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The Story of Ben Nevis
The Ben Nevis distillery was founded in 1825 at Lochy Bridge, Fort William by a man named Angus McDonnell. One of his employees was a gentleman known as Long John McDonald who stood at 6 foot 4 inches high. Some believe Long John was a relative of McDonell’s, though any evidence to back up this claim is thin on the ground. It is clear however that by 1830, McDonald had been made a partner in the firm and within a year he had bought the company and distillery outright.
Long John had some history as a distiller and was known to have operated an illicit still somewhere on the hillside of the great Ben Nevis. His decision to go legitimate was viewed as something of a betrayal by the other distillers and smugglers of the area and on one occasion they waited for him and attacked him on his route home of an evening. Not one to back down from a fight however, McDonald stood his ground and soon had the men on the run with a few powerful swings of his walking stick.
In addition to his great ambition and courage, Long John had something of a flair for advertising and often sent his spirit to local nobility so that he could use their name to sell his whisky to an aspirational public, eager to be seen to enjoy the finest of products. As leader of the local mountain rescue, he once led a team up the darkened hillside of Ben Nevis to aid the Duchess of Buccleuch when she got into difficulty. His efforts were rewarded with the patronage of the Duke, a fact he wasted no time in advertising. He counted the King of Holland as a loyal customer and even sent a cask to Buckingham Palace in 1848, to be opened upon the event of the Prince of Wales’ 21st birthday in 1863.
Sadly however, Long John’s skill for both distilling and advertising hadn’t made him the greatest businessman. He had borrowed heavily to gain control of the distillery and when the banks came calling he was found wanting. Declared bankrupt, he passed away in 1856.
Ownership of the distillery then passed to his son Donald Peter McDonald. Under his astute leadership the business flourished and ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis Highland Pure Malt Whisky‘ was soon being sold all across the United Kingdom. Such was the demand for his spirit, Donald constructed a second distillery next door. Named simply Nevis, the new building took the capacity of the operation to 236,000 gallons making it arguably the biggest distillery in Scotland at that time (The Glenlivet by comparison, was producing around 200,000, The Macallan just 40,000).
When Donald passed away in 1891 the distillery was left to his two sons but when the devastating industry downturn of the early 20th century took hold, they closed the second distillery, never to reopen and were eventually persuaded to sell what remained of the business. The years that followed saw production stop and start under various owners until the distillery was bought by Japanese distilling giant Nikka in 1989. Thus it remains today, with much of the spirit bound for the Far East where it it used in many of Nikka’s blend recipes.
Though it is far from a common sight within the borders of its home country, the Ben Nevis 10 year old is a much loved dram and one that offers great value for money to those lucky enough to come across it. Bottled at 46%, it retails for around £50.
Smell: Nutty. Almond marzipan. Honey, vanilla and fudge. Chocolate and orange. Lemon and malt.
Taste: Toffee & vanilla. Honey. Biscuit. Orange. Dry oak. Dark chocolate and cocoa. Pepper.
Thoughts: The price has gone up of late, but even at £50 a bottle this is a great buy. You’ll struggle to find a better 10 year old single malt, especially in this kind of price range. It’s complex, layered and lingers long on the palate. You can’t really ask for much more.
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Visit Ben Nevis distillery here.