Ben Nevis (Pronounced: ben NEvis)
56°49'38.1648 N, 5°5'34.7352 W
Alt a Mhulin, Ben Nevis
2 Wash stills, 2 Spirit stills (and 1 Coffey still until 1971)
2,000,000 litres of pure alcohol per year
Nikka > Ben Nevis Dist. Ltd. (since 1989)
Ben Nevis, Loch Bridge, Fort William, PM33 6TJ, Scotland
Below, on WhiskyFun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor
Scores & tasting notes:
2006 - During the first few years of the new millennium, very little happened at the Ben Nevis distillery.
However, in 2006 they finally jumped on the 'finishing' bandwagon with the release of a 13 years old Port finish.
2009 - On their website Ben Nevis suggests that they are 'the oldest distillery in Scotland' - this is nonsense.
At least a dozen other distilleries were founded earlier than Ben Nevis, for example Glenlivet and Highland Park.
2011 - Cooler heads must have prevailed at Ben Nevis HQ. They adapted the aforementioned silly claim on their website of being the oldest malt whisky distillery in Scotland. They now simply state that Ben Nevis is 'one of the oldest licensed distilleries' - and that's actually accurate. They also introduced some sort of mascot; 'Hector McDram'.
Ben Nevis has been running smoothly ever since, although the new Japanese
owners haven't been able to establish such a strong brand presence as Suntory
has done with Bowmore. Nevertheless, Ben Nevis has all the 'ingredients' for it...
In the words of Long John McDonald himself (according to their own website);
'There are some who would have you believe that there exists a kind of divine
secret, a miraculous ingredient or genius behind the manufacture of Scotch Whisky.
I however, acknowledge no miracle other than that which is worked when science
and nature combine. The principal ingredients are three, notably water, barley and
yeast, with a measure of peat smoke or reek. Of these there can be no doubt water
is the foremost. On Ben Nevis I was fortunate to find a constant and consistent
source of pure clean water in two small lochans. In order of importance, the second
ingredient is barley. This must be clean and plump, fully rounded and quite dry,
containing exactly the right amount of protein. Special distiller's yeast is the third
ingredient. This has the texture of dough or putty and is vital to the process of
fermentation. And fourthly there is peat, which comes to the whisky through the
water passing over peat bogs on its way down the mountain, and from the 'reek'
from the fire lit during the manufacturing process.
Once again, we are fully fortunate in that nature in her magnificence, has created
on the hill behind us, an ample supply of peat in our own banks to fuel the fires
drying the barley.'
John MacDonald, 14th June 1827
Well, I doubt if Ben Nevis still uses peat from the hill behind the distillery.
In fact, if they had actually used all that peat there might have been no hill left
by now... Based on the portfolio presented on their website, it seems that the
Japanese influence is significant. Just like Suntory and Nikka, Ben Nevis offers a
range of single malts as well as blends. They offer a 10yo and a 26yo single malt,
but several blends as well; the 'Dew of Ben Nevis' without an age statement,
the 12yo and the 21yo. They also offer the 'Glencoe' 8yo vatted malt.
Since Nikka doesn't own any other distilleries in Scotland, I'm rather curious
about the components that go into this vatting besides Ben Nevis. Nikka would
have to buy or trade these casks - as well as the other malts they might need in
the 'recipies' of their blends. Obviously, it's more economical to produce all the
neccessary ingredients yourself. Nevertheless, the Scotch whisky industry has
a long tradition of cask swapping - at least that's cheaper than buying those
casks. Hobbies like wife swapping and sheep swapping may have gone out of
style in the 1970's, but Scotland's cask swapping scene is still alive and well...
As you may have noticed, I've run out of useful things to say about Ben Nevis
distillery by now, so I'll gladly invite you to proceed with the 'trivia' section...
Ben Nevis (also 'Bennevis' and 'Benevas') is located off the
beaten track in Inverness-shire. The distillery is said to have
been founded in 1825 by 'Long John' McDonald. After many
changes in ownership 'Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd.'
bought the distillery in 1955 and decided to install a Coffey
still for the production of grain whisky as well.
When Long John Distillers bought back the Ben Nevis distillery
in 1971 they removed the Coffey still again and returned to
producing malt whisky exclusively. The Ben Nevis distillery was
closed in 1986, purchased by the Japanese Nikka distillery
from Whitbread in 1989 and re-opened again in 1991.
1) I've recently formulated a theory, based on the expressions of Ben Nevis I've tried so far.
More of a hypothesis, actually... The oldest versions I tried (distilled in the 1970's and 1980's) were superb while the younger versions that were distilled in the 1990's after Nikka reopened the distillery were fairly mediocre.
