Keith threw his head back in horror.
‘I can’t choose my favourite Benromach’, he said, ‘it’s like you asking me to choose between my sons.’ But there was a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips as he chastised me. ‘Actually, it depends what mood I’m in’.
We were at Benromach Distillery sitting in the former manager’s house, now the distillery’s offices, sampling the new 15 Years Old single malt which was released in summer 2015. Distillery Manager Keith Cruickshank has worked at the site since Gordon and MacPhail brought it back to life in 1998. Within a few years he had taken over the helm.
It’s a small operation, with just four distillers.
‘Just three, really, because I don’t count myself’, says Keith. ‘I steer the ship, and they’re the guys going billy-oh in the engine room with the paddles, that’s how I see it. It’s not like any other job really, there’s tremendous satisfaction. Sitting here with the 15 Years Old and I can say I made that. We made that. It’s very satisfying.’
Our discussion turned to the new teenager in the family.
‘Because Benromach really is a family’,
Keith explained, sinking his nose deep into the glass and inhaling with obvious pleasure. ‘All our whiskies come from the same genetic pool, in that the same ‘new make spirit’ is the basis for them all. It’s what happens afterwards that gives each expression of Benromach its own personality; what type of cask we use, and how long we mature it for. The 10 Years Old is a fantastic whisky – it’s at the core of everything we do. But the 15 is the 10’s bigger brother or sister. Like a teenager, it’s a little bit more mature, but in some ways it’s less robust. The smokiness is more subtle, but you’d expect that. The two whiskies have different characteristics but you know they are from the same family, just like my sons, really – there’s five years between them too.’
At the home of Benromach, it seemed fitting to ask the man at the helm what ‘home’ means to him.
Keith comes from the town of Keith in Banffshire, 40 minutes’ drive from the distillery in the heart of Speyside. He and his wife both hail from the town, as do both sets of parents and his wife’s grandparents. The couple designed and built their own home there because, ‘that’s where hame is’. To Keith, home is about family, roots and memories. It’s where he belongs.
And driving to work each day is like another homecoming. Having been at the distillery since it was brought back to life, Keith loves watching his family of whiskies grow up. Each time a new expression is released he thinks it’s his favourite, until it settles and finds its place in the family. ‘It’s a bit like having a new baby’, he smiles.
Keith’s pride in the brand, his passion for the handcrafted process and the part he has played in the production of every single bottle, is obvious. He has no plans to move from Benromach – he can’t wait to bottle the 30 Years Old. And then he’ll retire.
But with just three ingredients going into every whisky that is made on earth – water, barley and yeast – why does every whisky not just taste the same?
‘I could pick out a 10 Years Old Benromach from a table of 30 whiskies, easy!’ he claims, and I believe him.
And it’s not just because it’s the malt he knows best. Benromach is distinctive, he says, because it is made the traditional way, and because it relies on the skills of the two or three men who make it. Benromach has attitude.
I’m beginning to understand this; every whisky in the world contains the same three natural ingredients, yet depending on the skill and technique of each distiller and the equipment with which they work, there are infinite variations of the raw spirit that will be produced. Add to that the further variables such as the type of cask the spirit is stored in, what the cask contained beforehand and for how long the spirit is allowed to mature – even the temperature and humidity of the dunnage warehouses can have an impact - and it’s little wonder that each distillery creates a unique whisky DNA.
As we contemplated the wonder of these three humble ingredients we raised our glasses to toast a most unlikely hero of the whisky industry, Welsh tee-total Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George.
Because it was Lloyd George who passed the Scotch Whisky Act of 1909, declaring that no whisky could be sold until it had been matured in oak for at least three years. His aim was to cut down on illicit stills and alcohol consumption; the effect was to kick-start the industry as it exists today.
Lloyd George was trying to protect the family but in fact he created a new one. The family of whisky. It’s a family in which Keith Cruickshank finds himself very much at home.