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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ben Nevis Distillery: An Introduction and History


It's Ben Nevis month here at Diving for Pearls!

What does that mean exactly? Unless a cold knocks out my palate — the odds of which are favorable in this household — I will be reviewing TWELVE Ben Nevis single malts, four per week, and then opening up one of my bottles of Ben Nevis for a thirteenth review. That whisky will probably be a bit different than the dozen that precede it and should add to the overall experience.

There will still be a Killing Whisky History on Friday, which will be something which is most certainly NOT Ben Nevis. And maybe I'll throw in a review of something else fun at the end of the month.

Don't be surprised if there are additional distillery and brand explorations in the future...


Ben Nevis Distillery was founded by Long John McDonald (among other investors) in 1825, on the very Fort William acreage on which it operates today. Such was Ben Nevis's early success that a second facility, Nevis Distillery, was built nearby in 1878. But when the whisky market busted, the newer distillery closed in 1908. The original Ben Nevis site continued production and remained in the McDonald family until 1941, when it was sold to Joseph Hobbs, a Canadian millionaire who made his fortune bootlegging Teacher's Highland Cream into America during Prohibition.

Hobbs kept very busy in Scotland during the war years, helping National Distillers of America get their hooks into the Bruichladdich, North Esk, Glenury Royal, Fettercairn, Strathdee, Glenlochy and Benromach distilleries. He also had a brewery rebuilt into Lochside distillery. But Ben Nevis was his, and he immediately shut it down. For fourteen years. When he reopened it in 1955, it now had a Coffey Still and concrete washbacks. Both grain and malt were produced on site, and blends of the two were barreled at birth.

The distillery closed again in 1978, and the distillery was sold back to the McDonald family in 1981. It was reopened in 1984, with the Coffey Still removed. The distillery closed again in 1986. In 1989 it was sold to Nikka Whisky Distilling Company (now part of Asahi Group Holdings). Nikka opened the distillery in 1989, having replaced the concrete washbacks with steel and wooden ones.


Today, Ben Nevis has the capacity to distill 2,000,000 liters. Out of this total, it tends to produce about 50,000 liters of heavily peated (30-35ppm) spirit. It's one of the last (if not the last) scotch distilleries to use Brewer's Yeast. Fermentation used to be 48 hours in the steel washbacks and 96 hours in the wooden washbacks, but as of 2014 it's now 48 hours in all of them. Ben Nevis new make weighs in at 70%abv, and is barreled at 63.4%abv. Those barrels go into one of five dunnages or the racked warehouse. Or...

According to Malt Whisky Yearbook 2018, 75% of the distillery's output is transported to Japan for Nikka's blends, including Black Nikka. (On an editorial note, I have to say that sounds spectacularly inefficient, but I'd love to see how those tankers go from the West Highlands to the Chiba Prefecture.) That's up from the 50% amount reported two years earlier. Apparently the Japanese are thirsty.


Now that I've plumped your brains with useful nerdery, I shall dazzle your eyes with Ben Nevis single malt reviews starting next Monday. In the meantime, sit tight and stay warm.

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--MacLean, Charles. Whiskypedia. A Compendium of Scotch Whisky. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.
--MacLean, Charles. Scotch Whisky, A Liquid History. London, UK: Cassell Illustrated, 2005.
--Ronde, Ingvar (Ed.). Malt Whisky Yearbook 2018. Shropshire, UK: MagDig Media. 2017.