Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery Visits

Looking Backwards at Ben Nevis


I haven’t been to the Isle of Wight for very many years and maybe it has changed so it is now all artisan bakeries and hipster bars. But when I last there there were still cafes with Ercol wheel-back chairs, horse brasses and prints of Eighteenth Century landscapes on the wall. Becalmed in a previous era it clung to an eclectic coziness that mistrusted anything stylish as being a bit foreign. As an adult, it gave me the feeling I was revisiting the landscape of my childhood.

The Isle of Wight is one example but up and down the country there are pockets, small places, that remind you, without any ironical distance, or attempted historicism, of how things used to be. Places where you can either enjoy a warm fuzziness of nostalgia or an acute sense of why things had to change.

Ben Nevis Distillery is a case in point. Look at it. It has been likened to ‘a fading Siberian tractor collective’¹ but that seems unfair but I cannot totally discount it as I have no idea what a tractor collective looks like. Although all of the old communist regimes were guilty of building some dire concrete slabs, we in the UK have our own well established tradition of the mediocre and so I don’t think we have to look abroad. Hell – I live in one of the Post-War New Towns, so there is nothing you can tell me about visually dull buildings. This distillery is firmly in the tradition of functional, industrial plant, albeit with pitched roofs. It is not special in its lack of character, even for a distillery, as most are actually pretty plain buildings (although many are visually rescued by a, now redundant, pagoda). But many distilleries have the compensation of beautiful or interesting locations. For the Ben Nevis distillery this is almost the case but not quite. Behind there is the stark grandeur and beauty of the mountain but on the ground it is easy to ignore. The immediate landscape is a featureless plot on the edge of town that was built to be functional and looks what it is. Why should it be otherwise? Who in their right mind would ever have thought that  production facilities would ever become tourist attractions?

But times change and they have made adjustments. Look, for example, at the fence made of barrel staves, not perhaps an uninteresting idea but it just looks like it was put together in a home workshop – no designer was harmed in the process. Inside the visitor centre things are much the same. It’s OK, comfortable enough, but homely. This, though, is not necessarily a criticism as there is something wonderfully consistent about the place. It is a place of work that looks askance at the fancy Dans of the whisky marketing world and seems happy to go its own way and turn its back on current trends.

The dated aesthetic can be seen on their bottles.  This is a photo from the Amateur Drammer  and it is an interesting juxtaposition of Ben Nevis and Benromach. It is very obvious how traditional Ben Nevis looks. This is where they plant their flag. Other distilleries might want to gussy things up with an ever changing range of cask finishes and collectors editions but Ben Nevis wants to show it maintains a traditional appraoch. They have a few versions of their blend, Nevis Dew, a ten year old single malt, and a smokey malt called MacDonald Traditional. It is good whisky – take it or leave it. I can admire this but I also wish they would extend their single malt range a little bit more. When tasting the 10 year old I had the nagging feeling that it might develop nicely with a few more years in the cask. The only way forward is to look for some independent bottlings!

A distillery visit underlines the sense they are ploughing their own furrow. For example they do not just use distillers yeast, as so many many distilleries do, they use a 50/50 mix of brewers and distillers yeast. 100 years ago all distilleries would have commonly used this mix but for a number of reasons this has now been abandoned, except at Ben Nevis. It is a conscious decision to keep up a tradition. Similarly with malt, they still use a proportion of Golden Promise, a variety which used to be common but has now all but disappeared. (They have ignored the move to Concerto, the variety that seems to have taken over at the moment). The distillery was renovated in the 80s so it doesn’t have the look of antiquity, of say a Tobermory, but carrying on in the old ways has little to do with the age of the walls and it doesn’t exclude a bit of experimentation.

Beneath the unremarkable exterior of Ben Nevis there is a quirkiness. This is wonderfully expressed by the fact that  in the Fifties, the distillery built concrete washbacks – a form of Brutalism that would have architectural critics swooning, if they only knew about it. OK the experiment might not have been a success and they were replaced but you have to admire the attempt. But even now they persist with a form of washback oddity. They have a mix of stainless steel and wood. I have no idea why.

I started this post by talking about places that are a physical reminder of how things used to be – the look of buildings and the style of how they are fitted out – and how that can cause feelings of warm nostalgia or be a reminder of what needed to be changed. With Ben Nevis my feelings were definitely warm. They are maintaining traditions, without turning them into an empty show. I am happy they are carrying on in their own way

¹ from Whisky Magazine, quoted in Charles Maclean’s Whiskypedia

P.S.  It would take someone with a heart of stone to take against a distillery that has Shetland Ponies in the next door field.


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