Ben Nevis distillery was founded in 1825 by John McDonald at the foot of Ben Nevis (the tallest peak in Britain). In the 1950’s, the new owners (Ben Nevis Distillery Ltd.) installed coffey stills to produce grain whisky. Due to the presence of both malt and grain stills on site during this time Ben Nevis is one fo the few distilleries that can produce a “single blend”, which is a blend comprised of malt and grain whisky from a single distillery. In 1971 Long John Distillers bought back the distillery and removed the coffey stills. The distillery was closed in 1986, then purchase by a Japanese whisky company (Nikka) in 1989 and re-opened in 1991. Ben Nevis single malt is a bit hard to find and the only expression you’ll likely encounter in the shop is the Ben Nevis 10 year old. However, you are likely to see their blends (not single blends) under the name of “Dew of Ben Nevis”.
Monday to Friday 0900hrs – 1700hrs
Extended Summer Hours
Easter – September
Saturdays 1000hrs – 1600hrs
July – August
Sundays 1200hrs – 1600hrs
Monday – Friday
0900hrs – 1800hrs
BEN NEVIS DISTILLERY (FORT WILLIAM) LTD
Lochy Bridge – Fort William – PH33 6T J
Tel: 01397 702476 Fax: 01397 702768
Direct line for Visitor Center: 01397 700200
Managing Director: Mr. Colin Ross
Visitor Centre Manager: Mr. John Carmichael
Tour Enquiries: email@example.com
Children (Under 18): £2.50
Groups 15+: £4.50
Voucher Discount £5.00 per 70cl bottle carrying age statement, for those who have toured Ben Nevis Distillery.
Failte Tour – £5.00 pp
Tasting Tour – £18.00 pp
(3 Ben Nevis Malt Whiskies)
Executive Tour – £30.00 pp
(Reserved min. 24hrs in advance)
You cannot book the normal tours (Failte Tour and Tasting Tour) but you can book the Executive Tour. Call in advance to see what their tour times will be. They do not seem very organised compared to other distillery visitor centres so be flexible when visiting them. None of the tours take you into the warehouses but you may be able to get them to take you in if you book the Executive tour and ask in advance.
We booked the Executive Tour about a week in advance over the phone. They said that was the only tour which could be booked. When I asked what the tour included, they said that it included a private tour guide and a tasting with 6 different whiskies. When I asked them about how long it would run, they said it could be up to 2.5 hours and that it was very free form so that we could decide what we saw and did.
When we arrived at the distillery there was no one at the front desk so we walked through to the cafe and shop. There was an older man behind the shop counter dealing with a group of people. When he became free, we told him we were there for our Exectuive Tour and he said he would be our tour guide but that he needed a moment. It turns out that 2 people were not able to go into work that day and he was covering for them. He was the only guide there and the only person running the shop, so he was quite overwhelmed.
After he finished with the other patrons, we began our tour. We started by walking out of the visitor centre and toward production area (in the picture below the visitor centre is on the right and the production area is on the left).
Before entering the building, the guide gave us the typical spiel about how whisky is made. We told him that we had been to many distilleries, but throughout the tour he still gave us the typical basic whisky info. However, we did ask more specific questions which he was mostly alright about answering, but some of the answers he gave were questionable. We just thought it was weird that he kept going through the standard tour talk when the Executive Tour was advertised as more of a personal experience. He also seemed to be in a rush to get through the tour which was not great. I understand that the visitor centre was severely understaffed but this should not be taken out on the customers. Anyway, the first stop on the tour was the mash tun room.
The mill and the mash tun are in the same room. You can see the mill on the left of the picture above and a close up in the picture below. Good old Porteus mill!
Next we entered the washback room. Ben Nevis distillery has 8 washbacks with 2 of them made from Oregon Pine (Douglas Fir). The stainless steel washbacks are actually the “original” ones from the 1970’s whereas the wooden ones were installed about 10 years ago to add a bit of character and traditional appeal. The guide said that they actually had concrete washbacks in the 1960’s which I found quite amusing. Ben Nevis distillery uses half and half of distiller’s yeast and brewers yeast (75kg each). It’s a nice touch since many distilleries that focus more on production volume use 100% distiller’s yeast.
