River Deep Mountain High

Hans Offringa takes us hill walking this time, in the twelfth and last episode of our label series
By Hans Offringa
The Scots call a valley a glen (or strath), a mountain, a ben. The highest one in the British Isles is found on Scottish soil and is called Ben Nevis which dominates the old garrison Fort William. At the foot of this feared and famous mountain stands Ben Nevis Distillery.

It was built in 1825 by a farmer from Wester Ross, who was known as John Macdonald. He sold his whisky as Long John's Dew of Ben Nevis. The name stuck and was later used for the blended whiskey Long John. In 1848 Queen Victoria visited the distillery as part of her journey around Scotland. Soon after her departure an entire cask of the whisky was sent to Buckingham Palace as a present for the Prince of Wales' 21st birthday.

In 1865 the distillery was rebuilt, followed by some modifications in 1887, among which a pier in Loch Lhinne. In 1894 a connection to the West Highland Railway was realised. The year 1955 witnessed the arrival of a Coffey still for the production of grain whisky. It offered Ben Nevis the opportunity to create blended whisky. In 1989 the company was sold to the Japanese Nikka Whisky Distilling Company, which is one of the reasons why their blend Black Nikka contains very young Ben Nevis whisky.

The water comes from Allt a Mhullin, the 'Mill Stream' in English. It sprouts from two small lochs north of Ben Nevis mountain. The distillery uses a huge stainless steel mash tun, six stainless steel and two wooden washbacks, and four pot stills. The yearly output is around 1.8 million litres. Maturation happens in American oak and re-used European oak sherry casks. The visitor centre is located in a former warehouse, dating back to 1862.

Ben Nevis the mountain, is 1,344 metres, part of the Grampians, and is famous as well as feared. Every year more than 100,000 visitors make an attempt to climb its slopes and not all of them are experienced hill walkers, to say the least. The Gaelic word 'nibheis', from which 'nevis' is derived, means 'evil' or 'poisonous'. That puts things in context, doesn't it? Since the summit is often shrouded in mist, it is not easy to get to the top. Ben Nevis claims victims on a regular basis.

My home country The Netherlands harbours a Ben Nevis Whisky Club, founded in 1994, named after a humongous whisky cake served by Wullie MacMorland to his four co-founders at his Scottish restaurant Hielander in Alkmaar.

However , there are more whiskies carrying the Ben name.

Benrinnes, was built in 1826, by Peter McKenzie. This distillery was built to suffer. In 1829 a huge flood ruined the buildings. In 1834 she was rebuilt as Lyne of Ruthie, but the new owner, John Innes, almost immediately had to file for bankruptcy and sold it lock stock and barrel to William Smith & Company. For a while the distillery seemed to prosper but in 1864 it went belly up again. Now it was David Edward's turn to continue. The name was changed back to Benrinnes to no avail. In 1896 the place was burnt to the ground. Edward's son Alexander rebuilt the place and sold the distillery to John Dewar & Sons in 1922. The latter company merged with Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) three years later (and that's why Benrinnes currently is part of Diageo's portfolio). From 1955-1956 the distillery was rebuilt, not for the first time in its history and until 1984 the malting floor was still in use. This is a real blenders' malt and it can only be sporadically found as a single malt, for instance in either the Flora and Fauna or Rare Malts Series, with an occasional rare limited vintage.

The mountain, spelled Ben Rinnes, is a primary attraction at the annual Spirit of Speyside festival. At the top you can see, weather permitting, as far as the Moray Firth in the north and surrounding the mountain, a score of distilleries. A plaque shows which one is which. I once launched a new whisky book on top of the mountain, in the company of my whisky buddy and fellow scribe Dave Broom. All the distilleries we could see were described in the book.

Then there is BenRiach, alongside the road from Rothes to Elgin. The distillery was founded in 1897 by John Duff & Co. It took two years before neighbour Longmorn took over and in 1903 BenRiach was mothballed, only to open its doors again in 1965, under management of new owner The Glenlivet. The malting floor was decommissioned in 1999 and in 2002 the distillery was mothballed for the second time in its existence. This time it only took two years to start up production again. 2004 brought entrepreneur Billy Walker to the helm, backed by South African Intra Trading. They added GlenDronach and GlenGlassaugh to their portfolio in years following. Billy Walker decided to reopen the maltings, which has been remarkable in itself.

Benromach is only one year younger than BenRiach and was built in 1898. For many, many years the distillery was a toy in the hands of various companies and once even had an American owner (from 1938 till 1953), after which period it ended up in the DCL gang. The predecessor of Diageo shut down Benromach in 1983. It took a decade before in 1993 independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail (G&M) bought the silent distillery and what stocks were left. They took their time and renovated the entire plant in five years. Since 1998 spirit has flowed again but from different stills than the original ones. G&M has launched a variety of bottlings, among which a Benromach Organic.

We conclude the hill walk with a blended whisky named Ben Alder. Just like Ben Nevis, this mountain, 1,148 metres high, is one of the Munros. These are mountains in Scotland that reach at least 914.4 metres above sea level. They are named after Sir Hugh Munro who first mapped them in 1891 on a list referred to as the Munro Tables.