After a week of glorious sunshine in the Highlands, the weather had finally broken.
The rumbling of thunder and the downpours that came with it had come and gone through the night, disrupting much needed sleep. In the morning I awoke to persistent rain, a slate grey sky, and the mountains well and truly hidden from view. When it rains in Scotland, which of course it does often, there is always the consolation that “today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky” (a line used by many a distillery tour guide and brand representative). You’ve got to find your silver linings somewhere, I suppose!
So, it was not a great day for getting in the hills, but a perfect one for a distillery trip, and the closest one by some distance to my overnight lodgings was Ben Nevis. The increasingly elusive Ben Nevis 10 Year Old is a favourite of mine (and of Malt), and there have been some stellar independent bottlings in recent years. The spirit produced there is clearly first class. Yet, the distillery and the use of its spirit remains an enigma, with much of the output being shipped out to Japan by owners Nikka, a large quota going into their strangely conceived portfolio of blended scotch, whilst the Ben Nevis single malt range is absurdly overlooked.
I had been warned not to have to great expectations of a visit to the distillery by friends who had recently been. Yet, for me, this was still something of a long anticipated pilgrimage. Arriving at the distillery, you wouldn’t have known it sits at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain, as the cloud-base was so ridiculously low, but as its name implies it is indeed situated in this prime location. This is the heart of Highlands tourist country, with over 150,000 people estimated to climb Ben Nevis each year. It’s fairly close to other stunning locations too, such as Glencoe, Glenfinnan, and the Caledonian canal. It’s on the edge of Fort William, the largest town for many miles, and there’s no other distillery within a 45-minute drive.
Regardless, on a damp summer’s day in prime holiday season, I entered the distillery to find that it was practically empty. After very different experiences at Torabhaig, Talisker, and Oban, all of which were fully booked up and busy, this was something of a shock. Nowhere else had I been able to walk in and get straight on to a tour as I did at Ben Nevis. Even more surprising, it only cost £5 for the privilege. Whilst I’m not one who would celebrate the construction of a polished, fashionable, tourist trap here, it just seems obvious that Nikka are missing out. A bit of advertising, and better social media use might make a big difference, without even having to improve the facilities.
There’s no doubt the place is tired, and it certainly wasn’t pretty on the eye, but looks clearly aren’t everything when it comes to producing high quality spirit. Our guide was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable local, with long held family connections to the distillery. We were given the freedom to get up close to the mash tun, wash backs and stills, and to take photos without any arbitrary restrictions. The tour was a low-key affair, lacking in pretence, with a refreshing openness about life under the ownership of Nikka, and the likely destination for much of their whisky.
The underwhelming part of the visit came in the café and bar. It was like stepping into a 1970’s time warp, with little evidence of change in recent years, apart from the addition of perspex screens along the bar to separate staff from visitors in this time of pandemic. Most disappointingly, there was no Ben Nevis single malt to be seen, never mind tasted. Only the Dew of Ben Nevis blends and Glencoe blended malt were available to purchase. At least the £5 tour cost proved to be even better value than I’d thought, as the available whiskies could be sampled (siphoned into drivers dram bottles for me), and the ticket fee was deductible from any bottle purchased.
There was, however, some good news to be heard from our guide. The Ben Nevis 10 Year Old will soon be available again, and it will arrive with a new, much more modern presentation. It should have been available already, but a delay in the arrival of corks has led to this rebranded release being postponed. The rest of the Nevis range is going to be overhauled too. It sounds as if some more attention is about to come the way of Ben Nevis, as many had speculated it might following the changes in Japanese whisky regulations. Whilst this is long overdue, it’s also a development that brings with it some trepidation for me, and no doubt many Malt readers too. We might welcome the possibility that this gem of a whisky would be more readily available but can only hope that corners are not cut in production, and that the high quality of output is maintained. We can but wait and see.
For now, if you want to sample Ben Nevis as a single malt, you’ll have to pick up an independent bottling, if you can get hold of one before it sells out. However, there is hope that you won’t have to wait too long for the 10 Year Old to be available once more… and perhaps different expressions, too, in due course, but that could just be wishful thinking!
In the meantime, I purchased a bottle of the Glencoe 8 Year Old, discounted to £37. It is a blended whisky containing Ben Nevis and other non-named Highland malts. It is bottled at a hefty 58%, and seemed a fitting warmer for such a dreich day in Fort William.
Glencoe 8 Year Old – Review
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: It starts off fiery and prickly, but opens up reasonably quickly. There’s dirty, oily smoke, some malty grist, cinnamon, salted caramel, and pepper. It’s fruity too, with green, unripe stone fruits, gooseberry, and orange oil coming through.
In the mouth: Big and bolshy. Lots of oily orange, dark caramel, pepper, tea leaves, all undergirded by well-integrated smoke. Given time and water more fruit comes through in the finish, in particular apples alongside lingering vanilla and more citrus peel.
You get a lot of bang for your buck with this blend. Time and water are your friends, this is definitely a slow sipper if you’re going to get the most out of it. It’s good value for money (especially by today’s standards) and it was a surprise favourite in a tasting I organised with friends following my return from the Highlands. In many ways it feels like a slightly less rounded and developed version of the Ben Nevis 10 Year Old. It’s a fair substitute as we wait for it to reappear, but when the 10 Year Old is available, I don’t see why you’d choose this instead.
(heading towards a 6 taking price into account)