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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Life of a Whisky Bottle: Ben Nevis 14 year old 1998 Exclusive Casks

This is my third "life of a whisky bottle" post, and like the previous two it's a bit of an oddball, not what I'd consider a crowd pleaser.  But there's a better end to this "life of" story this time.

I bought this bottle as the result of February's big sample tasting (posted on Monday!).  My favorite of the eight Exclusive Cask samples was this 14 year old Ben Nevis.  But something seemed strange about it.  Here are those notes again:

4. Ben Nevis 14 year old 1998. 258 bottles, 53.2% ABV
Color - Light gold
Nose - Leather. Very dry sherry, but a funky moldy old school sherry.  Or, is it finally time for this blog to use the ultimate snoot word......rancio?  Then bacon, hay, burnt grains, cardamom.  Then floral soap (but good!), industrial grease, and grapefruit peel.  Yes, that bizarre.
Palate - Strange and herbal.  Cannabis meets orange peel, and it gets more candied with time.  And there has to be peat in here -- at least Bowmore levels.  Very silky texture.
Finish - More peatiness. Light toffee sweetness. Hazelnuts and walnuts. Intensely herbal.

There were a number of quirks present.  The whisky was clearly peated.  It also seemed to have been aged in an old sherry cask......but another online review said there were bourbon notes present.  The situation was fascinating enough that I started searching for a bottle.  In July I finally got my hands on it and I opened it immediately.

As a bit of background, I had enjoyed every Ben Nevis I've tried -- all of four of 'em.  Some older and newer Ben Nevis(es) have gotten the reputation of being odd.  And I doubt if you'll see many anoraks name the distillery as one of their top ten.  Well, it would be in my Top Ten if I ever actually formed one.  And not all Ben Nevises are weird.  But this one registered as odd, my kind of odd, during the sample tasting and now I'm glad to bring you this blog's first Ben Nevis review.

Distillery: Ben Nevis
Independent Bottler: The Creative Whisky Co.
Exclusive to: Total Wine & More
Age: 14 years old (Dec. 1, 1998 - ???)
Maturation: ???, probably some sort of hogshead
Limited bottling: 258
Region: Highlands (Western)
Alcohol by Volume: 53.2%

This bottle's usage:
32% - Swaps and shares
0% - Whisky experiments
24% - Graded tastings
45% - Casual drinking


Color - Medium gold, apple juice
Nose - Mango, papaya, and oranges, all in caramel. Something dusty and dank remains throughout. It's somehow plasticy, oily, and old school musty all at once.  Some subtle mossiness lingers as well.
Palate - Plenty of barley and a big green herbal kick. Irish brown bread with smoked caramel and smoked almonds. Yeasty and toasty.  Some bitterness creeps in.
Finish - Long and sticky. Salt, bread, savory herbs, and a light bitterness.

Nose - More citrus rind. Cumin, caramel, anise, ocean air, and vanilla. A little meaty too.
Palate - More vanilla and caramel (Cow Tales) from the oak. Bell peppers and peppercorns. Bitterer and drier. Still intense.
Finish - Herbs, bell pepper, dry, and bitter.


Nose - Moldy, mossy, rooty, and rosy.  Then molasses, perhaps a tropical fruit rum cocktail.  Hay, carob bark, Ceylon cinnamon, a hint of caramel.  Something between plastic and leather (pleather?).
Palate - Starts with an intense herbal hoppy bitter bite. Not quite cannabis (hops's cousin). Moldy, salty, and farmy. Dark green veggies and beef.  Then with some time orange candies and lime juice show up.  Then a hint of yeast and cereal grains. Still pretty youthful despite the moldy notes.
Finish - Meat & greens again. Limes with granulated sugar. A little smoky and then the herbal hoppy funk.  Long and sticky.

Nose - More perfumy and floral.  Citrus (fresh limes and oranges) begins to open up.  A gooey sugariness, maybe gumdrops? Still some moldy mossy stink to give it depth. A hint of bar soap or baby powder?
Palate - The bracing herbal bitterness (which I like) remains. Horseradish, bitter greens, soil, and roots. Traces of sugar and caramel.
Finish - More sugar now, though still very herbal and bitter, along with a little bit of smoke.


Nose - At first there's carob bark with roasted grains and nuts. Then lots of wheat products: Wheat Thins, Triscuits, and Kix cereal.  A lot of caramel.  Slightly gin-like in its herbals.  A hint of moldy basement and mint toothpaste.  With lots of air, notes of yeast, white bread, and rock candy arrive.
Palate - Sweet and herbal (mint and juniper). Cow Tales (vanilla + caramel) and Heath Bar (milk chocolate + toffee). Some cayenne pepper maybe? In the far back are the fruits (mango, cherries, and plums).  With air there's more bread, florals, and lemon rind.
Finish - Chocolate and carmel with a fresh mint tingle. A slightly tarter version of the palate's fruits.  But it's mostly roasty and toasty.

Nose - More sugar and mold. Sugary baked fruit, or maybe brandied fruit. Smaller notes of whipped cream, caramel, blossoms, milk chocolate, and ham.
Palate - Really strong on the herbs (green peppercorns, cilantro, and fennel seeds).  Sugar in the back, lots of malt up front. Some caramel and hops. A little of the neat palate's fruit. Mild bitterness.
Finish - Hops and yeast. Bitterer now. Herbs and caramel.

Time to answer my earlier questions.  Having a bottle which is a sample fifty times the size of that one from the tasting, has given me somewhat of a different view.  At the top of the bottle there were definite peat moss notes which faded somewhat by mid-bottle and nearly disappeared by the end.  So I was right about the peat.  But I have doubts that the whisky came from a sherry cask.  Due to the bottle count, I'm guessing this came from an American oak hogshead.  And while there aren't any full-on bourbon notes, there's a prevalence of caramel in the nose, and a lack of familiar sherry notes.  That dank moldy element seems to be coming from the spirit itself......which is cool if you like that sort of thing.  I do.  But that characteristic, combined with the peat, would have worked better in colder weather as opposed to the late hot summer we just had.

While the whisky's notes shifted around throughout the life of the bottle, the big herbalness (herbality?) remained constant.  While neat the palate was never too sweet and always brought some good bitterness.  Water never ruined it, and sometimes opened it up in different directions.  But when drinking it casually, I always had it neat.

There's something old school about this Ben Nevis, which I can't put my finger on.  Maybe it's that moldy thing.  Or perhaps it feels more old fashioned because it is so very much not sculpted.  All the seams and rough corners remain.  Because I like the roots and moss and mold and bitter herbs, this whisky appealed to me.  You probably have to like those elements too if you endeavor to chase down a bottle.

Availability - Total Wine & More, though in very few stores
Pricing - $79.99
Rating - 89