Ben Nevis Distillery stands at the north end of Fort William, overlooking the roundabout at the junction between the A82 north to Inverness and the A830 "Road to the Isles" to Mallaig. On a distribution map of Scotland's distilleries, Ben Nevis Distillery is a long way from any other, and being the only distillery in an area which attracts many visitors means that its distillery tours are justifiably popular.
It would be fair to say that there are prettier distilleries in Scotland than Ben Nevis, despite the very attractive floral border that fronts the site. It does, however, have a lot to offer in compensation for its lack of superficial good looks. Perhaps most strikingly, the distillery stands immediately to the north-west of the mountain whose name it has taken, and the precipitous northern cliffs of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK, can be glimpsed from parts of the site. This gives the distillery a remarkably impressive setting. Adding to the mountain theme that comes from the backdrop are the resident highland cows living in a field at one end of the site.
Once inside the distillery, visitors find a warm and helpful welcome in an area offering information about the distilling process and about the distillery itself. Beyond this is a shop that is small by the standards of those you will find in many distilleries, and a tasting area. These occupy part of a large room which is also home to the distillery cafe. This is worthy of mention for the excellent, good value food on offer.
Ben Nevis Distillery was established in 1825 as the first legal distillery in Lochaber by John MacDonald of Keppoch, also known as "Long John" in recognition of his considerable stature. His original product was called Long John's Dew of Ben Nevis and the distillery he established here produced some 200 gallons per week. In April 1848 the distillery was visited by Queen Victoria and her six year old son, the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VII). The Illustrated London News of the time recorded that John MacDonald had marked the visit with a presentation of a cask of whisky to the Queen, and that this was being moved duty free to Buckingham Palace. The cask was apparently opened when the Prince reached the age of 21.
John MacDonald died in 1856 and the distillery passed to his son, Donald P. MacDonald. When whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited in 1886 he found a thriving business. Output at the Ben Nevis Distillery had grown to 3,000 gallons per week. Barnard found that demand for Long John's Dew of Ben Nevis was so strong that in 1878 Donald P. MacDonald had built a second distillery next to the first, which was called "Nevis Distillery". The new distillery covered a six acre site and used the same water source as Ben Nevis Distillery. The supply of exceptionally pure water had been a major consideration in the decision to site a distillery here in 1825, and Barnard quotes an analysis from his day that concludes that the water used "is of the very best quality; cannot be surpassed, and is very seldom equalled." By the time of Barnard's visit, the newer Nevis Distillery was producing around twice as much whisky as the older Ben Nevis Distillery.
By the early 1900s, Ben Nevis and Nevis Distilleries had been combined to form a single distillery, and in 1955 this was taken over by Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd. While malt whisky continued to be produced by the time-honoured process, the new owners also installed a continuous "Coffey" still to produce grain whisky, making Ben Nevis one of the few distilleries to undertake both processes on a single site. In 1971 the distillery was purchased back by the successors of the original owners, Long John Distillers. They removed the Coffey still, restoring the distillery to single malt only production.
Production ceased and the distillery was mothballed in 1986. In 1989 it was purchased by the Japanese Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd. They operate two distilleries in Japan, established in 1934 and 1969, and Ben Nevis became their third distillery. It continues to be owned by Nikka today.
Your tour of Ben Nevis Distillery begins with a short audio visual presentation on the story of the distillery and of Scotch whisky. You then move through a number of the stages in the process. We've never seen it clearly set out how the geography of the present "Ben Nevis Distillery" relates back to the earlier Ben Nevis and Nevis distilleries, and it is therefore difficult to comment on which parts have been carried over from their early years. Suffice it to say that, superficially at least, what you see today appears to owe much to the redevelopment in the years from 1955: though it is certainly possible that some of the buildings, both at the front end of the site and among the bonded warehouses, could have much earlier origins.
In common with all but a handful of Scotland's distilleries, Ben Nevis buys in the malted barley it uses. Nevis Distillery had maltings on site in the 1880s, while the original Ben Nevis Distillery operated maltings near the pier in Fort William. It is unclear when malting stopped at Ben Nevis, but it could, again, be as far back as the 1950s. What you do get to see on your tour is a rather smart stainless steel mash tun helpfully positioned so that you can see it from above and below. The washbacks are a mix of traditional wooden vessels and more modern stainless steel ones. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
Up to this point the distillery tour is fairly routine. Things change when you enter the still house, however. Here you go through a door at ground level which allows the true scale of the four large stills to be appreciated. For us this was a real "wow" moment. Stills are all too often shoehorned into their surroundings, which gives little opportunity to really understand their function: or, indeed, even to see their true size as so much is often hidden below the visible floor line. What greets you in the still house at Ben Nevis Distillery is the sight shown in the header picture on this page. The full height of the two pairs of stills is immediately obvious.
A walkway around the broadest part of the stills gives access to two spirit safes. When we visited production was not under way, and an unusual view of the interior of one of the stills was possible. The condensers are free standing and located towards the side walls, partly hidden in the view from the door by the stills themselves. A visit to a bonded warehouse sadly doesn't form part of the distillery tour, but it is possible to see piles of barrels on your way back to the visitor centre for a taste of the product.