"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 28 February 2011

Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William

Returning once more to Oban, likely for another overnight stay there, Barnard’s party then made the memorable journey on the morning steamer up the coast and through Loch Linnhe to Fort William.  They travelled in fair weather on the steamship ‘Mountaineer’ enjoying “that sense of freedom and exhilaration which the modern invention of the railway line has struck out of the list of human enjoyments”, once more showing how much he enjoyed being outside and travelling around.  He hints here that he has been to many places in his life, having “travelled many a highway at home and abroad”, but the Scottish scenery holds a special place for him.

Such a trip would not be complete without seeing and commenting on Ben Nevis which dominates the view inland on approach to Fort William, on a fair day at least.  Barnard again dips into Anderson’s Guide to provide a description, at first holding off on adding any of his own interpretation but eventually giving in.  He does provide the updated and then accepted height for Britain’s highest mountain, 4,406 feet, the earlier figure of 4,370 recorded in Anderson at a time when Ben Nevis still only had “fair pretensions to be the highest mountain in Great Britain”.

Ben Nevis in cloud, summit hidden on the left
The name Nevis has been interpreted with two very different meanings, one being ‘malicious or venomous’ but I prefer the more gentle ‘head in the clouds’ or ‘the cloud-kissing hill’ and it is said that only about 1 in every 5 or 6 climbs will be rewarded with clear views.  I was lucky enough to enjoy such a day when I climbed it a number of years ago, at a time when the ice and snow on the top, even on a glorious June weekend, was deep enough to allow one to step almost straight onto the top of the 10 feet high summit cairn.  Now, for the summer months at least, it is no longer the case that “the brow of this majestic mountain is generally encircled with an icy diadem” and the rocky plateau is a more likely scene for many of the estimated 125,000 people who make the summit each year, most taking the well worn mountain track from Glen Nevis.

Barnard brings us up to date by mentioning the observatory which had only been opened in 1883 and where a few hardy souls lived the whole year round and provided hourly weather updates by telegraph for 21 years until it closed.  A summit hotel was also opened beside the observatory and ran as Britain’s highest hotel for around 25 years.  The ruins of these buildings can still be seen, an emergency shelter now sitting on top of the observatory tower being the highest man made structure in Britain.

Anderson’s Guide notes an ascent time via the path of around three and a half hours and a little over half that for the descent, timing’s that are still relevant today in good conditions.  The report also includes the interesting advice “the inexperienced traveller, also, may be the better of being reminded to carry with him some wine or spirits (which, however, should be used with caution), wherewith to qualify the spring water, which is fortunately abundant, and to which he will be fain to have frequent recourse, ere he attain the object of his labours.”  So, take a hip flask is the message, and enjoy a well earned dram when you reach the top of the land.

Old pier at Fort William, built by Ben Nevis Distillery for supplies

West End Hotel, Fort William

Before arriving at the separate landing stage for the steamer Barnard notes the concrete pier built by the distillery owner for use by their steamers bringing in barley and other supplies.  Beside the pier were storage warehouses, the main distillery maltings and houses for employees, all some 2 miles away from the distillery.  Barnard’s party stayed at the West End Hotel for one night, another one built in the few years before he arrived as railways opened up the north to tourists.  The same hotel still stands at the entrance to the town centre from the south, although Barnard’s stay there is not something they have a record of anymore.  The pier shown in an etching in Barnard still stands too, although now in poor repair, silted up and no longer used.

Inverlochy Castle
They made their way to the distillery the following morning, crossing the River Nevis by the old bridge and passing by the ruins of old Inverlochy Castle, beside which Mr Donald MacDonald the distillery owner had a farm, the area now used as playing fields for a sports club.  The distillery was built in 1825 by his father, known as ‘Long John’ MacDonald, the whisky produced here known as ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis’.  Barnard notes the setting of the distillery as picturesque “in striking contrast to the background of the mountain [Ben Nevis] whose projections intrude themselves up to the walls of the distillery”.

Ben Nevis Distillery with the mountain projection behind
Barnard doesn’t mention the water supply anywhere in this report which is unusual for him.  In his next report, on the nearby Nevis Distillery also owned by MacDonald, he notes that they share the same water source saying only that it “has its source at the top of the mountain from the spring now known as “Buchan’s Well” which is the highest in the kingdom”.  I have been unable to find any precise information on this well, the location of which now seems lost, but we have some help on the source from Long John himself.  Writing in 1827 he says “On Ben Nevis I was fortunate to find a constant and consistent source of pure clean water in two small lochans” and he was refering to the lochans Coire Na Ciste and Coire Leis that feed the Allt a’ Mhuilinn (Mill Burn) from heights above 3,000 feet.

The Allt a’ Mhuilinn runs right past Ben Nevis Distillery into the River Lochy but it is unclear how this water was fed to the Nevis Distillery almost 2 miles away.  The water source has now changed and the distillery now relies on the water piped down the hill behind it, the end of a 24km pipeline from Loch Treig which lies due east of Fort William and which provides a huge volume of water to drive the large turbines at the nearby aluminium smelter.  Long John considered water as the most important ingredient for making whisky, with barley, yeast and a measure of peat reek from both water and kiln being next important in that order; no mention of the influence from either cask or location at this early time before such things were fully understood.

