Ben Nevis Distillery is, quite simply, a victim of its own success. “Our 10-year-old single malt whisky has proved so popular that there isn’t enough stock in the warehouse to supply demand whilst we wait for the next batch to mature,” says Managing Director Colin Ross.
Fortunately, the distillery – one of the oldest in Scotland – produces several other varieties of whisky (and more than two million litres of the stuff annually) to satisfy the connoisseur. These varieties include various ages of single malt, a traditional peated malt, a lighter Fassiefern for export and an eight-year-old, 58 per cent alcohol by volume blended malt named McDonald’s Glencoe, after its founder, “Long John” McDonald.
Nestled at the foot of Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis Distillery has been producing premium whisky since 1825. The company continued to be run by the McDonald family until 1944, when it was sold to Joseph Hobbs, who was something of a legend in Scotch whisky. Production ceased in 1978 until, in 1981, the distillery was bought by the Long John International Whisky Company, and, a few years later, Ben Nevis started producing whisky again.
What sets Ben Nevis whisky apart is the distillery’s use of the pure water that is thrown off the northeast of the mountain. This, together with the natural mountain peat, gives the whisky its unique flavour and character. “We produce whisky in the southern manner of a Speyside malt,” says Colin, “but our whisky is more full-bodied with a heavier flavour.”
Almost 200 years ago, “Long John” McDonald said that good whisky is a perfect blend of science and nature, with four essential ingredients. Pure water is the most important ingredient, followed by barley, which must be clean and plump, fully rounded and dry, and contain the right amount of protein. The third ingredient is special distiller’s yeast, which should have the texture of dough, and is vital to the fermentation process. Finally, he said, there is peat, which comes to the whisky not only as the water passes over peat bogs on its way down the mountain, but also from the “reek” from the fire lit during the manufacturing process.
Unlike many distilleries, which are now computer-operated, Ben Nevis uses traditional processes. “We’re still hands-on,” says Colin. “We don’t use caramel colouring and we prefer our malts to be non-chill-filtered because it makes for more character in the whisky. When you’re chilling down whisky, some of the oils turn to fat, which is taken out in the filters. We like to pride ourselves on being true Scotsmen: if there’s alcohol there, we’ll get it out at some stage! There’s not a lot of wastage in our process and, what there is, we make into animal feed or spread on fields as a fertilizer.”
Its dedication to tradition and quality has won Ben Nevis several prizes over the years, including, most recently, the Silver Outstanding 2018 award at the International Wine and Spirit Awards, for one of its single cask bottlings. The company’s boardroom is decorated with trophies and gold medals as testament to its reputation in the industry.
This year, Ben Nevis is launching a limited-edition, ten-year-old bottling using fresh sherry casks and bourbon casks for a distinctive taste. At Christmas, the distillery will be bringing out a 40-year-old blended whisky, together with a souvenir booklet. “I’m very excited about that,” says Colin. “I’ve been distilling whisky for five decades, since leaving school, and I’m as enthusiastic about the drink as ever. I’m still learning new things about whisky every day.”
Visitors to Ben Nevis Distillery can choose to enjoy “the Legend of the Dew” (mountain dew is a 19th century generic term for Highland whisky) at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, which is built into an old warehouse dating from 1862, and a former bottling hall, which still retains some of its original features. There, in a specially commissioned audio-visual presentation, guests will encounter the mythical giant, Hector McDram, who is said to have shaped the valleys and mountains of Ben Nevis with his bare hands. As legend has it, after he’d completed his labours, he brewed himself a relaxing drink made from a fresh water stream, when a miracle occurred and, like dew from the heavens, whisky was created.
Having enjoyed this experience, visitors can next take a guided tour of the production areas, learning exactly how whisky is made, followed by a complementary tasting. They can end their day with a coffee in the distillery’s cafe, or with a full meal in its dedicated restaurant. The distillery shop sells pewterware and a selection of beautiful crystal glasses, each designed to complement a particular drink.
Enjoyed worldwide, Ben Nevis Distillery’s largest market is Japan, where its parent company The Nikka Whisky Distilling Company Limited is based. Customers around the world have different tastes. France tends to favour the Special Reserve blend while Japan and Taiwan prefer the Blue Label.
“There is always one whisky in our range that suits somebody,” says Colin. “And although it’s traditionally been seen as a man’s drink, there are more women drinking whisky nowadays – particularly our whiskies, which are quite smooth. On our distillery tours, we dispense our Supreme Selection Blend. I’ve witnessed a number of ladies saying adamantly: ‘I don’t like whisky and I don’t want a tasting.’ They’re told: ‘Just try a sip and, if you don’t like it, you can always give it to your husband.’ Normally, the husband’s standing, enjoying his and waiting for what she’s going to leave, and then she’ll turn around and say, ‘Oh, you’re not getting this!’”