”Good times, for a change…” – The Smiths
In response to some “friendly” (read: impolite and accusatory) prodding, I recently reviewed a Scotch whisky just to say I had done so. However, in poring over the accumulated samples that kind readers and friends have sent me, I felt something I haven’t felt in a little while now: a spark of excitement.
Call it “bourbon burnout,” but my laser focus on American bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys has left me overcome with ennui of late. I’ve written about the feeling before, and have recently noticed similar comments from other virtual friends in the online whisk(e)yverse. The interesting thing about this is that it doesn’t seem to be limited to fans of a particular region or type of whisky, though there is certainly some geographic variation corresponding with local conditions.
For those of us sitting stateside, the fatigue comes from endless undistinguished barrel picks, a surfeit of similar sourced whiskeys, and limited editions that vanish and reappear with a price tag that moves them out of the of realm of consumables and into the kingdom of collectibles.
Things seem to be even worse in the U.K., where retail prices for any Scotch whisky with a whiff of desirability escalate endlessly, when those bottles can be found at all. More often, they disappear within seconds, snatched up by bots run by flippers to ensure a constant stream of income.
The less said about Japan, the better. There was a time during my frequent travels there (circa 2018) when I would actually have been able to turn a tidy profit by importing bottles of Japanese whisky for resale. The trans-Pacific version of “Coals to Newcastle” became “Malts to Minato,” based on the sticker prices prevailing in Ginza boutiques.
So dire is the situation everywhere that I am increasingly hearing of folks abandoning whisky altogether in favor of the types of “malternatives,” (rum, Cognac, Armagnac, mezcal) usually featured in this space on Sundays. More depressingly, I heard from a budding bourbon enthusiast that he was already prepared to give up, feeling like he had gotten into the hobby at “the wrong time.”
Lacking omnipotence or any of the other universe-bending powers imparted by the Infinity Stones, I am unable to change global whisky supply, demand, or prices. Usually, a global economic catastrophe would be good for a dose of deflation, but the last several decades’ worth of those saw whisky prices decline only momentarily, if at all.
What I can advise, based on my aforementioned newfound enthusiasm, is a change of scenery. There’s such a thing as being too well-versed in a given type of whisky. As our connoisseurship grows, so does our jaundice. Our preconceptions narrow our perceptions of what is “good,” while our anchoring bias means that almost nothing seems like a good value in comparison to prices from a few years back.
It’s more difficult to overcome prejudice than it is to start afresh, free of experience, and with a mind genuinely open to possibilities. To bring it back home: though I’m conscious of all the challenging currents running through Scotch whisky, I do not have the constant exposure to them (in the way that I do with bourbon) which leaves me in a state of enervated cynicism. Put differently: I can relax more readily, without all the hypercritical overthinking that mars my experiences elsewhere.
If you decide to join me for a walk down the road less traveled by (at least, by you), I need to be honest with you: the trail doesn’t lead to the top of the mountain. If a savvy and reasonably well-connected shopper like myself has trouble laying hands on the most coveted bourbon, the odds of a tourist doing any better are exceedingly slim.
I’m saying that with no offense meant to anybody; it’s the same for me when I dabble in Scotch. I can’t rely on an army of bots, friendly bottle shop employees, or my ability to queue at a distillery on an appointed date and time. The Scotch whisky that ends up in my hands is mostly in volumes of an ounce or two, shared by generous friends who have parted with their own private stash to broaden and deepen my liquid education.
Speaking of generous friends: many of my sample bottles bear handwritten tags adorned with the mellifluous penmanship of Ryan, who was the source of the whisky I’ll be reviewing today. In keeping with the theme I just laid out, this is also a new (to me) distillery: Ben Nevis. Though we’ve had a fair deal of Ben Nevis coverage here (most recently from Jon), the distillery’s output has heretofore eluded me, unless you count Nikka blends.
This is an independently-bottled Ben Nevis coming to us from Berry Bros. & Rudd. It is a single cask (#1196), distilled in 1996 and initially matured for 22 years in a refill sherry butt, at which point half the cask was bottled. The second half was matured for another two years in a first-fill Oloroso butt, reaching the age of 24 years before being bottled in 2020 as a Royal Mile Whiskies exclusive. Bottling strength is 52.1% ABV. Retail price on release was £170, which I will use for scoring.
Berry Bros. & Rudd Ben Nevis 24 Years Old Cask #1196 – Review
Color: Medium-pale bumblebee.
On the nose: At first, honeyed lemon aroma mingles with a pert note of mint. There’s a soapiness to this that is noticeable, but not in a bad way. A deeper inhalation reveals a surprising note of very ripe tangerine, some weak black tea, and a touch of ground cinnamon. The more I concentrate on the spicy notes, the more they evolve a Christmas-y quality which is very pleasant. More citrus fruit emerges over time, specifically limes.
In the mouth: This starts with a mildly peppery bite of spice, which makes the transition into the spicy and tart flavor of grapefruit as this ascends the tongue. That soapy character reemerges in the form of a texture at midpalate, before the wood influence takes over in the form of some tannic astringency and a resurgence of peppery spice. The finish takes a savory, meaty turn, though this recedes in favor of that soapy aspect, which lingers as an aftertaste. The ABV is felt in the form of a tingle on the tongue and a persistent, radiant heat throughout the mouth.
This doesn’t present many of the flavors that I typically associate with sherry cask maturation or finishing; the presentation is much more akin to what I’d expect from an ex-bourbon barrel. The high points are the many fruity notes in here, with the tangerine and grapefruit being especially excellent. I’m not quite sure how I feel about the soapy aromas, flavors, and textures. They’re not offensive, but they stick out a bit in a way the feels slightly incongruous with the rest of the whisky’s progression.
Considering the price, I’d be on the fence about whether I’d purchase another bottle of this. After all, there are so many other regions, distilleries, and expressions to explore! To reflect that ambiguity, I am marking this in the middle of the range.
Though that score may not reflect it, I am brimming with joy at having once again expanded my whisky horizons. Lacking a frame of reference, I can’t say with certainty whether this is a great, good, fair, or poor Ben Nevis. It’s certainly not my favorite Scotch of all time, but that’s OK. I ventured out, learned a little bit, and am no worse for having done so. If you’re feeling down in the dumps I’d encourage you to do likewise, and please let me know where your wanderings take you!
Bottle photo courtesy of Whisky Auctioneer.