In terms of picturesque locations, the Ben Nevis distillery is hard to beat, sitting at the foot of the mountain that towers above Fort William and seemingly reaches skyward into the clouds. Today, the town can only call upon Ben Nevis as its sole survivor, but just over a hundred years ago, it was a bustling centre of distillation with at least 3 producers dotted around this remote town. Even today, the town is not the most accessible by road, with a slow drive guaranteed whichever way you go. Back in the 1800’s transportation was far more convenient by boat and cask could be ferried along Loch Linnhe, before venturing past Islay and Jura on the way to the blenders and merchants based in Glasgow.
The Nevis was a distillery established in 1878 on the midst of a whisky boom, but by 1908 had closed forever, being subsequently demolished and production switched to Ben Nevis. The Nevis distillery helped establish the popular Dew of Nevis scotch along with the Ben Nevis distillery. The 3rd producer in the area was Glenlochy that closed in the 1980’s and still stands in some form, having being converted into residential accommodation. It’s worth the effort to visit this piece of distilling history, as you can immediately recognise the buildings thanks to the preserved pagoda’s and ornate red brickwork.
Keeping the town’s heritage alive is the Ben Nevis that is conveniently located on the outskirts of the town and offers a classic old fashioned type of tour with a distillery shop to match. The distillery can trace its origins back to 1825, making it the oldest of the Fort William trio. It was founded by the infamous Long John McDonald; a name you may recognise due to the popularity of the blended scotch that took his name. Its convenient water source come from the surrounding mountainside with the Coire Leis and Coire na’Ciste flowing into Allt-a-Mhuilinn, which is tapped by the distillery. Ben Nevis remained in family hands until 1941, when a consortium led by Joseph Hobbs took over the reins. This prompted a period of change at Ben Nevis, with a Coffey still being installed in 1955 that allowed the owners to produce their own grain whisky on site thus enabling them to create specific blends.
For while the distillery blended its grain and malt whiskies together before placing them into casks; this is a rare practice with the only other example springing to mind is Lochside distillery that tried this approach for a short period. There is a linkage, as Joseph Hobbs also owned Lochside distillery and installed a Coffey still on site. Hobbs also in the 1950’s made arguably one of the most bizarre changes in Scottish whisky history, by removing the Oregon pine washbacks and replacing them with concrete equivalents. This innovation thankfully did not catch on, as the material was not suited to the constant demands of being cleaned and fermentation.
The distillery closed in 1978 before being purchased by Whitbread, who owned several distilleries across Scotland. Major investment was required across the site with £2 million being spent prior to Ben Nevis resuming production in 1985. Part of these changes thankfully included the removal of the concrete washbacks (replaced by 8 stainless steel equivalents) and the Coffey still. In 1989 the Japanese giant (Nikka) purchased Ben Nevis and by the following year it was back in production supplying whisky for its popular domestic blends.
The Ben Nevis distillery for its age is set out across a substantial site despite being relatively overlooked in whisky terms. Its scale means it that it has an almost industrial feel with a sizeable still room containing 4 impressively positioned stills as you view these from ground level. There are 10 warehouses on site including the original warehouse from 1825 and one of the largest was used to film scenes from the 1986 Highlander film starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery.
Today Ben Nevis has faithful support from the independent bottlers and seems to come of age at around 16-years-old, with some fine sherry cask expressions receiving enthusiastic support. Officially the 10-year-old remains the entry level bottling and there is a peated ode to the past with the MacDonald’s Traditional Ben Nevis. The distillery under its current management has also released single cask bottlings featuring port and sherry casks to widespread acclaim. The rugged character of Ben Nevis and its location comes through in its whisky, which lacks the refinement of a Speyside and represents a distinctive Highland malt.