Ben Nevis distillery is situated near Fort William in the Western Scottish Highlands, at the base of it's namesake mountain, the highest in the UK. Ben Nevis is the only 'foreign' distillery owned by Nikka, one of Japan's largest whisky producers, who purchased and revived the operation in 1989 after it had laid dormant for 2 years under the previous owners. As such the distillery does send some of its spirit production to Japan in bulk to be used in the parent company's blended whiskies. Interestingly, the distillery only uses brewer's yeast in its fermentation, which is widely believed to give more character and flavour than the more commonly used and more efficient (as in higher yield) distiller's yeast.
Ben Nevis regularly release a small range of official bottlings including a couple of blended whiskies and single malts, including the 10-year old bottling I'm reviewing here, and a handful of older single cask bottlings. I reviewed a 21-year old single cask around a year ago and wasn't impressed, finding it too tannic and bitter for my tastes, and a little hot for it's age. But that was quite an unorthodox whisky, having spent 13 years in refill ex-sherry casks and another 8 years in what I would say were first- or second-fill ex-port casks, before bottling at cask strength.
This 10-year old expression we're looking at first should be a little more conventional, and has obviously had far less time 'in wood' to be able to pick up those characteristics. It's obviously considerably cheaper as well, although at $100 it's slightly more expensive than most comparable 10-year old whiskies at a similar strength. Unfortunately there's very little useful information out there on this bottling, so I was unable to find whether it had been chill-filtered or artificially coloured. As we know, the Japanese whisky producers generally aren't averse to using spirit caramel, so judging by the colour I'm assuming this was the case with this Ben Nevis 10-year old. Since it has been bottled at 46% (which negates the need for chill filtration) you'd hope it hasn't been chill filtered, but we can't be sure without it being on the label.
Ben Nevis 10-year old, 46%. Highlands, Scotland.
Very little information available, bourbon & sherry cask matured. Added artificial colouring, possibly non-chill filtered.
Nose: Fresh & herbal. Thick stewed fruits, a little honey. Some dried mint, juniper & anise, cooking chocolate. Roasted nuts, some yeasty bread and rich, warm oak.
Texture: Heavy weight, meaty & chewy. A little heat, but not unpleasant.
Taste: Thick meaty sherry, dryer than on the nose. More stewed fruits and cooking chocolate. Spicy, with a little chilli and more juniper, and some more rich oak.
Finish: Medium length. Spicy, and more of that cooking chocolate, and a little more of that yeasty bread.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Next up we have a 24-year old independent bottling from Signatory Vintage's Cask Strength series. It was matured in a single ex-sherry butt, and bottled at a cask strength of 54.7% without chill filtration or added colouring. Signatory are becoming one of my favourite independent bottlers, their bottlings seem to be consistently high quality and often quite reasonably priced ($240 here for this bottling), so I have high hopes for this one.
Ben Nevis 24-year old, Signatory Vintage bottling, 54.7%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask number 3833, single ex-sherry butt, 566 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Gold. Almost identical to the 10, in fact.
Nose: Massively different to the 10. Brighter, lighter, sweeter. Passion fruit pulp, light toffee, vanilla cream biscuits. Some milk chocolate & wet wool.
Texture: Medium-heavy weight, meaty again. A little heat, around the same as the 10 despite the increased strength.
Taste: Thick & chewy again, much drier than it was on the nose. Dried tropical fruit, spicy oak, more milk chocolate, and a little chilli.
Finish: Medium-long length, more passion fruit & creamy vanilla, malt biscuits and honeyed oak.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: Both have a very impressive thick & meaty texture, which I really enjoyed! The 10-year old is more savoury and meaty than its older cousin, still fruity but in a darker way. The 24-year old on the other hand is very bright & fruity on the nose, but turns drier and meatier on the palate. Both are very enjoyable whiskies, and while I do prefer the Signatory bottling, the 10-year old does offer good value for money. But then so does the 24-year old, especially at cask strength! Not sure I would have picked the Signatory bottling as a sherry cask if this was a blind tasting, there isn't much in the way of the typical sherry characteristics here, but it's a delicious whisky regardless.
These two have certainly changed my initial impression of Ben Nevis for the better, that meaty, chewy texture in particular certainly makes a big difference. Very nice stuff. And I'm still very impressed with Signatory's cask strength collection, I haven't come across a bad one yet! Thanks to Craig from The Whisky Company, Signatory's Australian importer, for the samples, and for my first proper foray into Ben Nevis.