Ben Nevis (pronounced: ben NEV-is) is a curious beast, in parts a very quiet distillery that makes little noise about itself but also a distillery whose product seems to be everywhere, I'm sure there isn't a single independent bottler that hasn't had at least one cask...
Ben Nevis (pronounced: ben NEV-is) is a curious beast, in parts a very quiet distillery that makes little noise about itself but also a distillery whose product seems to be everywhere, I'm sure there isn't a single independent bottler that hasn't had at least one cask of Ben Nevis at some point. It is a tricky distillery to call because previously it seemed to suffer from consistency problems, some bottlings were excellent while others ranged from mediocre to dire.
However, its natural profile as a distillate remains quite intriguing and it is an interesting whisky to try as it always keep you guessing. In the last few years there's been a surge of interest in Ben Nevis thanks to some outstanding bottlings of mid-1990s vintages. It's great to see such a quirky spirit picking up so many new fans.
Founded: 1825 Stills: 2 Wash 2 Spirit Capacity: 2 Million Litres Water Source: Alt a Mhulin Owners: Nikka
1955-1978: Coffey Years
In 1955 Ben Nevis's Canadian owner, Joseph Hobbs, decided to install a Coffey still for the production of grain whisky as well as malt. This led to some very interesting experiments, such as blending the distillery's grain and malt new make spirit before filling and maturing them in the same cask.
Ben Nevis can therefore claim to be one of the only distilleries (along with Lochside) to have produced a 'single blend' whisky. The expressions that were subsequently bottled years later were very interesting and unusual whiskies, such as the 1962 40-year-old - a fascinatingly herbaceous, fruity, and orangey expression of Ben Nevis which lacked the usual power of its other aged malts but added something more complex and elegant.
There have also been some very highly regarded Ben Nevis vintage bottlings from the mid-1960s, but these are getting very expensive and hard to find.
1981-1986: Meaty West Highland Malt
Ben Nevis was mothballed in 1978 but production resumed in 1981 when the distillery was sold to Long John Distillers (Whitbread). In 1984 the Coffey still was deactivated and the distillery focused all its efforts solely on malt production once again. The spirit it produced was a rich and powerful dram, full-on Highland in style with big oiliness, spice, meaty notes, some austere fruitiness, and quite harsh flinty tones as well.
This style of whisky is quite difficult, as is readily evident in most of the bottlings, both official and independent, that were distilled in this era. They are worth seeking out, as Ben Nevis's whisky from these years is often a grizzly treat. Ben Nevis was closed again in 1986 and in 1989 the distillery was sold to the Japanese whisky company Nikka, whom they had been supplying with malt and grain spirit for some time.
1989-Present: The Nikka Years.
Nikka resumed production at Ben Nevis in 1990, but not much is known about the distillery's production methods either before or after the takeover. What is certain however is that the distillate has not been quite the same since the reopening under new ownership.
This is understandable, as until recently up to 75% of Ben Nevis's new make spirit was tankered to Japan for use in the company's blended whiskies. This will presumably change once the Japanese Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association's more stringent guidelines on what can be labelled as Japanese Whisky come into force in 2024.
Younger expressions of Ben Nevis distilled since 1991 occasionally displayed a certain thinness in comparison to older expressions. They were marked by more obvious estery notes of pears, nail varnish, green apples, garden fruits, cereals, vegetal notes, and grassy qualities.
This gave younger bottlings from this era more of a wild card element. The best examples were very vibrant, fruity, and citrussy, with an elegant Highland oiliness and slight eccentricity. However, there were also some missteps in the early days, and the worst young ones taste like paint stripper and pear drops.
In recent times it has become clear that the whisky produced at Ben Nevis in the 1990s was much more suited to long ageing, with a string of official and independent bottlings - particularly those from bourbon and refill casks - showing gorgeously complex tropical fruit, plus malty, biscuity notes and, in the best examples, a waxy, greasy texture and flavour.
Ben Nevis today seems to be striving to reproduce the old Highland style, with the re-release of Ben Nevis Traditional a nod in that direction, incorporating some of the small amount of heavily-peated spirit that the distillery is now producing each year.
Ben Nevis is a distillery with which to exercise a certain caution these days - younger drams can be hit and miss, but the majority of the output from mid-1990s on seems to be great once it gets into its late teens and outstanding over twenty years old. With a large number of new fans being switched on to the quality of its 1990s output, and presumably a large supply of stock once destined for Japan likely to hit the market in the next decade or two, Ben Nevis's future looks particularly rosy.