Distillery Focus

Ben Nevis

Ian Buxton peeks behind the scenes at one of Scotland's most enduring distilleries
By Ian Buxton
Two large Highlanders stand sentinel at Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William. On arrival they gave me a distinctly guarded welcome. They shook their long shaggy hair, snorting, and I was sure I heard a hoof pawing the ground. But then Ben and Nevis, the distillery mascots, are Highland cattle – magnificent beasts bred for the hills and inclined to greet effete southerners (especially ones from Edinburgh) with appropriate disdain.These must be the most photographed Highland cattle in Scotland because, even as I watched, a busload of enthusiastic tourists bound for the distillery’s visitor centre shot off several rolls of film on two very media-savvy animals. Ben and Nevis are just the public face of this interesting distillery, though. Absorbing as they are, things get better as you move inside.
I began by interviewing Managing Director Colin Ross, a loyal whisky man since 1965, when he began by polishing the corridors at Strathisla – albeit with the impressive title of Assistant Manager. “I started on January 2nd” he recalls, “and I think they’d forgotten I was coming. The Manager opened his office store cupboard, my hopes rose, but he produced a giant tin of wax and left me to get on with it!”Today Colin runs Ben Nevis on behalf of its Japanese owners the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company, who distill malt whisky at Yoichi on the northern island of Hokkaido and at a larger plant at Sendai, 200 miles from their Tokyo head office. Nikka traces its roots back to 1934, when Masataka Taketsuru founded the company. Remarkably, he had come to Scotland from Japan just after the First World War to learn about the Scotch whisky industry. He spent time in Speyside, Campbeltown and at Bo’ness in the grain distillery there (now closed). Taketsuru married a Scot, Rita Cowan, and at the end of 1920 they returned to Japan.Nikka’s Scottish connection remained strong and in 1989 they acquired Ben Nevis from Whitbread who had purchased it eight years before. Sadly, Masataka Taketsuru died some years previous to his company’s return to his spiritual home but as his biographer, Olive Checkland, writes “This (the purchase) would have given great satisfaction to the founder.” Though Nikka have invested in the distillery, in particular installing an impressive Glenspey type semi-Lauter tun of nine tonnes capacity and expanding fermentation capacity, its previous history has been chequered to say the least.Founded in June 1827 by ‘Long John’ MacDonald it prospered in its early years. By 1877, the distillery employed some 51 staff and, the following year – demand having increased even further – a second distillery was opened on the banks of the River Nevis. This has subsequently led to some confusion and a suggestion by a few commentators that the present distillery is not on the original site established by Long John MacDonald.As may be seen from archive photographs and an old watercolour remaining at the distillery this is not the case. Thus, the cold crystal clear waters of the lochans on Ben Nevis which feed the Allt-a Mhuillin (or the Mill Burn) and were chosen by Long John MacDonald feed the distillery to this day. As a tribute to this proud heritage the watercolour illustration graces the signature 10-year-old malt’s packaging – and very elegant it looks.Ben Nevis remained in the MacDonald family until 1941 when it was sold to a Joseph Hobbs. He installed a Coffey still for grain production and expanded the warehouse capacity but, by 1978, the distillery was silent. Three years later Joseph Hobbs Jnr. sold the plant to Whitbread, who resumed production in 1984. Over the years, the Coffey still was removed and Ben Nevis reverted exclusively to single malt production.Since Nikka refurbished the mash tun and washbacks in 1990, Ben Nevis has been in continuous production and the results are seen in their bestselling line, Ben Nevis 10-Year-Old Single Malt, though much of the distillery’s production goes to Japan where it is highly valued for blending.Having served in Strathisla, Tormore, Ben Nevis (from 1983 to 1987 as Manager) and Laphroaig in turn, Colin Ross returned to Ben Nevis in 1989 as Managing Director. He has therefore been responsible for all the current production but is quick to praise the efforts of his predecessors, acknowledging in particular the remarkable 26-Year-Old Cask Strength that sells so well at the distillery.Not that he need be so modest. The Ben Nevis 10-Year-Old holds the distinction of Grand Gold medals in 1999 and 2000 from the Monde Selection contest, followed by a further Gold medal in 2001. For this remarkable treble, Ben Nevis was awarded a special trophy by the Monde Selection.One sip tells you that this is an unusual and distinctive dram. Smooth, full-bodied and slightly sweet on the palate its rich colour owes something to caramel but more to a careful cask policy. The distillery uses a combination of sherry, fresh bourbon wood and some first refills to ensure a consistent colour and uniformly reliable taste. Gold medals three years running in major international competitions are no fluke. This is a whisky that should be better known.If the busy visitor centre is anything to go by its fame is spreading. Established in 1991, with help from Highlands & Islands Enterprise, the centre is located in a converted warehouse that also served as a bottling hall. The building bears the date 1862, further confirming that this is indeed the original Ben Nevis Distillery.The distillery is extremely convenient for the West Highland town of Fort William, a deservedly popular stop on the tourist trail, and around 30,000 visitors a year are received here in a small but comfortable setting. There is a short film presentation featuring one Hector McDram, archive displays, a small bar and coffee shop and a retail sales area, with an attractive selectionof books. Special mention must also be made of the private label chocolates, made with Ben Nevis whisky. I must confess that I am not at all partial