Ben Nevis is probably not a particularly well-known single malt among younger whisky drinkers (certainly here in North America). The distillery is currently owned by Japanese whisky-maker Nikka, and a lot of Ben Nevis’ production presumably finds its way into blended Nikka whiskies. There have been a number of independent bottlings of Ben Nevis, but official bottlings (OB) are relatively uncommon – beyond the standard 10 year old version reviewed here. And even this bottle can be hard to find, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.
The Nikka connection is interesting. As an unusual quirk of Japanese labeling laws, international spirits can be included in blended Japanese whisky without being identified as such. I don’t know for sure which Nikka bottlings include Ben Nevis distillate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the Pure Malt range (like White and Black) do, and perhaps even the Premium Blended 12yo.
The standard 10yo OB of Ben Nevis has a bit of a checkered past. It is known to suffer considerable batch variability (perhaps due to the limited availability of stock). In April 2017, the label was redesigned, and I noticed reviews improved considerably from this point on. As such, I now separate reviews pre/post the 2017 packaging redesign.
There’s actually been a bit of buzz in the whisky world lately on Ben Nevis, due to Koloman’s post earlier this year on Whiskybase.com for the limited-release 10yo cask-strength version of this whisky. If he does accurately convey the experience of Ben Nevis’ managing director, it seems like a pretty grim situation for the distillery’s stocks.
Whatever the current situation, I can only assume things have stabilized a bit, given the recent return of the modern 46% ABV 10yo OB to the shelves (in the UK, at any rate). I was happy to come across a bottle from the latest batch in my travels, at Royal Mile Whiskies in London last month. This standard 10yo bottling remains priced at a very affordable £36 (ex-VAT), which is about $60 CAD. That’s quite reasonable for a 10yo single malt nowadays, especially one bottled at 46% ABV. It is not chill-filtered, and I detect no signs of artificial colouring.
Let’s see how it does in my Meta-Critic database, separated out by the packaging redesign in 2017:
Ben Nevis 10yo (all editions): 8.46 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$)
Ben Nevis 10yo (old label, pre-2017): 8.18 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews ($$)
Ben Nevis 10yo (post-2017): 8.86 ± 0.44 on 7 reviews ($$)
As you can see, the standard deviation of all editions of this whisky is higher than usual. But that reflects version/batch variation much more than it does reviewer variation. When I separate out by the 2017 redesign, you can see a huge difference with the new version being a lot more popular. And all reviewers in my database who have tried multiple batches prefer the post-2017 editions (some hugely so).
And now for a comparison to some similar whiskies. Just for completeness, I’ve added some lightly smokey Nikka whiskies (that may or may not contain Ben Nevis distillate):
Ben Nevis The Maltman 18yo: 8.85 ± 0.18 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Benromach 10yo: 8.66 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Benromach 10yo Cask Strength (100 proof): 9.03 ± 0.19 on 14 review ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.50 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-2014): 8.76 ± 0.27 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (reviews 2014-2017): 8.41 ± 0.42 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo Viking Honour (post-2017): 8.52 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.54 ± 0.16 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.75 ± 0.24 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Royal Lochnagar 12yo: 8.00 ± 0.29 on 15 reviews ($$)
Springbank 10yo: 8.71 ± 0.25 on 22 reviews ($$$$)
Again, I’ll come back to the Ben Nevis 10yo ranking at the end of the review. But first, my tasting notes for this recent 2019 batch:
Nose: Sweet apple juice and light honey initially. Fruity, with pear, red delicious apple and Honeydew melon, plus a touch of apricot. Slightly winey, but not much evidence of sherry (beyond some nuttiness). A lot of buttery caramel notes, like Cracker Jacks. It almost seems a touch medicinal, with a definite flinty note – not exactly smokey, more like a mixture of metal and gunpowder. Nice funkiness, a bit like a sweaty armpit (but in a good way). Reminds me of Benromach, but less smokey. Nice character, the funky bits integrate well.
Palate: Light caramel and apple initially, with some toffee notes. Lemon and orange zest pick up now. Sweetened anise. Some mild smoke and a musty paper note. Bit of tongue tingle, and has a slightly oily mouthfeel (maybe resinous is a better word?). A drop of water helps it open up a bit, with some malted chocolate notes emerging. I recommend you add a little (doesn’t need much).
Finish: Apple juice and light caramel continue. Some bitterness creeps in and builds with time, but it’s not offensive (more like coffee, or dark chocolate). Ultimately sweet enough on the way out, with a light corn syrupiness. The minerality persists throughout, which I like.
I’m glad I picked this bottle up. It’s an old-style Highland malt, and nicer than I was anticipating from the mixed review history. This spirit in this 2019 bottling definitely seems older to me than 10 years, especially given how attenuated the smoke is. If I had to guess, I would say this batch is older stock masquerading in their standard 10yo offering. My bottle is certainly an outstanding value for the class.
Interesting fit with Nikka, as I can some similarity to Yoichi production (which has some similar characteristics, rather complementary). But there are also definite similarities to Benromach, Springbank, and some of the older Glen Garioch (back when they used peated malt, pre-1995). I will definitely be keeping my eye out for other Ben Nevis bottlings now.
Among reviewers, the 2018 bottling did very well, with high marks from My Annoying Opinions and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Ralfy gave it a positive review too, although with a lower score than typical. The 2017 bottling got very high marks from Ruben of Whisky Notes and both Serge and Angus of Whisky Fun. Old editions typically got more moderate scores, like from Jim Murray, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Jan of Best Shot Whisky – or really low ones, like from the boys at Quebec Whisky. But the more recent bottlings definitely seem to have much greater favour among reviewers, so I would recommend you consider only the post-2017 Meta-Critic scores.