Ben Nevis is a wonderful distillery that has, sadly, recently become a laughing stock of sorts, what with its being bottled as Nikka Japanese whisky. I’ll admit that, with my review of an Old Particular Ben Nevis 18 year old, I’m one of those detractors.
Part of my jumping on that trend was the feeling of betrayal. The reputation of the Japanese for being honest and not cutting corners is so well-known that we can forget they’re also people like us. Being reminded of this momentarily cut deep.
The other reason is some sort of bitter feelings. Nikka’s use of Ben Nevis to supplement their “Japanese whisky” sales meant it made it hard to acquire the original bottlings (OBs). This meant that independently bottled (IB) ones, oddly, became the easier way to taste them. While it’s common for geeks to prefer the IBs over the OBs, I still want to try the OBs to better gauge the distillery’s profile. To knock something, you should at least try it once.
Thankfully, I was finally able to acquire an OB from Ben Nevis. It’s the Ben Nevis Macdonald’s Traditional. This is said to be a recreation of the distillery’s (peated) style from 130 years ago. (There’s also a previous version of this with a different label). If you’re familiar with the distillery’s more accessible expressions, they tend to be unpeated and aged in ex-sherry casks. Judging by the color and flavors, the Macdonald’s Traditional are aged in ex-bourbon casks.
I initially found Ben Nevis to be an interesting single malt, since it was often mentioned along with other single malts that aged well in ex-sherry casks such as Clynelish and Mortlach. Despite my dislike for anything with ex-wine cask influences, my interest in these distilleries didn’t wane. It’s mainly due to knowing that their distillery DNA tends to be more spirit forward when compared to the single malts found from other distilleries.
Having a fermentation of at least 48 hours (that would last longer during the weekend) is interesting. To me, this means that they’re still not operating in the same maximum capacity as the other mainstream distilleries are. Fermentation lasting over the weekend would mean that they get some batches that ferment for at least 72 to 96 hours, which should result in more congeners. hence more flavor. I’m guessing this allows them to blend these longer fermented batches with the regular 48 hour fermented distillate to be more flexible with flavor.
What’s also interesting about their fermentation is that they’re said to be the only Scotch single malt distillery left that uses brewer’s yeast. This is a type of yeast that was used in the old days. It just screams “inefficiency” to me, which often translates to more flavor when it comes to booze. For reference, Clynelish uses pressed yeast. Mortlach uses creamed yeast.
I’m also a sucker for distilleries that use wooden washbacks. Ben Nevis has six stainless steel and two pine washbacks. My fascination with the wooden washbacks stems from their ability to create their own unique environment. Read my previous article on fermentation if you want to know more about how wooden washbacks differ from stainless steel ones. I like to think of these unique bacterial environments in wooden washbacks as similar to mother sauces/soups in some Asian cultures, where there’s always a little bit of something from the original batch.
MacDonald’s Ben Nevis Traditional – Review
46% ABV. £53.76 from The Whisky Barrel, €83 from La Maison Du Whisky.
Color: Chrysanthemum tea.
On the nose: Initially, light aromas of peat and smoke. After these are more pronounced aromas of Fuji apples, apple vinegar, marzipan, puto (Filipino steamed rice cakes), dehydrated lemon peel, and ginger candy. Underneath are subtle aromas of nougat, toffee, and honey.
In the mouth: The peat and smoke here are more pronounced and last longer than on the nose. There’s also an enveloping pepperiness with a slightly oily texture. After that are light tastes of toffee, honey, and caramel. Then, I get slightly more pronounced tastes of marzipan, cream, leather, vanilla, pears, Fuji apples and matcha flavored-chocolate.
It’s nice to finally taste an OB Ben Nevis that I can remember. What’s nicer is I now own a bottle… a peated one, at that! With the renewed Japanese whisky rules, is it too naive to hope for the chance that Nikka will start using less Ben Nevis stocks for their blended expressions? I hope that will be the case. I’d love to encounter more OBs in the wild.
Regardless of my hopes and dreams, I like this one. For me, this is a balanced and two-faced whisky. Since the nose is fruit-heavy while the mouth is more cereal-heavy. There’s enough peat, smoke, fruitiness, and cereal flavors in it. It’s a shame that this seems to be a once-in-a-while release despite not being considered a limited-edition OB.
Get this if you can. How much peated OB Ben Nevis is out there, after all?
(6/10 at the LMDW price)