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The Ben Nevis distillery was built in 1825 in Lochy Bridge, Fort William. Nestled at the foot of the highest mountain in the British Isles, the distillery was founded by one Angus McDonnell though it was a man named Long John McDonald who took the spirit to the masses.
Long John, a giant and rather colourful character, purchased the distillery in 1830 and made a great success of it, counting the King of Holland, The Duke of Buccleuch and even Buckingham Palace amongst his many customers. When the great man passed away in 1856, Ben Nevis passed to his son Donald who built on the work of his Father. Such was his success, he was forced to construct a second distillery on adjoining land in order to keep up with demand. At its peak, the entire site contained two distilleries, a sawmill and a farm with some 200 head of cattle and an incredible 230 employees. It was quite the operation, churning out more liquid per year than almost any other malt distillery in the country.
At the turn of the century however, the whisky industry hit a dramatic slide that saw businesses across the country close down, many forever. Ben Nevis, then under the ownership of Donald’s sons was forced to close down the new distillery, whilst the original continued to operate with the occasional interruptive spell in mothballs.
In recent times Ben Nevis was acquired by Japanese distilling giant Nikka, a company founded by the great Masataka Taketsuro who came to Scotland to study at Glasgow University and learned the art of whisky making through apprenticeships at several distilleries. After marrying a Kirkintilloch girl named Rita Cowan, Masataka returned to Japan and used his newfound knowledge to produce whisky with Suntory before later giving birth to his own company, Nikka. Such is the abiding fame of Masataka and Rita, a TV dramatisation of their story was broadcast in 2014 and ran to over 100 episodes.
Ben Nevis meanwhile has been in constant production since the Japanese takeover, with much of its spirit heading east to be used in the parent companies blends. What remains in Scotland however is of impressively high quality in spite of its low quantity. The distillery’s output also appears occasionally as an independently bottled expression and it is one such malt that I shall be reviewing here.
Signatory Vintage are an independent bottler founded in 1988 by Andrew Symington, one-time manager of the Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh. The company was initially based in the capital but moved in 2002 when Symington purchased Edradour distillery on the outskirts of Pitlochry in Highland Perthshire.
Signatory have a rigorous release schedule, with anything up to 50 individual products being available simultaneously. This particular expression was distilled at Ben Nevis on the 5th of February 2010 before bottling on the 18th of September 2019. Matured in a refill sherry butt it is bottled (as part of the ‘un-chillfiltered collection’) at 46%.
Smell: Young and malty. Biscuit. Lemon drizzle cake. Honey and marzipan. Orange. A little nutty with brown sugar and cinnamon.
Taste: Lemon sponge cake. Honey. White pepper. Grain. Chocolate orange. Apple. Subtle rum & raisin notes come through with some gingery spice from the refill butt.
Thoughts: Signatory’s Un-Chillfiltered Collection is generally very well priced but can be a little hit or miss in my experience. Fortunately this Ben Nevis manages to be more of the former than the latter.
A young fresh nose belies a satisfying richness. One of the rare occasions a dram delivers more on the palate than it promised on the nose. Nine years in a refill butt certainly hasn’t created a sherry bomb but the wood has left enough of an impression to elevate this young malt beyond forgettable, inoffensiveness. A pleasant drinker for under £50.
Visit Ben Nevis here.
Visit Signatory here.