Interview Keith Cruickshank WoW1

Manager Keith Cruickshank on the success of Benromach

The year 2014 might as well be called the year of Benromach. The small Speyside distillery jumped into the whisky limelight. Benromach released their first 10yo in 2009, but it took time for a bigger audience to notice. One thing is for sure, distillery manager Keith Cruickshank is enjoying the success of his distillery immensely.

Keith Cruickshank (46) might as well be called Mr. Benromach. He fell in love with the distillery way back when in 1998. Not even a still was placed in the malnourished distillery. Benromach is his baby, it reopened in the same year his son was born. He is extremely proud that the small Speyside distillery is now receiving praise from all over. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been here from the beginning…”

Benromach, set in Forres, dead smack in the middle of Elgin and Inverness, is a vibrant distillery. Three new warehouses have been added in the last year. The personnel offices, including the one of Cruickshank, are being remodelled into beautiful new tasting rooms. The staff moves to another property just across from the distillery, which once served as a house for the manager. The already excellent, albeit a bit small, visitor centre is also getting a makeover.

“They invest not to make money quick, they invest for the future of their family”

The independent bottling company Gordon & MacPhail are the owners of Benromach, and over the last year and a half they’ve invested close to two million pounds. “That is a lot of money for a relatively small, family run company”, says Cruickshank. “But they invest not as shareholders wanting to make some quick money. They invest for the future of their family.

The future is looking bright, because Benromach is hot. Everybody is talking about the lovely spirit coming from the Forres based distillery. Why is that? The whisky hasn’t changed. The Benromach 10, their core expression, has been made following the same recipe since its launch six years ago. Part of the explanation can be found in the new marketing and even more so in the new packaging. It used to look a bit dull and cheap, but now radiates warmth and tastiness.

So kudos to the marketing team. But the influence of one man is not to be underestimated. Ralfy Mitchell, known for his popular video blogs on YouTube, made the Benromach 10 his whisky of the year in 2014. He praised it for its smoky, traditional Speyside-style. According to Ralfy, the style of whisky now made at Benromach, is very rare these days. Priceless free publicity for Gordon & MacPhail and her distillery.

“When I entered the distillery for the first time I thought: ‘My god, what have I done?’”

Benromach was founded in 1898, but was one of many distilleries that succumbed during the whisky crisis of the 1980’ies. Barely any whisky lover mourned the loss of Benromach, since most of its whisky was going into blends anyway. If not for Gordon & MacPhail purchasing the distillery in 1993, Benromach would’ve been an obscure name from a distant whisky era.

All equipment still inside the distillery had to be replaced after years of not being used, thus making Benromach basically a completely new distillery. After a few setbacks during the rebuilding of Benromach, the distillery finally reopened in 1998. Not long before that, Keith Cruickshank was hired as a stillman. It turned out to be the start of a long career at Benromach. “When I entered the distillery for the first time I thought: ‘My god, what have I done?’ It just didn’t look like much yet. My wife and I were expecting our first baby. I wondered if I had made the right decision. But it was a gamble that paid off tremendously.”

At that time, the only other employee on the production side of things was Bob Murray, a veteran of the industry. He was named the first distillery manager of Benromach under the new Gordon & MacPhail regime. It was his task to revitalize the distillery. When Murray had Benromach up and running, Cruickshank took over the reigns in 2000. “I was only thirty years old at the time. Quite a responsibility. I had to make sure that Benromach grew from a place that simply produced spirit, into an established brand an a distillery known for a specific kind of whisky.”

“In Keith you had limited options: you went into textiles or whisky”

Cruickshank started his career in the whisky industry back in 1991. But he didn’t begin at either Gordon & MacPhail or Benromach. He made his first foray into the industry in de warehouses of Malcolmburn and Keith Bond. Both are located near his birthplace and hometown Keith (yes, he is actually Keith from Keith) and they are used to store thousands of casks from the different Chivas Brothers distillers, like Strathisla, Longmorn, Glenlivet and at that time also BenRiach. Cruickshank first moved into producing whisky in 1996, when he started working at Glen Grant and Caperdonich.

