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The other side of Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis of late has been receiving plaudits due to its single malt releases with an excellent 10-year-old and an intoxicating 2008 cask strength bottling. The rising status of the distillery has been assisted by a series of rather fine independent bottlings heralding from circa 1996 that showcase some marvellous characteristics.

So far so good then, as many of us are loving what’s coming out of Fort William. We must enjoy these whiskies whilst the distillery is able to still offer support across its limited portfolio of maturing stock. Then there is the other side of Ben Nevis, which we’re going to explore today. The often overlooked releases that sit beneath their showcase single malt expressions. Just because something is deemed lesser or younger, doesn’t mean as a whisky experience it isn’t worthwhile, or has a distinctive journey to offer.

A visit to this distillery is always worthwhile. Whether you are recovering from the epic nature of Glencoe or preparing to head north towards Skye and the simply glorious coastline of northern Scotland. There is a rugged tactile emphasis to the presentation of Ben Nevis and its whiskies. These hark back to a more traditional style that was dominant 15-20 years ago. The distillery remains faithful to the past and has shunned the more boutique styling of rivals, or the desire to release annual special editions. For this simple and holistic approach, many of us remain thankful.

Then there is the tour itself that is also more representative of a casual stroll around the distillery. Where you’re able to take in the surroundings without the need for a script, or having a brand message reverberating around your battered eardrums. No, Ben Nevis prefers to stand upon its reputation and whiskies as much as the dominant mountain that dwarfs the distillery. I have a friend who delights in hearing impressions from attendees post-Ben Nevis tour and collates these for his future enjoyment. I’ve always enjoyed the tour experience, but the reactions of some tell a different tale. An old worldly feeling permeates the tour, as much as the confines of the site itself.

It was a recent attendance from my asymmetrical co-host Rose at the distillery that provided the samples for this article. When asked about the visit she recalled that the tour started with a strange and outdated film. Led by a man with no personality, but it was still nice to see around the distillery and then try their mediocre whiskies.

Then Rose proudly waived a cask strength purchase under my nose, followed by a miniature of the excellent 10-year-old. A full-sized version of this prized release had already been procured in advance for her return leg to California. If you haven’t read Noortje’s review of this future classic then now is the time. Needless to say, the whiskies coming out of Ben Nevis resonate with many, regardless of location or preferences.

We’ll step away from hyped single malts and instead, deal with these 4 whiskies from the other side, or the underbelly of Ben Nevis. Beneath Scotland’s highest mountain, there is distilling of significance reaching fruition and then the other stuff.

Dew of Ben Nevis Supreme Selection – review

A blended whisky bottled at 40% strength this will set you back £21.10 from Master of Malt, or £21.35 via Amazon.

Colour: Sun bleached barley.

On the nose: A touch of smoke and a musty quality before toffee apples appear. There is a hint of oil and industrial grain coming through strongly. A light honey and touch of citrus follow with lemon and then white chocolate. With water, there’s varnish, some fruit sugars and sweetness.

In the mouth: Very delicate and grainy it must be said! Apples, lemon and wood bitterness. The grain is evident throughout and into the finish. A very limited and shortlived palate. Water doesn’t bring anything to the party.

Score: 3/10

McDonald’s Traditional Ben Nevis – review

Bottled at 46% strength this will set you back £42.95 from the Whisky Exchange, or for the same price from Master of Malt, or Amazon will charge £44.08.

Colour: A faint sandy beach.

On the nose: More malty and with added substance. Wood oils, a touch of smoke and milk chocolate. Then apples, a dash of lime followed by nuts and shredded wheat. Lemon sponge, oats and melon. Water showcases fudge doughnuts, vanilla and wood chips.

In the mouth: Zingy with apples, smoke and roasted coffee beans that cascade into the finish. Caramels and chocolate digestives herald a nice and simple presentation. Water reveals more wood bitterness, more coffee notes and charcoal followed by peppercorn.

Score: 5/10

Ben Nevis 12-year-old Deluxe blend – review

A blended whisky bottled at 40% strength this will set you back £24.95 via Master of Malt, or the Whisky Exchange will charge the same price, as will Amazon.

Colour: 8 carat gold.

On the nose: Very gentle with peanuts, caramel and a gentle smokiness again. Wood shavings, almonds, walnut oil and cardboard. Water reveals limes, apples and pears in muted form.

In the mouth: Very delicate and sandy, subtle and nutty. Toasted oats, almonds and overall very little definition. Water should be avoided as its a fragile thing.

Score: 3/10

Glencoe 8-year-old Ben Nevis – review

Bottled at 58% strength this blended malt will set you back £32.45 via Master of Malt, or the Whisky Exchange comes in at £39.95.

Colour: Butterscotch.

On the nose: Wet tweed, toffee and honeycomb. Dried orange peel, mustard seeds and French onion soup – with plenty of caramelisation. Lots of oats, limescale and UHT glue. With water there’s tar, spent smoke and cloves.

In the mouth: Oily and firey! Chocolate, more caramel, nutty once again and smoke spent smoke. A touch of yeast as well. Water is recommended and it can take a fair drop, showcasing more oils, olives, green apples and grapefruit.

Score: 5/10

Conclusions

This is a mixed bag from Ben Nevis in all honesty. I can totally appreciate the need to support a variety of palates and wallets in today’s realm. A cheap blend to satisfy passersby, wanting a no-thrills and inexpensive souvenir. However, there does seem to be an overlap from some of these whiskies.

The range is as jumbled and confusing as the distillery itself to some visitors. A real oddity. An distant outpost with character and sustenance. Less is clearly more in my opinion. Removing a couple of these is no great loss to anyone. This would allow the distillery team to focus on supporting what remains, or even better still some new opportunities.

The Traditional does try to recreate an old release and is passable. I don’t mind it at all, but again, you’re not too far off the 10 in terms of pricing, if you can find it. Whereas the 8 is fun to play with and reasonably priced, but why park the bus, when just around the corner is that 10-year-old?

Distillery images kindly provided by Rose aka From Where I Dram. Bottle photographs are from the Whisky Exchange.

  1. Avatar
    bifter says:

    Ha ha! I really need to make the pilgrimage sometime. A colleague of mine used to pass regularly and one time brought me back a bottle of ‘Hector’s Nectar’, an experience that tested the old maxim about there being no such thing as bad whisky. The visitor centre opened in 1991 according to the Web site, which looks as if it was built around the same time.

    I once had the privilege to meet Tadashi Sakuma and tried to quizz him about Nikka’s neglect of Ben Nevis (and what they did with the column still that they shipped out to Japan) but, unfortunately, his English isn’t much better than my Japanese and it was at an event so I had about 2 minutes of his time. If I ever see the 10yo I’ll try to overcome my misgivings and buy it!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Bifter, some interesting experiences with Ben Nevis there! Do try the 10 year old whilst it’s still out there. The standard bottle shape is good but the new dumpy style is excellent. Well worth tracking down. Cheers, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    Jack says:

    Interesting reviews Jason, I’m a big fan of the 10 like many, going to visit the distillery this summer. Was trawling through previous reviews and you were a lot more positive about the Traditional when you reviewed it a while back, is this a newer batch of lower quality, or just a different opinion over time?

  3. Jason
    Jason says:

    Hi Jack, its a combination of a newer batch and also moving to a new scoring system. I think back then I’d have been a 6 if we were using the same scale. Here, it’s dropped a little and is more average. Especially true when the 10-year-old isn’t much more in cost terms, but is leagues ahead. Cheers, Jason.

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