2) Ben Nevis is one of the very few distilleries that was able to produce a 'single blend' - a mix of malt whisky and grain whisky produced at the same distillery. That's because they had both pot stills and a column still at the distillery. If you find a Ben Nevis 'single blend' these days it's an oldie - the Coffey still was removed in 1971. The only distillery that could produce a single blend these days is Loch Lomond if I'm not mistaken.
3) Most of the malt whisky that is distilled at Ben Nevis is used in blends - including their own 'Dew of Ben Nevis'.
However, in Japan it's one of the top 10 brands in the single malt whisky segment.
4) Around the year 2010, Ben Nevis and Benromach were the only malt whisky distilleries in Scotland that were still using brewers yeast for their whisky. Many people claim that brewer's yeast gives more character to the freshly distilled spirit than distillers yeast. On the other hand, most producers favour distillers yeast for its higher yield.
5) The Ben Nevis distillery is also involved with the Glencoe vatted malt whisky.
6) The Ben Nevis mountain (which gave the Ben Nevis distillery its name) is the highest point in Scotland with an elevation of 4,406 feet (which equals 1343 meters).
7) Probably the most famous 'Blue Label' whisky is the ultra premium Johnnie Walker Blue Label blend.
However, Ben Nevis also produces a 'Dew of Ben Nevis Blue Label' blended whisky - available for £20.00.
Ben Nevis 1999/2009 (40%, Jean Boyer Best Casks, 1980 Bts.)
Nose: Phew… Sour and unbalanced. Farmy - but not in a good way.
Has little to offer to begin with and completely evaporates within a few minutes.
Taste: Bigger and bolder than the nose suggests, at least for a few seconds. Then it drops off. Harsh finish.
Below average. I started with a score of 71 points but it couldn't even hang on to that score for long.
Score: 68 points - not just below average; this belongs in the 60's I think. But that's just my opinion.
I don't like wine myself (most other maniacs do), so perhaps Jean Boyer's whiskies are too 'winey' for me?
Ben Nevis 1995/2009 (55.5%, The Nectar, Hogshead Cask#964, 212 Bts.)
Nose: Light and sharp with a faintly sweet undercurrent. Farmy. A summertime dram.
Opens up a little after breathing. The nose disintegrates after a few minutes. Babi Pangang.
Taste: Sweet, smooth start. Powers up very quickly, making a much bolder impression than the nose suggests.
Very solid centre that lasts very, very long. Hardly any finish though… Pine?
It looked like it could lift the score into the 80's, until it turned dry and herbal in the very end.
Score: 77 points - the nose wouldn't lift this into the 80's, although it comes close during the first few minutes.
Ben Nevis 34yo 1975/2009 (63%, Prestonfield for LMdW, Bourbon cask#7439, 146 Bts.)
Nose: Peculiar. Silly Putty? Hard to define but very interesting! Some subtle organics behind the wood.
A real teaser; many intriguing smells that suggest more than they give away.
Taste: Big, woody and chewy. Toffee and smoke. The smooth centre is dry and sweet at the same time.
Feels quite hot, although the smoothness suggests this is a grain whisky. Harsh finish though…
Score: 87 points - the nose deserves a score near the 90's but the palate doesn't quite match up.
Ben Nevis 1997/2008 (43%, Jean Boyer Best Casks, 2000 Bts.)
Nose: Not a lot of character - a little farmy. Cardboard. Lemon and some spices emerge after a few minutes.
Taste: Sweetish with a medium body. Nondescript. Smooth. Burnt toffee notes in the finish.
Score: 67 points - clearly, this needed a few more years in those 'best casks'...
Ben Nevis 34yo 1970/2005 'Single Blend' (50.3%, Adelphi, Cask #4640)
Nose: Polished but not very expressive initially. Developing organics with a hint of raspberry in the background.
Hint of wassabi? Major improvement, opening up. More organics. Hint of leather? This one definitely needs time.
Taste: Smooth & fruity in the start. Sweet. Weaker with a hint of smoke in the centre. Woody. Cheap tannins.
This old Ben Nevis falls apart in the dry finish - too bad.
Score: 83 points - a very impressive nose, but it doesn't quite cut the mustard on the palate.
Ben Nevis 32yo 1972/2004 (47.6%, OB for LMDW, Hogshead, C#600, 116 Bts., D. 02/'72 Btl. 03./'04)
Nose: Heavy sherry attack. Caramel and a hint of smoke. Bourbon roughness. Rubber. Hint of spices.
My kind of profile, but it's fairly 'narrow'; very little beyond the sharp fruitiness.