Was it a dream come true for him to work in the whisky industry? “Haha, no, it was more of an accident. I’m a child of the eighties, the economy was bad. Not a good time to be looking for a job coming fresh out of school. In Keith you had limited options: you went into textiles or whisky. The mills or the stills.”

Almost everyone in Keith had a family member working in one of those industries. Cruickshank’s father and mother used to work in textiles. His brother and father in law share a history at Chivas. “I started out working in textiles, but because that industry was having quite some difficulties, I made the step into whisky.”

“We still work by using our eyes. Measuring by looking. Romantic, but not always efficient”

Cruickshank is still decades away from his pension, but he already considers himself a fossil in the current whisky climate. “I’ve learned everything on the job. Not a single aspect of the production process at Benromach holds a secret for me. But not every modern distillery manager has that privilege. We still work by using our eyes. Measuring just by looking. It’s romantic, but not always efficient. The modern, computerized distilleries have been set up in such a way that a manager doesn’t need to know everything.”

Gordon & MacPhail decided early on that with Benromach they wanted to pay homage to whisky from the fifties and sixties. “From the beginning it was clear that we wanted to make whisky that tasted like it was made fifty years ago”, explains Cruickshank. “At Gordon & MacPhail they have a big library filled with very old samples of whisky. It was used as an inspiration for the kind of style we wanted to make at Benromach.”

Inspiration was the first step, but distilling whisky is not an exact science. You can’t simple follow a couple of steps with a guaranteed outcome. There are many factors on which a producer has little influence. Cruickshank is the first to admit that. “Nobody holds the holy grail to distilling. When you start a distillery, you don’t know precisely what will flow from the spirit safe and how it will taste. I could be completely different from what you expect. You have to build on the experience you have and then hope the whisky turns out the way you want it.”

“From those old stocks we will, in due time, probably release a 35 and 40 year old expression”

It took a long time before Cruickshank was sure that the whisky was meeting his own expectations. “From the moment we approached the release of our first 10 year old whisky, we knew what we had. Think of the lovely sherry influence and the beautiful smokiness. That’s when that specific style came to light and when Benromach showed its true colors.”

The warehouses at Benromach still hold a fair amount of whisky that was produced before the old distillery closed in 1983. Essentially whisky from another distillery, and it’s a matter of time before they will be bottled. But when?

“We have some stock from the seventies and early eighties, but not much”, says Cruickshank. “From those old stocks we will, in due time, probably release a 35 and 40 year old expression. When we do that, our own stock will have become over twenty years old. Looking at the range of whiskies we then can release, it will be barely noticeable that Benromach was once closed for fifteen years.”

“Gordon & MacPhail are the owners, but it is my distillery”

Cruickshank feels like he has two families. The obvious and first one is his family in Keith, located about half an hour from his second family at Benromach distillery. “I’ve seen Benromach blossom. Our first releases were NAS-bottlings, then we released some specials like the Organic and the Peat Smoke. And finally in 2009 we released our core 10 year old. The maturing of Benromach has in a lot of ways been parallel to the maturing of my family. My oldest son is seventeen now, which is exactly the same amunt of years I’ve been working here. This distillery is very close to my heart.”

A career at another, maybe bigger distillery elsewhere in Scotland is not even on Cruickshank’s mind. Benromach is such a big part of his life, he can’t imagine working anyplace else. He never dislikes going to work, it’s a feeling he’s not very familiar with. “I work with great people, we’re a very close team. We have our own family feeling here in Forres. An opportunity like I’ve gotten here at Benromach will not likely present itself again. Gordon & MacPhail are the owners, but it is my distillery. That’s just the way it feels.”

This article also appeared in the spring edition of Dutch magazine Whisky Passion.

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