Next we walked out of the building and by the still house. They seemed to be cleaning the stills when we got there and so we were not allowed inside but I managed to snap a few pics from the large “doorway”. Nice looking stills but again we were quite disappointed that we couldn’t go in. I understand that they can’t halt production for our tour but it would have been nice if they had let us know about this when we were booking or gave us a discount. It seems a bit ridiculous to charge you for a full tour and then not deliver it. But maybe that’s just my high expectations for customer service.
One of the reasons I was so excited to visit Ben Nevis distillery is due to it’s relationship with Nikka, the Japanese whisky company. Nikka owns Ben Nevis distillery and uses it’s whisky for blends such as Nikka Black. I asked the guide about how Nikka manage the distillery and he said that they are pretty hands off. Basically they just give the distillery a number for the amount of spirit they need that year and Ben Nevis ships that amount to Japan. They use a large tankard like that used for transporting gasoline. So they are not filling casks at the distillery but rather moving the spirit to Japan to be casked. Thus there is theoretically quite a bit of Ben Nevis whisky that is completely matured in Japan! I would love to try some of that!
We walked past the still house toward the dunnage warehouses and paused outside next to a stack of casks. He talked about the maturation process and when he was done I asked if we could see inside a warehouse. He said that it was not possible because of tax laws and needing to keep a tight lid on the warehouses. I am not sure what he meant by this exactly since other distilleries let you into their warehouses, but the basic answer was no.
I noticed that one of the casks in the stack next to us had Girvan written on it and I asked him about this. He said that it would have been a cask filled with Girvan grain whisky which was probably used for one of the blends that they produce. I thought this was neat because I had never seen a cask for grain whisky at a malt distillery before but given that most of what the Ben Nevis distillery company produce are blends it makes sense. You can see the cask in the picture below. It’s on the very left of the middle row (text is upside down).
I also asked the guide about the grain whisky distillery that used to be apart of the Ben Nevis distillery. He said that it was called Glenlochy distillery but that was actually a completely different distillery which was located about a mile down the road. We stopped by the old site of Glenlochy which is now used at flats (see picture below).
After that we headed back into the visitor centre for the tasting. The tasting was very informal and consisted of us standing next to the checkout counter in the shop (you can see it in the third picture of this post) while he poured small measures into what appeared to be water glasses. The measures were very small, averaging around 10ml in volume which you can see in the picture below. Although they told us we would be given 6 expressions when we booked, the guide only gave us 5 which were: Nevis Dew Special Reserve, Dew of Ben Nevis Supreme Selection, Nevis Dew Deluxe 12 years old, Ben Nevis Single Malt 10 years old, and McDonald’s Traditional Ben Nevis. So 3 blends and 2 malts. I am not sure if the McDonald’s is a single malt since it doesn’t say it anywhere on the box or bottle. Other sources say that it is a single malt. When I asked the guide, he said it was made from malt whisky produced only at Ben Nevis distillery. I asked him why it didn’t say Single Malt on the bottle and he said it was because they used peated malt so it wasn’t the normal recipe and thus could not be called single malt. This is wrong. So I don’t have a good answer..
After we finished the last whisky, the tour was done. We each got a £5 voucher for purchases on 70cl bottles of whisky in the shop which we used since Ben Nevis whisky is pretty hard to find in shops. The shelves in the shop however were sadly quite emtpy as can be seen in the picture below. They did not have much merchandise either and what they did have was generic stuff like whisky books that you can buy anywhere. I didn’t see any Ben Nevis branded gear (I like to collect beanies from distilleries) .
So what did we think of the experience?
Well there were lot’s of problems. I don’t think I would recommend people to visit this distillery unless they really wanted to visit Ben Nevis distillery for a particular reason. They seem chronically understaffed as judged by our experience and reading other reviews. The Executive Tour was definitely not worth £30 and the only reason I would suggest someone take it, is for the ability to actually book it in advance which is a valid reason because they seem to turn away a lot of people for their standard tours (due to being understaffed). I am not sure what exactly is the root of their problem but they definitely need to be more organised and have better communication with their patrons. They should have also offered some kind of compensation for the things they did not deliver on. So overall it was quite a disappointment, especially because I am a big fan of their malt whisky and was really looking forward to this tour. That being said, the standard tour is only £5, so if you are passing by Fort William and won’t have a chance to tour other distilleries, then it might be worth popping by to see what a distillery looks like.