillery closed its doors. He didn’t think he’d ever see another filling here so he was genuinely proud to share that moment with us.’
As we move on to discuss his sense of hearing, Keith takes us forward a few years to the year 2003 when he heard a knock on the office door:
‘It must have been 15 years ago and an elderly gentleman greeted me. He explained he’d been billeted here at the distillery during the war in 1941 and this was his first trip back since peace had been declared. Together, we explored the distillery and I took him to the malt barn, which hadn’t really changed since the war ended’.
‘When I opened the door, it was like he’d stepped back in time and he described how the bottom floor was used for dances each Friday night. He’d been a piper in the Black Watch and, each week, he’d entertain the young men and women of Forres and Nairn, raising their spirits as the world divided elsewhere. It was at one of these dances that he first met his wife.
‘These walls have heard a lot of music over the years and piping is central to our culture. We sponsor Piping at Forres, when musicians from all over Europe come together to compete for the coveted title in the European Pipe Band Championships. Several of our distillers play either the pipes or dums and the acoustics here are incredible,’ he tells me as we gently close the malt barn door, sealing the memories within.'
As we enter the warehouses, we venture into stories inspired by Keith’s sense of taste and he animatedly chats about the different expressions in the range. Like a proud father, he talks me through the tasting notes for the latest addition to the Benromach family, the 20th Anniversary Bottling.
‘When we laid this expression down, we couldn’t have predicted how it would mature but we were confident that we’d selected the highest quality casks and our spirit was true to the traditional Speyside character that we wanted to create. Yet, despite using all our experience and expertise, I still believe there’s an element of alchemy involved in whisky maturation’ he concludes.
Perhaps this is, I tell him, the elusive sixth sense I’ve been searching for - the sense of alchemy that sits within each Benromach distiller. With the ability to turn three simple ingredients into liquid gold using only their senses to guide them, I leave with the impression that I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of this rich and historic place.
To join in the celebrations or to read more memories from the past 20 years, please follow us on twitter @Benromach #Benromach20th