to liqueur chocolates, but these worked very well, especially the white ones! Simply but elegantly packed, they make a great gift and perhaps the ideal introduction for friends who ‘don’t like whisky’. This will show them what they’ve been missing.Apart from great confectionery, the visitor centre also boasts a wall of awards, certificates and commendations including a STB 4-star grading and a Green Tourism Award. Tours begin and end here amongst the historical ledgers, ancient equipment and display panels.The visitor centre has proved to be so popular that last summer, in the midst of Scotland’s worst tourism season for years, coaches had to be turned away. “We simply couldn’t get enough tour guide staff,” explained Colin Ross, “and so couldn’t keep up with the demand.”The Centre Manager John Carmichael has a long-standing family connection to the distillery, his father having been Manager at Ben Nevis until 1982. Not that he is alone in this distinction, with a father and son team currently employed as part of the distillery’s 15-strong workforce. Brewer Eugene McEvoy joined the company in 1984 and his son Paul, now Head
Warehouseman, followed in his footsteps in 1989. It’s that kind of family place.But it’s hard to ignore that, since 1990, relatively little has been spent on housekeeping. With the Japanese economy in what seems like a perpetual slowdown, at least compared to the buoyant 1980s, maintenance has been limited to the essential and urgent, with little left over for less vital works. There’s no denying that the distillery would benefit from a coat (or two) of paint, an observation made fairly bluntly by our own Mystery Visitor in Whisky Magazine Issue 20.However, that misses the point. Ben Nevis is a survivor, a hard-working and considerably under-rated distillery that has carried on where many others have fallen silent. The rambling buildings may not win prizes, and there may be more scenic distilleries in Scotland, but the product’s the thing here. There’s little to fault in the whisky from Ben Nevis and Colin Ross would rather be judged by what’s in the bottle than by appearances. Who can argue? This is Whisky Magazine, after all, not the Architectural Review and you cannot judge a book by its cover.In that, he has every right to his quiet confidence. I’ve already referred to the prestigious awards collected by the Ben Nevis 10-Year-Old, but the distillery’s most remarkable production must be the 26-Year-Old Cask Strength.
First of all, this is a bargain – £64.95 by mail order, inclusive of post and packing, direct from the distillery. I tasted a sublimely remarkable whisky, notable for its finesse and exceptionally delicate and rewarding. A note of liquorice root was discernible and the pale straw colour hinted at a bourbon cask. At 51.5% it was subtle yet approachable; with a little water from the Allt-a Mhuillin it was truly memorable.The 26-Year-Old is an individual cask bottling, so your bottle may very well be different from mine – but that’s the point. Remarkable at the price, this is that rarest of animals – a truly collectable whisky that you can afford to drink!
This ethereal spirit must, in my view at least, owe much to the traditional low-lying warehouses at the rear of the distillery, the damp West Highland climate and the proximity of the burn. So close is it, in fact, that the distillery has been known to flood. On the last occasion the rising water knocked out two company cars, one observed under several feet of water with lights ablaze and the windscreen wipers working all in vain!All this moisture and the traditional dunnage practised here contribute to a steady maturation that lends character and distinction to these ancient bottlings. Snap them up now and savour this exceptional, never-to-be-repeated dram.
The warehouses also have another claim to fame. Looking for all viable sources of revenue, the distillery rented out an empty warehouse to a film production company who built sets in the shell. Since then, Ben Nevis Distillery has played an important part in such fine and successful films as Local Hero, Highlander, Rob Roy and Braveheart – though unfortunately James Bond has yet to come calling!Next out of these treasure houses will be a robust and full flavoured sherry finish. Colin Ross has yet to decide if this will be released as a 15-year-old or as a 1984 vintage. Either way, it features casks exclusively selected from first-fill bourbon wood with a finishing of four years in ex-sherry barrels. This should be available later this year.Following on its heels will be an exciting experiment. Ben Nevis have taken ex-brandy casks which have subsequently seen service in the California wineries and filled these with new spirit. “It’s hard to be sure when these will be ready,” says Colin “but they’re certain to be special and in high demand.” This may well be a unique combination of finishing with a very special range of flavours and references. It’s sure to be one to puzzle over in blind tastings in years to come.So Ben Nevis has some tricks up its sleeve. The operation is nothing if not flexible, selling direct to the public by mail and offering special labelling of both blend and malt for a run of as few as two cases, though you will need to provide your own labels (subject to distillery approval). A number of special bottlings have been produced for local railway societies and these are keenly collected.Hopefully, with such enterprise, Ben Nevis’ two pairs of stills will run ever more frequently. It’s unique and somewhat quirky status provides a very special link between Scotland and Japan and, if not seen on every supermarket shelf, is all the more special for that.In an industry increasingly dominated by global giants, mergers and blends, it is refreshing to encounter a truly independent spirit. The MacDonalds were such, descended from a 14th Century Lord of the Isles, and later marching to their deaths with Bonnie Prince Charlie. In their place, Ben and Nevis will welcome visitors yet, and I like to think of Long John MacDonald looking down from some misty peak and smiling on ‘his’ distillery for many more years to come.