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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


  1. Definitely reads like it could be ex-sherry to me. If the outturn is the main thing you're going by it might have been a sherry hogshead. Do I have a sample of this?

    1. According to The Scottish Whisky Distilleries by Misako Udo (my very favorite book) Ben Nevis is peated to 20 ppm, so 1 point for you there. under "types of casks used" it lists: sherry, french wine, and bourbon -- so it's possible it came from a cask that held musty, funky french wine in fairly active American oak, but that's pure speculation.

    2. Yeah, it's definitely a hogshead. And the caramel notes indicate that it was at least somewhat active. And it's entirely possible they had seasoned it with sherry. What I found curious was that the wine/sherry notes I thought I'd found in the sample many months ago were reduced to just the musty moldy stuff when it came to my bottle. It's made me wonder if a spirit could develop those sort of characteristics via maturation in a non-wine cask.

      MAO -- Yeah, you should have a sample of this. It came from the top 1/3 of the bottle. Would be very interested in your take on it.

      Laser Wolf -- Thanks for the info about Ben Nevis's peating. It's good to know that I haven't been imagining peat. The 2013 Whisky Yearbook claims that BN stopped using peated malt "six years ago". If that's true, that's a pity. When was your copy of Udo's book published? That thing is going for $300+ used!

  2. Not that I've had very much from Ben Nevis but I can't say I've had any that I would have thought was peated to 20 ppm. In fact, some of the ex-bourbon Ben Nevis I've tried have had no discernible peat in them at all, and some only had very mild smoke/roasted malt notes. I wonder if 20 ppm was really standard practice.

  3. Published '06 or '07. Yes, it's appallingly expensive these days. I picked mine up for half that (still a lot) by checking amazon.co.uk which had a few sellers who have selected the "only ships within UK" option and thus weren't listed on amazon.com, then I did a google search for the bookstore with the lowest listing and found their stock also listed on Alibris but listed as "ships worldwide". Sometimes you get lucky.
    I suppose questions we must ask are "ppm pre or post distillation" as, for instance, Octomore quotes pre-distillation levels and the new peated AnCnoc are post-, and, as MAO suggests, "is every mash done with barley peated to the same levels." I similarly don't have enough experience with Ben Nevis to draw any conclusions.
    I have never experienced any musty notes in a whisky matured in bourbon wood, but I may recall suggestions of some Springbanks taking on the mustier aroma of the dunnage style warehouse in which they were aged -- the supposition being that those notes came from the warehouse not the wood.
    Not that any of that was at all helpful. Ah well. Hi Michael, I quite enjoy the blog, do please keep up the interesting work!

    1. Thank you, Laser! I hope someone decides to publish a new edition of Udo's book. It would sell very well amongst us geeks. Though this bottle of Ben Nevis is now empty, I've sent samples to a few other bloggers to get their take. I'm curious to hear what their takes are on the maturation and musty stuff.

  4. 20 ppm pre-distillation would still be close to Bowmore (25 ppm) and higher than Springbank.

    1. Ardmores tend to feel more peated than Ben Nevii, and Ardmore tends to peat at 10-15ppm. Perhaps Ben Nevis did higher peated runs for the malt they were sending to the Nikka blends. I think that a lot of these distilleries have started providing their production information only recently. Many of them still leave it a mystery as to whether they're peating or not, let alone how much.

  5. Ben Nevis has been an interesting discovery for me on my malt journey. The way Ralfy describes the distillery suggests a more old school whisky. Now I haven't had many "old school" whisky but the flavors I found in my Rattray bottling were very unique (I already mentioned that this bottling has a peanut butter nose). Apparently the distillery looks a little shabby due to Nikka not putting more money into fixing up the place but I think a rundown looking distillery has character and charm.

    1. Whenever the Scotland trip happens I'm definitely going to Ben Nevis, especially if it's shabby. Their site says they do tours/tastings.

      There is something definitely more challenging about Ben Nevis's malt. It's as if they're not forcing it to fit a shiny pretty mold, instead kinda letting it do its weird thing. That approach works for them, it doesn't work for Loch Lomond (because damn).

    2. I feel Ben Nevis falls very easily into the "old school" distillery category like Springbank even though they are Japanese owned. I'll definitely be on the lookout for more bottles because weird but fun is exactly what I'm in the mood for.

    3. There was a Cadenhead Ben Nevis that seemed to arrive everywhere but California this year. MAO gave it a very positive review. Other than that, only a few Duncan Taylors and Signatories have reached our shores.

  6. There was a maltman Ben Nevis 14?- that I sampled once from bottle and adored summer 2014. If I could only find a bottle or two...

  7. Wait. I think it was a 17.

    1. According to whiskybase, Maltman took one cask of 1996 Ben Nevis and split it up into three releases: A 16yo 49.3%abv in 2013, a 17yo 49.3%abv in 2014, and a 17yo 46%abv in 2014. The first two were for Europe, the last one was for The States. The US one appears to have been priced between $130-$150, which seems really steep. The European ones were in the $80-$90 range, which (to me) makes more sense.

      BUT! If you're in the US and desire that bottle (which I totally understand!) you might want to try these two places since they once had it the cheapest: