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Influential whisky vlogger Ralph Mitchell (aka Ralfy) has spent much of 2019 justifiably celebrating 10 years of his YouTube channel and website Ralfy.com. In order to mark the occasion he worked with distillers and independent bottlers of some repute to produce an array of bottlings, one of which was an intriguing 4 year old single malt from Ben Nevis distillery, released in partnership with the Good Spirits Co of Glasgow.
When I first began to explore the world of whisky in depth I stumbled across one of Ralfy’s videos and soon found myself totally absorbed by both his knowledge and the ease with which he relayed it. I learned a lot from watching his videos and his enthusiasm and passion for the subject was without a doubt a contributing factor in my developing a desire to write about whisky myself.
As a regular visitor to the Good Spirits Co (another massive contributor to my own knowledge by the way, but I’ve praised them enough already), I try to keep up with their excellent single cask bottlings as best I can and couldn’t resist snapping up this latest offering, not just because it celebrated ten years of the shop and Ralfy being malt-mates but also because it sounded like a really interesting and unusual dram.
Ben Nevis distillery was founded in 1825 in Fort William in the Highlands of Scotland. Its early history is dominated by the impressive figure of Long John McDonald, who made a success of the business before passing it on to his son Donald. The young man carried on where his father left off and by 1878 Ben Nevis was arguably the largest distilling site in all of Scotland, employing more than 200 men and pumping out some 236,000 gallons of liquid per year.
Many years later following a period of closure, the distillery came under the ownership of another colourful character named Joseph Hobbs. Born in Hampshire in 1891, Hobbs soon emigrated with his family to a farm in British Columbia though he returned to the UK to serve in the Royal Navy during the First World War. After the War he served as Lieutenant Commander in the Canadian Naval Reserve before setting up his own shipping company Hobbs Brothers Ltd.
When the 1920’s brought prohibition to the US, Hobbs was ideally placed to make his fortune and began running scotch whisky into California. Shipping records show his vessel ‘The Lillehorn‘ once set sail from Antwerp laden with a cargo of 136,000 cases of Teacher’s Highland Cream which were duly delivered to San Francisco. Using small speedboats the scotch was smuggled ashore where it could then be distributed to local bootleggers.
At the repeal of prohibition, Hobbs set up Associated Scotch Distillers and began to purchase distilleries in Scotland so that he might continue to profit from the flow of whisky into the US. Among his acquisitions was Ben Nevis, which he bought in 1941. Whilst in charge of the distillery, Hobbs installed a continuous coffey still so that he might produce both grain and malt whisky onsite, making Ben Nevis one of only a handful of plants to have ever had this capability. He even went so far as to blend the new makes together before casking, a process he claimed led to superior blended scotch.
Hobbs’ son sold the distillery in 1981, ironically to a company trading under the name Long John International. They in turn sold in 1989 to Japanese distilling giant Nikka who remain in ownership today.
Though the majority of spirit produced at the distillery comes from unpeated barley, a small portion of the year is spent producing a peated variant to be used in blends. It is a young version of this spirit that the Good Spirits Co and Ralfy have bottled after four years in an ex-sherry hogshead.
Smell: Nice woody smoke upfront. Charcoal and pepper. Sherry. Wee bit of sulphur -with struck matches and burnt toast – not unpleasant though. Orange. Honey. Brown sugar. Toffee.
Taste: Maple syrup. Dark chocolate orange creams. Ginger & pepper. Prune juice. Oak. Smoky blast at the finish.
Thoughts: Very reasonably priced at £55 a bottle. It’s young but age is just a number and the proof is very much in the tasting where this dram is concerned. In truth I suspect another year or two in the cask would have swamped the spirit and extinguished the smoke altogether.
It feels like this dram could so easily have gone wrong. A year younger and the spirit could have been a little rough around the edges. A year older and the wood would be dominating. Fortunately it seems to have been bottled at just the right time to find a sweet spot between spirit and oak. Big flavour but well balanced.
For more on the Good Spirits Co, visit here.
For more on Ben Nevis, visit here.
For more on Ralfy, visit here.