A Brief Stop at Ben Nevis Distillery

by Keith Savage · 4 comments

Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William, Scotland

Given the number of streams pouring off the bens and munros of Scotland’s west highlands, it’s shocking to encounter such a dearth of distilleries here. In fact, you will find only one between Talisker on the Isle of Skye and Oban distillery in the town of the same name. It’s in that wide swath of the western highlands called Lochaber one will find unassuming Ben Nevis Distillery. The distillery sits at the foot of — you guessed it — Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest point, and provides a decent reason to visit Fort William.

I would venture that Ben Nevis distillery is not on many radars these days. The only reason I sought it out is the simple fact I’m trying to visit every distillery in Scotland and it was one of the few near my base in Lochaber. Despite my repeated attempts to set up a thorough visit, what you’ve come to expect of my whisky posts, zero communication came my way and I settled with a simple and quick visit after a day of hiking. So the caveat is that what follows are my surface impressions!

First impression of Ben Nevis distillery is that it could use a little attention. I’ve visited over 40 distilleries around Scotland and seen gleaming gems like Glenrothes, Balvenie, and Glengoyne that make the visitor experience a top priority. On the other hand, Ben Nevis’s visitor experience feels a bit obligatory, and the general vibe of the place is more like those industrial distilleries that keep their heads down and churn out the juice.

Inside, the tour was in progress and the day was nearly over, so I merely wandered among the wares. The distillery produces several blended whiskies like Dew of Ben Nevis in addition to a few single malts. There’s even one called McDonald’s Celebrated Traditional Ben Nevis, which purports to replicate the style of the original Ben Nevis whisky.

The distillery was founded in 1825 by ‘Long John’ McDonald and underwent various mergers and bequeathments over the years. Ben Nevis closed in 1986 but was purchased by Japanese whisky company Nikka and reopened in 1991. This is Nikka’s only distillery in Scotland, and it’s unclear how well they’re doing managing it. Many believe the Ben Nevis bottlings from the 1980s are far and away the best and that the quality dropped off after Nikka took over.

I really didn’t want to leave without tasting Ben Nevis’s work, and I managed to convince the woman in charge of the whisky to give me a couple tasting pours. I haven’t seen Ben Nevis in my neck of the woods, and I had no idea what to expect. The McDonald’s dram was the color of polished oak with oranges, limes, and something like shoe polish and a hint of peat on the nose. On the palate I found dark chocolate, much more peat, and a decent finish reminiscent of black coffee. At 46% ABV it felt just right.

The Ben Nevis Ten Years Old is the distillery’s flagship bottle and reasonably priced to boot. The nose was rich with citrus fruits, probably oranges, and a hint of Sherry. The palate was all toffee, chocolate, and bittersweetness, but also an earthy tang that I quite liked. Visually, I actually like the simplicity of the bottle and label, which harken back to an earlier age of single malt. I picked up a bottle as my souvenir for the trip, and I’ve been enjoying it since Christmas.

Despite what I’ve heard about Ben Nevis’s whisky of late, I enjoyed the tastes I had. The distillery is situated so perfectly on the path from the Isle of Skye to Glasgow and Edinburgh that if it spent some time and money updating its facilities I’m sure it would reap a huge windfall. As it is, I fear many will miss it on their ramblings around Scotland.

CHIPNo Gravatar January 14, 2016 at 9:55 AM



Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 14, 2016 at 10:33 AM

No, Chip. At the distillery the same bottle was £32.50. I’ve never seen it in the USA, so it’s good to know it’s available if necessary.

KenNo Gravatar January 13, 2016 at 8:04 PM

I’d love to see this part of Scotland. Through the kindness of someone who’d been there I can say that the Ben Nevis 10 y/o is a very pleasant dram. I’d like to pick up a bottle on my next trip to Scotland.

HillaryNo Gravatar January 13, 2016 at 2:14 PM

Plan on stopping in Fort William on a trip this summer – may have to see this!

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