Taste: Very similar to the nose; just what you'd expect. Again, fairly harsh fruits.
The rough mouth feel reminds me of a a bourbon as well, pulling it out of the 80's.
Score: 79 points - I don't mind a little rubber in the nose, but over time it dominates here.
Ben Nevis 32yo 1971/2003 (45.8%, OB, for La Maison du Whisky, Cask #1846)
Nose: Varnish. Polished and a little fruity, growing more pronounced. Some apple?
Beatifully balanced. Mocca? After five minutes some gentle organics emerge.
It hangs together very well and seems to grow even better integrated over time.
Taste: Sweet plums, nectarines and late summer fruits. Dried apples? Toffee as well.
Good mouth feel. Very pleasant, even though it's not terribly complex. Sharpish finish.
Score: 88 points - one of the very best expressions of Ben Nevis I ever tried.
Ben Nevis 15yo 1986/2002 (62.7%, Cadenhead's).
Nose: Ah... A deep, rich fruitiness. Sweet sherry. The fruits slowly dissolve with time.
Then the organics emerge: horse stable, leather and sweat. Something metallic too.
Taste: Taken with very small sips it's extremely fruity and just a tad dusty perhaps.
Take bigger sips and you'll tastebuds will regret it - this is a real afterburner. Nice but hot.
It somehow seems a little more 'toffeeish' with some water. The fruits remain, though.
And interesting sweet & sour playfulness remains, lifting the score by a point or two.
Score: 88 points - that's 1 point more than their Ben Nevis 15yo 1977/1993 (60.9%).
Ben Nevis 30yo 1971/2001 (55.6%, OB, Cask #2516)
Nose: Rich sherry with a hint of coffee, followed by a mellow and musty fruitiness.
Sweet dough. Developing organics. Maggi. Spices. Some 'garden bonfire' smoke.
Cherry pralines. A real sherry monster. Sweaty - there's no other way of describing it.
It softens up considerably after some ten minutes, balancing out. Extremely pleasant.
Taste: Smoke and perfume in the start, developing into a fruity centre. Woody finish.
Salty? Not great. Eucalyptus? With some water it didn't soften up noticably.
Another oldie that shines on the nose but is dragged down by the palate.
Score: 87 points - the nose was worthy of a score in the 90's. The taste wasn't.
Ben Nevis 8yo 1990/1999 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Sherry butt #1376, 70cl)
Nose: Slightly oily. Hint of sherry. Furniture polish? Vaguely intruiging, but no sherry monster.
A little more smoke later on. Opens up a little with some water but remains soft-spoken.
Taste: Unbalanced. Not sweet enough at first. Slightly oily. Bitter chocolate. Quite odd.
Dull, dry & smoky finish. No soul. Breaks up completely when some water is added.
Score: 67 points - I wonder if anybody selected this cask on purpose?
Ben Nevis 8yo 1990/1999 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Sherry butt #1379, 70cl)
Nose: Grainy and a little grassy. Spirity. Faint wax? Some salt. A hint of smoke.
No sweetness at all. A simple and plain character. Like cask #1376, it's below par.
Taste: Soft & sweetish at first. A little oily, a little smoky, but ultimately uninspired.
Maltier after a minute with a bitter finish. Not a lot of fun to be had here.
Score: 66 points - another excellent example of poor cask selection.
Ben Nevis 10yo (46%, OB, Bottled +/- 1999, 70cl)
Nose: Furniture polish. A little fruity. Gooseberries? Some pepper and spices.
Very rich. Hint of oil. Nutty, not unlike 'Frangelico' liqueur. Better than average.
Taste: Toffeeish. A bit malty. Sweetish with a little smoke. Slightly dusty.
Strong dark chocolate. Orange peel in the dry finish. Touch of eucalyptus?
Score: 78 points - nothing to be ashamed of; a solid enjoyable OB.
Ben Nevis 15yo 1977/1993 (60.9%, Cadenhead's, D12/77, B10/93, 5cl)
Nose: Aaah... Lovely. Round and sweet with just enough fruits. Melon, perhaps?
Then organics emerge. Whiffs of chloride and dust. Slowly developing organics.
Taste: Smooth and drinkable at c/s. It becomes chewy with a few drops of water.
It feels a bit 'tickly'. Dry and slightly 'winey'. Flat, bitter finish. Loses a few points here.
Score: 87 points - highly recommendable. Proof that Ben Nevis deserves its cult status.
These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Ben Nevis Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Ben Nevis page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the hundreds of Ben Nevis expressions that have been released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.)
Is the distillery or