Ben Nevis

The Ben Nevis distillery has been producing excellent malt whisky at the foot of the mountain of the same name since 1825. Ben Nevis whiskies are something of an insider tip, very balanced and fruity, their malts have a tendency to be very dry and rather oily.

The current distillery buildings were once, a little unkindly, described as resembling ‘a fading Siberian tractor collective’ by Charles Maclean. The visitor center ‘The Dew of Ben Nevis’ was opened in 1991, located in an old warehouse from 1862 in which the former bottling plant was located. Tours include a somewhat bizarre and dated introductory film tour of the distillery and conclude with a rather fantastic whisky tasting.

Ben Nevis Whisky Distillery

Ben Nevis is a whisky distillery near Fort William, Inverness-shire, Scotland, UK. The distillery draws its water from Allt A’ Mhuillin, which can also be seen for those willing to take a hike on the Carn Mor Dearg hiking route.

It’s a moderate to challenging 2 hour walk up if you keep a steady pace. The trail is good, well-marked and maintained, with stone block crossings of the many small creeks that cut across the meadow. Please note this is not a route of ascent for those looking to actually climb Ben Nevis.

What does Ben Nevis Mean?

The name Ben Nevis is derived from the nearby mountain. The mountain name itself is derived from the two Gaelic words “beinn” for mountain and “nibheis” for venomous or poisonous, ergo “venomous mountain”.

What does Ben Nevis single malt taste like?

Ben Nevis whiskies are very balanced and fruity. The malts have a tendency to be very dry and rather oily. The Ben Nevis house style is rich, fruity with little smoke and leather. It can be quite sulphury which is sometimes divisive but offers a soft, spicy scent of chocolate and vanilla and dried fruit seduces the nose. The palate has a certain heaviness due to the alcohol content with rich flavoursr of chocolate, cream and toffee and fruity orange notes. In the aftertaste quite long and smoky.

The 10 year old single malt whiskey Ben Nevis with 46% is spicy and very strong. It has a slight taste of orange and coffee. It is bottled in the distillery in sherry and bourbon barrels. Its label contains the words “Macdonald’s Ben Nevis Ten Years Old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey” and a drawing on which the Ben Nevis can be seen. Other whiskeys available from the distillery include 8 year old Glencoe 8 Year Old Vatted Malt (58% ABV) and 12 year old Nevis Dew 12 Year Old Deluxe Blend (40% ABV). More recently they have released Macdonald’s Traditional Ben Nevis which is known to be a smokier malt.

How is Ben Nevis whisky made?

The Ben Nevis distillery uses a combination of steel and wooden washbacks, brewer’s yeast and four stills for an annual production of 2,000,000 litres.

In the time of Long John MacDonald, the water was taken from the Allt A’ Mhuillin Burn (mill stream), which flows from the heights of the Ben Nevis mountain. Since 1925, the water has been pumped into the distillery from a height of 230 meters via pipelines to prevent contamination. The water reservoir is fed by the two pools, Coire Leis and Coire na’Ciste at an altitude of 900 meters through rainwater and snowmelt.

Since the company’s own malt production was closed, the malt required has been purchased from Simpsons industrial maltings and ground to grist using the distilleries ancient Porteus mill. The grist is converted into a sugary wort in the (10 ton) stainless steel semi-lauter mashtun.

The wort is then fed into one of the 8 wash backs, 6 made of stainless steel dating back to the 1970s and 2 new washbacks made of Douglas Fir. Colin Ross, the managing director, is responsible for the reversal to wooden washbacks. Fermentation in the washbacks is unusual in that brewer’s yeast is used, in place of the now more common distillers yeast. Ben Nevis is the last distillery in Scotland to use this older method of inducing fermentation. Until the mid-20th century, many whisky distilleries shared their yeast with a local brewery or used a combination of both brewer’s and distiller’s yeasts to improve the flavour and mouthfeel. This approach is hardly used in the whisky industry today because the yield is low. Fermentation at Ben Nevis takes about 15 hours and provides a 7.5% ABV wash.