Water pipes for aluminium smelter turbines and distillery supply
There was a malting floor and a kiln at the distillery to compliment the main maltings in town (no mention of a kiln in town though) and the peat was dug from the slopes behind the distillery through which that burn had run.  Barley is now sourced from and malted in the northeast of Scotland.  The style of whisky has changed a little over the decades but the barley used now is very lightly peated, although peated cask versions are available from independent bottlers.

The milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling processes described by Barnard were all fairly standard, with six washbacks at 6,000 gallons each (27,000 litres), 2 wash stills at 1,000 and 800 gallons (4,500/3,600 l) and 3 spirit stills, one of 500 gallons (2,300 l) and 2 at just 350 gallons (1,590 l), all of the ‘sma pot’ style and condensed in two outside worm tubs.

A lot has changed since then and various stages of ownership are worth noting.  The distillery transferred out of the MacDonald family early in the 1900s although it continued trading under their name until 1955, the Long John brand name being sold in the 1920s to Seager Evans Ltd.  In 1955 the distillery was sold to Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd under the control of Joseph Hobbs who owned a few others around Scotland at that time, mostly on the east coast.

Old Still room at Ben Nevis where a Coffey Still once stood
Hobbs set about rebuilding much of the property, with a lot of the work being done by distillery employees, but he also made two very significant changes in the late 1950s.  First he installed a Coffey Still and so it became one of the few distilleries producing both grain and malt whisky then, a practice more common in Barnard’s time but quite rare in the 20th century.  They did at one time produce a Single Blended whisky with the grain and malt spirits being married together before being placed in the cask to mature as a blend, a practice thought to be unique to Ben Nevis.

The second major change took place in 1957/58 when Hobbs changed the washbacks from Oregon Pine to concrete!  Yup, the once and only place I think you will hear that.  You will not be surprised to hear that they didn’t last, the cleaning process taking its toll on the material.  Hobbs passed away in 1970 and the distillery closed the following year, the last time either of his innovations were used.

The distillery was purchased in 1980 by Long John International, originally a subsidiary of Seager Evans Ltd that then became part of Whitbread, perhaps keen to ensure the source of the whisky that gave them their name.  After £2m of investment the distillery reopened in 1985 but closed again within two years as the economic realities of the 1980s took their toll on the industry.  The Coffey Still was stripped out and 8 stainless steel washbacks installed during this time.

Ben Nevis washbacks, six stainless steel, two of Douglas Spruce
The distillery was then sold in 1989 to Mitsui, a partner of the Japanese Nikka Distillery who reopened it in 1990 and it has been operational as a malt distillery ever since.  Four years ago two of the washbacks were changed from stainless steel to Douglas Spruce to provide a different spirit for the Japanese market, the wash from these two being distilled separately from the others.  Most of the distillery output goes into blending but there are some single malts produced here that have often received great praise from those who know about these things.

Ben Nevis Still House
The current still house dates from 1965 and contains 2 wash and 2 spirit stills, all steam coil heated and with condensers.  The base of one of the spirit stills and a boiler had just been replaced and were going through final commissioning when I visited.  Ben Nevis is a distillery to visit if you want to see whisky produced as an industrial operation, without the polished tourist trail common in many other distilleries that are open to the public.  The emphasis here is on the product rather than the romantic gloss that sometimes gets in the way (I know, I’m guilty of it occasionally as well) but John Carmichael, the Visitor Centre Manager is nonetheless happy to share anecdotes about the history and development of the distillery.

Function room in old warehouse with original rafters and columns
The visitor centre here was created in 1992 inside an old warehouse and bottling hall dating from 1862.  The old structure of the building can still be seen upstairs in a function room often used for ceilidhs.  The tour begins with a display area about the distillery and a short film where you will meet ‘Hector McDram’ to tell you the story of the Dew of Ben Nevis.  This is perhaps entertaining for tourists but a bit of a stereotypical ‘hairy Highlander in a kilt’ kind of image.  The video seems very dated now, perhaps time for Hector to be left to history and his own part of the Angels Share?

Barnard noted ten warehouses on the site, each one entirely detached from any other building as a fire precaution.  The three newest were large structures that sounded like racking warehouses from his description, the other seven, including the original single warehouse from 1825 were all much smaller.  The stock when he visited in 1885 was a substantial 8,161 casks holding over 523,722 gallons (2.4m litres).  Old Long John MacDonald had only been producing around 200 gallons per week (47,000 litres p.a.) but by the time Barnard visited, his son Donald had increased this to around 3,000 gallons per week (700,000 litres p.a.) plus a further 260,000 gallons (1.2million litres) from nearby Nevis Distillery.  Nevis has long since gone but Ben Nevis now has an annual capacity of 3m litres.

Barnard finishes his report by noting that “urgent business at this time called us home” and it must have been an emergency of some kind as he doesn’t stay in town just another day to see the Nevis Distillery, instead returning all the way north to visit it in the winter before recommencing his travels the following spring/summer with a trip to Orkney.  That winter journey he endured to visit just one distillery will be up next.