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Long John MacDonald
Ben Nevis distillery was founded in 1825. The distillery was run by ‘Long John’ MacDonald, who learned the skills of a distillery on his family farm. Long John was something of a local legend. He was said to stand at 6’4″, enormous by the standards of the day. Some of the illicit distillers in the area took issue with MacDonald’s legal distillery but when they ambushed him one evening, he fought them off single-handed.
Long John’s lineage traces back to the earliest MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles and beyond that, to Robert the Bruce himself. His family, the Keppoch MacDonalds, marched with Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion. Alexander, the clan chief, even counselled against the use of Culloden as the battlefield but was ultimately overruled and died in the conflict with his kin. Long John was born just 53 years after the battle and the reverberations must still have been rumbling on as he grew. It was perhaps a little of this rebellious family spirit that attracted him to distilling in the first place.
Upon his death in 1865, the distillery passed to John’s son – Peter. He marketed the whisky as Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis and expanded to include a second distillery nearby. Like many distilleries though, the good times weren’t to last and Ben Nevis closed in 1908. The next century saw great unsettlement with new owners coming and going and lengthy periods of closure. Then, in 1989, the distillery was bought by Japanese whisky producer Nikka. A Visitor Centre and Cafe were added in 1991 and in 1996 came the launch of a new 10-year-old single malt.
This particular Ben Nevis was released by The Vintage Malt Whisky Co, an independent bottler founded in 1992 by Brian Crook, a former export director for a well-known distiller. He set out with the aim of hunting down and bottling exceptional casks from some of Scotland’s finest distilleries. The Vintage portfolio includes the Finlaggan and Ileach brands and The Cooper’s Choice range of single casks.
Smell: Chocolate Orange on the nose with Barley, Vanilla, Almond and Honey, even a slight musty note.
Taste: Orange and Chocolate again with Caramel and warming Spices like Cinnamon, Clove and Ginger.
Thoughts: £65 isn’t necessarily budget-friendly but there are only 320 bottles of this stuff around. Ben Nevis single malt doesn’t appear anything like as regularly as it should on UK shelves so it’s always interesting to sample another take on it. This one was pleasant, though perhaps a little underwhelming.
Distillery bottlings of Ben Nevis can be quite magnificent at times so I expected big things from this. It didn’t quite live up to that, unfortunately. For 17 years of age, the cask influence is pretty subtle. In itself, that isn’t a bad thing but although you could sense some of that Nevis complexity, the end result was somehow a little lifeless.
Enjoyable but not as good as it could have been.