Managing expectations is part and parcel of being a current day whisky enthusiast. Along with inevitable disappointment (missing out on a ballot, not possessing the fastest check out finger in the west), there’s also the hype train - which seems to continually leave the station week after week with the advent of a new release. In part, this is obviously a misrepresentation - folks deliberately talking up, or scoring highly bottles they’ve already acquired in the hope of generating a higher eventual sale price (Whiskybase previously a mainstay in my own expectation management system is rapidly becoming a catalogue of releases….and propaganda). But then, there’s good old fashioned peer recommendation, which when presented without external bias is still one of the best methods for identifying a gem beyond tasting it yourself.
And so it was that Dramble Webmaster Danny came hurriedly over to recommend his experience with Ben Nevis 10 year old Batch 1.
Some of you might have noticed that the well-regarded ‘standard’ Ben Nevis 10 year old (bottled at 46%) can be little hard to come by currently (though presently you’ll be able to nab some here if you’re quick). There’s a simple reason for that – the distillery ran out of the stocks required to create the expression back at the end of 2017. Parent company Nikka (who purchased the distillery in 1989) have long been purchasing malt and grain from the site – along with the requirements for creating the Macdonalds and Glencoe blends, much of the single malt output of Ben Nevis is already accounted for before it even gets a sniff at becoming a distillery OB Ben Nevis expression.
The 10 year old was launched back in 1996 and its popularity has grown since. Beyond the capacity of the casks which the distillery has laid down. Pressures on demand have left the specific components required to create the 10 year old expression exhausted to the point where Ben Nevis was seriously considering offering to purchase the refill cask stocks back from a competitor they’d previously sold to.
Whilst there are hopes that the core range bottling will return in time, as something of a stopgap 8,000 to 9,000 bottles of 10 year old Batch 1 has been produced. The expression is a combination of 1st fill ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and ex-wine casks and is delivered at a fairly mighty 62.4% ABV. The bottling is not just the standard 10 year old at a higher strength – the dearth of refill casks at the distillery has resulted in Batch 1 being a different product. Alas for a different price – twice the RRP of the standard 10 year old at a shy under £100.
You’ll currently find a wide range of stockists selling the 10 year old Batch 1 – all at similar prices – Master of Malt, Whisky Exchange etc. Whilst the release is limited, it’s worth noting that Ben Nevis Managing Director Colin Ross has gone on the record noting that they’ve not actually bottled all of the stock as of yet. They’ve run out of glass to complete the run of all the liquid (the mind boggles), so there might be some more coming on to the market once the initial batch has sold out. Mysterious stuff – one can’t help but think that owners Nikka, rather than taking much of the single malt supply for their own needs should focus on assisting Ben Nevis with some of the smaller stuff – running out of glassware to complete a bottling run is just perplexing in this day and age. Regardless, there are currently no plans for Batch 2 – the intention being to restore the supply of the standard 46% Ben Nevis core expression. So, you may or may not want to keep an eye on this one…
Nose: Expressive and to my nose quite traditionally Highlands in character. Everything seems rather layered – on top – sweetness from crumbed biscuits, soft-baked gingerbread men, sticky toffee pudding and copious quantities of raisins. Beneath – a solid core of fruitiness – Blood orange, Comice pear and reduced berries. Deeper still, things get interesting with an array of more left-field aromas – nettle tea, copper pipes, serrano ham – alongside sherry-driven coffee grounds, cocoa powder and hazelnuts. Reduction brings out spiciness with black pepper and allspice sitting with Eccles cakes and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Taste: Big, brash, thickly composed and distinctively old school. Treacle pudding is scattered with sultanas and raisins whilst coffee beans and spent grounds are joined by cocoa nibs, figs and old leather. Spicing is heady, but well-balanced against the sweeter notes – pepper, ginger, allspice and nutmeg alongside bitter dark chocolate, hazelnuts and walnuts. The addition of water unlocks some of the wine influenced component – hedgerow berries (with a touch of tannic bitterness), charred oak casks and burnt toffee. The weight remains viscous and voluminous throughout leaving plenty of room of experimentation.
Finish: Short to medium (likely a function of the overall age of the liquid) in length, with dusty drinking chocolate, chopped walnuts and plenty of resinous, tarry, tannic, drying oak.
Ben Nevis 10 year old Batch 1 shames many other modern, similar aged expressions with its traditionally styled, multi-layered approach. There’s waves of complex aromas and flavours to unpick, that by and large, I’m just not expecting from a 10 year old whisky. And yet, it’s not totally balanced – not the outright must-buy triumph that some have been suggesting – there’s rather a lot of cask here and whilst both the high ABV and sherry/wine influence can stand up to it, the end result has a fair few acerbic moments, particular in the finish which is arguably the weakest aspect of the experience. This is honest whisky, and honest whisky comes delivered warts and all. I fully respect that. It should also be noted that this high strength release is tangentially different to the standard 10 year old expression - there are commonalities, but the overall direction of travel is not identical.
There’s a lot to like here – and it’s easy to see why folks have been chattering positively about this bottling. But, then there’s the question of bang-for-buck, and in that regard, Ben Nevis 10 year old is quite expensive indeed. On the one hand, people seem happy to throw down £100 on a limited edition NAS (which is often likely younger than 10 years of age) most days of the week - and some people, seemingly every day of the week (do these guys live off beans on toast, honestly?!?!). But, taking a step back, and looking at Ben Nevis 10 year old Batch 1 in the context of a cask strength 10 year old, its price seems roughly 1/3 higher than almost all of its similar aged, similarly boozy peers.
Were my expectations of this bottling artificially too high to begin with – strengthened by the enthusiast mutterings, tipped over the edge by the recommendation of Webmaster Danny? Undoubtedly so. But, at the same time, that’s part and parcel of whisky exploration…..I wonder how many bottlings I’d have missed totally were it not for a tip here and a nod there. Expectations can and should still be great.