Last Stand at Fort William
First Society bottling in 1989.
Travellers to Fort William who come to climb Scotland's highest peak, Ben Nevis, will find a single malt of the same name to ease their aches and dry their bones after a long, arduous day on the mountain.
The west coast of Scotland boasts some very lush and beautiful scenery that is the happy product of frequent and copious rainfall. And on the days that rain and fog enshroud Ben Nevis Mountain, Ben Nevis Distillery experiences an increase in visitors who come for a tour, a wee dram, and some outstanding shortbread available in the new Visitors' Centre tea-room.
Fort William once boasted no fewer than three distilleries: Ben Nevis, Nevis and Glenlochy. Demolition removed all traces of the Nevis Distillery, the sister to Ben Nevis, and a housing estate now occupies the site. The owners of the second distillery, Glenlochy, converted many of the buildings to a hotel and offices. Although presently used for different purposes, the malt barn, filling store, warehouses, and pagoda roof, remain standing on the site of Glenlochy, primarily because they are listed buildings. Ben Nevis is now the only surviving distillery in Fort William and one of the two still remaining on Scotlands west coast.
Ben Nevis Distillery was licensed in 1825 by John 'Long John' MacDonald, who established the first legal distillery in the area. He stood six feet four inches tall and his stature helped to silence any of the illicit distillers who challenged the newly licensed distillery. The location of the distillery at the foot of Ben Nevis ensured a steady and very pure water source from two lochans situated 3,000 feet up the north face of the mountain. Additionally, the close proximity to Loch Linnhe provided ready access to the steamers delivering raw materials to the distillery and transporting matured whisky to markets.
His son Donald later acquired and ran the distillery his father had founded. In honour of his father, he named the single malt Long John's Dew of Ben Nevis. The reputation for his whisky grew considerably, and Donald P. MacDonald built a new distillery nearby, Nevis Distillery, in order to meet the growing demand for more production. The control of both distilleries stayed in the hands of the MacDonald family until 1944 when Joseph Hobbs gained the ownership of both Ben Nevis and Nevis Distilleries.
Local legend relates the story that Hobbs, a Canadian, then turned around the same day he had bought the Nevis Distillery and sold it to the adjacent Glenlochy Distillery so that they could expand their warehousing. However, sometime between the buying and selling, Hobbs had the wall and gates to Nevis dismantled, carted up the road, and installed at Ben Nevis Distillery. The gates and wall still stand at Ben Nevis today, but the gates don't quite meet when they close because they were never intended for this site.
Hobbs escapades continued at Ben Nevis where he had a grain still installed next to the pot stills so that he could distil all the spirit needed to produce a blend. Additionally, he blended all of the malt whiskies and the grain whiskies together as soon as they were distilled and then filled the blends into casks for maturing, a practice he termed 'blending at birth'.
Traditionally, malt whisky and grain whisky are matured separately, then all the single malts for a blend are married together in vats for several months before the grain whisky is added. Hobbs 'blending at birth' created a product that had varied results and proved to be inconsistent.
After Hobbs died, Long John International became the owners when they purchased Ben Nevis Distillery in 1981. Until 1984, Long John used Ben Nevis only for warehousing and trial production. In 1984 they began production again, but closed it shortly afterwards in 1986 when production slowed throughout the entire whisky industry. Sadly, Ben Nevis Distillery fell silent once more and reverted to a warehousing site where whisky quietly matured.
Three years later, Nikka Whisky Distillery Company, a Japanese firm, bought Ben Nevis Distillery. Olive Checkland in her book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend noted that the association between the Nikka Family and Scotland was a strong one and a long one. The chairman and founder of the Nikka Distilling Company, Masataka Taketsuru, attended classes at Glasgow University and worked in Scotland's distilleries after the First World War. He returned to Japan in 1920 not only with the intention to build a whisky distillery but also with his Scottish wife, Rita Cowen. In 1989 Taketsurus adopted son returned, ten years after his father's death, to buy Ben Nevis Distillery.
Nikka invested extensively in refurbishing the distillery, including the removal of concrete washbacks installed by Hobbs and building a Visitors' Centre to open the distillery to the public. The tun room now uses stainless steel washbacks, but the four original copper stills remain the heart of the distillery. The stills have a slight downward angle to the lyne arm with short thick necks and angled shoulders allowing some heavier and fuller flavours to develop in the still. The sherry and bourbon casks used to age the whisky on site contribute to the final flavour profile. The distillery presently bottles a ten-year-old single malt with flavours of rich oak underscored with peat. Notes of the bubbling brown sugar and toffee apples contribute to the full rich flavours that end with a dry, slightly bitter finish. It is interesting to note that the Scotch Malt Whisky Society has bottled several interesting casks from Ben Nevis recently, including a seven year old aged in a first fill ex-Bourbon cask (see Spring bottlings list), an intriguing 14 year old. The encouraging results have spurred the Society to send fresh sherry gordas to Ben Nevis to be filled with new distillate and to age in the warehouses at Fort William.
Whether or not the Nikka Family bought Ben Nevis because of a reverence and attraction to Scotland's highest mountain, rising behind the distillery, or simply because of their strong ties with Scotland, the Japanese ownership has insured the future of the distillery. Significantly, Colin Ross, the Managing Director, has been able to distil whisky at Ben Nevis continually with consistent production and has established a new wood policy. Under his direction the stocks of whisky produced during the years 1984 to 1986, when they were owned by Long John International, were transferred from their existing casks into fresh sherry and bourbon casks. The last decade has brought both stability and direction at Ben Nevis helping to revive the distillery and its whisky's reputation.