An Impostor Abroad: Stephen visits Ben Nevis Distillery

Once one of the biggest distillery complexes in Scotland when the Nevis distillery was built nearby to serve the same brand, Ben Nevis has a history filled with colorful characters some of whom were also certainly Name of the Day winners: ‘Long John” MacDonald, his son Donald (missed being a hamburger chain clown by this much–and instead found himself thrust into redundancy–and this is perhaps why he went by Peter), and the innovative and appropriately self-interested Mr. Hobbs (ok, not the same spelling, but close enough for this bit). But it’s the last twist in the distillery’s history–the fact that Japanese whisky producer Nikka bought it in 1989–that is the most interesting to us whisky geeks. One of the industry’s worst-kept secrets is that Nikka from the Barrel (along with other expressions, like Taketsuru Pure Malt) up until recently contained significant amounts of Ben Nevis spirit.

The massive stainless steel mash tun is 22 feet in diameter
The mash tun at work

Slow fermentation is part of what justifies having a monstrously large mash tun, while having only four stills (though to be fair, they are not small stills). Stainless steel in the mash tun and most of the washbacks gives fewer opportunities for other materials to soften or clean up the spirit.

Slow distillation gives the spirit a bit more time with the copper than it would have had otherwise in relatively squat, fat stills with flat lyne arms. The slow fermentation and slow distillation yield a fruity, but meaty spirit that aged well–and to my mind comes off and satisfyingly dirty (read that as multi-faceted and oily rather than light and unidimensional) when it’s younger.

Thanks to Innes, who is in charge of tours at Ben Nevis and is excellent at his job, we were able to see something I had not seen before on any of my many distillery tours in the past: the inside of a steam-fired still. I did my best getting photos of the inside from the outside, but in them one can see both the canisters at the bottom holding the steam coils and the spray cleaning system situated above it all within the still.

One knowledgeable whisky person I know referred to Ben Nevis as “the ugliest distillery.” I don’t think that’s fair, especially once one stands in the presence of those stills, when they’ve been freshly glazed. But it is an industrial facility that was not designed to be a visitor attraction nor is it something that looks like a place where elves used to bake cookies (like Strathisla). Walking out to the warehouses on the grounds of the distillery reinforces this idea.

The constant cloud cover and the aluminum mine sluices in the background certainly don’t help, either, especially when the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, at the base of which the distillery sits, is typically obscured. There is grandeur here, but the weather and the landscape conspires to make sure you don’t experience it as such very often.

But go back inside, and the visitors’ centre is cozy and welcoming, with an impressive bar and a space with a strong café game going on the other side of the room, which is important for drivers and those visiting the distillery first thing in the morning, as we did.

Of course, the bottom line is the whisky, and the blends (Nevis Dew) are well worth your time. But the single malt range, recently rebranded, is a fruity, complex one that rewards some careful attention and time. The Coire Leis surprised me with its vibrancy (and its value-for-the-money). The one I bought that day, however, was the Ben Nevis Traditional. Peated, full-bodied, and wonderfully balanced, that one is my favorite–a singular dram that feels like it’s from another era.

Innes tells me they have some planned renovations on the visitors’ centre, which, for my money, didn’t really warrant it, but it will interesting to see what they do. It will be even more interesting to see what Nikka does with Ben Nevis now that the big Japanese producers are working under rules that keep them from using Scotch spirit and calling it Japanese whisky. I am looking forward to having more Ben Nevis on the market in the future–one way or the other.

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