Ben Nevis Distillery – History and the rocks
The Scotch Whiskey industry is expanding and growing day by day. New trade links are developed through out the world and as we have shown in previous blogs, new and exciting whiskey projects are appearing monthly. However, from time to time we also like to take stock of where it all began. Ben Nevis distillery just outside Fort William, which sits in the shadows of the Scotland’s highest peak and its namesake Ben Nevis, has released a new bottle that celebrates both the history of the distillery and a particular, traditional style of whiskey they first produced 130 years ago. TheWhiskyBarrel.com blog team took a wee look at the distillery’s past that has developed alongside one of Scotland’s largest geological landscapes and see how the distillery and its rocky companion are getting on now – we explored the whiskey and the rocks.
In 1825 John McDonald established a distillery by the name of Benevas at the foot of the mountain and at the head of Loch Linnhe. The location next to Ben Nevis provided the distillery with a constant and most likely varied supply of water. Rain, mountain dew and mist are common features of the Nevis environment, not to mention the winter icicles and snow, all of which trickled down towards Loch Linnhe/Fort William and provided the water that helped produce around 4500 gallons of spirit between October 1826 and the end of the year. And it was water that provided another vital component to the distillery’s functions. The opening of the Caledonian Canal in 1822 running from near Fort William at Cropach to Inverness provided the distillery with the means to easily transport raw materials required during distillation, in particular barley from the North East. The barley was dried in the malt kiln which was heated by peat and therefore the whiskey would have had a distinctive peaty flavour most commonly associated with the Islay distilleries. By 1884 Ben Nevis distillery, now under the ownership of John McDonald’s son D.P. McDonald who had taken on the company reigns, had established itself with 6 washbacks, 2 wash stills and 2 worm tubs that produced 152, 798 gallons of amber nectar throughout the year.
During this time towards the end of the 19th century Ben Nevis Scotch Whiskey had been growing in popularity and a rather unusual development took shape. Although the distillery had been expanding to cope with growing demand, McDonald saw fit to establish a whole new distillery to keep the drams flowing. In 1878 Nevis Distillery was established just down the road closer to Fort William. Although the same basic production, whiskey legislation meant that when the two spirits were brought together they had to be declared a blend. And there was born the celebrated Dew of Ben Nevis Malt Whisky. The single malts stilled flowed and the distillery was growing by the year and in 1885 a new pier had to be built to accommodate the fleet of steam boats the distillery owned. Coupled with the railway that arrived in Fort William in 1894, Ben Nevis whiskey was reaching the world’s connoisseurs – Scotch Whiskey had truly entered the global economy by this period.
However, the success of these distilleries did not linger. By 1908 and a collapse in demand for whisky, Nevis Distillery closed and has now been consigned to the list of ‘lost distilleries’. In 1983, Glenlochy Distillery which was also in Fort William was added to this list. Opened in 1898 the whiskey that was produced at Glenlochy is now in diminished quantity and increasing age. Once everyone has drunk up or locked their drinks cupboards, soon it will be completely lost. The sites on which the distilleries sat have now been taken over by private housing developments with only fleeting glimpses of the buildings’ former use. However, for all us whiskey lovers Ben Nevis Distillery is still going strong and is open to visitors, all the while celebrating this history by reproducing a Traditional Malt whisky. Sold world-wide from 1882, 130 years ago, it is back in stock in its new form here in 2012 and at TheWhiskyBarrel.com we have a few of these limited and individually numbered bottles available.
So has this ‘traditional of old’ translated to a ‘traditional of new’? The new bottle makes a number of references to its roots from the illustrations on the label to the peatey flavour. Having spanned three centuries and being nearly two centuries old, this Traditional Ben Nevis single malt provides a means for us to engage with the history and legacy of a long standing distillery and maybe provide the platform to reinvigorate the success of the Nevis distilleries. We certainly feel this bold dram will do just that. It may not be as old as the rock in which is sits next to, but it serves a contemporary link to whiskey making of a by-gone era. This is remarkably similar to how it is still done today – minus the steam boats!