The current still house dates from 1965 and was modernized in the 1980s. The two onion-shaped wash and spirit stills have no bulges and all merge into almost horizontal lyne arms in tubular condensers. The wash stills each have a capacity of 25,000 liters and two spirit stills each have a capacity of 20,000 liters. The smaller spirit stills require a short distillation time. The distillery produce a traditional heavy new make.

The distilleries production capacity is 2,000,000 liters per year, with around 50% of the new make being delivered by tanker to the parent company in Japan, where it is used in the ‘Nikka Black’ blend, among others. Warehouses maturation in Scotland mainly uses ex-bourbon casks though a number of sherry are also used. In addition to the single malts, Ben Nevis is used for the Vatted Malt GlenCoe and the blends of Dew of Ben Nevis.

History

The distillery was founded in Scotland in 1825 at the foot of Ben Nevis reportedly by ‘Long’ John MacDonald. Around 1920 Ben Nevis was sold to Seager Evans Ltd. Between 1955 and 1981 Ben Nevis was owned by the Canadian businessman and former bootlegger Joseph W. Hobbs, who had the distillery supplemented by a Coffey Still. As a result, Ben Nevis was one of, if not the first, distilleries in the world to produce both malt and grain whisky under a single roof. This special phase ended with the dismantling of Coffey Still in 1971.

In 1978, whisky production was shut down and the distillery was sold to Long John Distillers and Whitbread in 1981, who commissioned a fifth still and resumed production from 1984 to 1986. In 1989 the Japanese whisky maker Nikka took over. Since 1990 whisky has been produced in Ben Nevis with four stills.

Concrete Washbacks

Famously, or perhaps imfamously Hobbs also had Ben Nevis fitted with concrete wash backs, these were removed by Nikka during the refurbishment the distillery

Hobbs Free Distillery

Legend has it that the same day that Joseph W. Hobbs procured Ben Nevis distillery he then sold the old Nevis warehousing for the same sum – £20K. Not before moving the Nevis distillery gates to Ben Nevis, this is why the current gates are not big enough to meet when closed.

The Current Distillery

The current building of the distillery dates from the time of Hobbs and is reminiscent of the appearance of the Glenrothes or Balvenie Distillery. It was once, a little unkindly described as ‘a fading Siberian tractor collective’ by Charles Maclean. The Ben Nevis Distillery company has been owned by Nikka since 1989, and very little has changed by way of production. Colin Ross is the managing director and maintains the style of the distillery with traditional views on the production process.

Distillery Factsheet

Name Pronounced AKA Region Country of Origin
Ben Nevis Highlands Scotland
Status Active Whisky Type Website Tours Available
Active 1825 - Present Malt Ben Nevis Tour Link
Manager Distiller Blender Owned by Parent Group
Unknown Nikka Whisky Distilling

Ben Nevis Timeline:

1825: Said to have been founded by (’Long John’) John McDonald

1826: Angus McDonnell

1831: McDonnell & McDonald dissolved

1848: Queen Victoria visits the distillery

1856: John McDonald dies and the distillery is taken over by Donald P. McDonald, son of John

1878: The demand for whisky is very large, so another 'Nevis distillery' is built nearby

1882: Long John’s Ben Nevis Distilleries Ltd.

1908: Nevis distillery is closed and used for bonded warehousing as part of the Ben Nevis estate

1920: Long John brand name sold to Seager, Evans Ltd., but continued as D.P. McDonald & Sons Ltd., headed by Joseph W. Hobbs

1941: D.P. McDonald & Sons Ltd. taken over by Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd.

1955: Taken over by Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd. promoted by Joseph Hobbs

1956: A coffey still is installed by John Hobbs

1964: John Hobbs dies

1978: Production stops

1981: Joseph Hobbs Jr sells the distillery to Long John International, a subsidiary of Whitbread & Co.

1984: The distillery opens up again after a £2 million restoration and reconstruction minus the Coffey still

1986: The distillery closes

1989: Purchased by Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. from Whitbread

1991: The distillery reopens with a new visitor centre built in a former warehouse and bottling hall (10th September)

1996: Ben Nevis 10 Year Old, the heart of the brand’s portfolio, is launched

2018: Ben Nevis Cask Strength 10 is launched