I got a feeling

Posted 10 March 2021 by Matt / In Ben Nevis
The Dramble reviews Ben Nevis 1996 23 Year old The Whisky Exchange Single Casks

Bottle Name: Ben Nevis 1996

ABV: 52.1%
Distillery: Ben Nevis
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
Region: Highlands Age: 23

It possessed a texture best compared to an amalgamation of fried squid rings and a non-stick bathmat - I’d clearly made the most terrible lunchtime mistake. But let’s start this back at the beginning….Many moons ago I sat down in a restaurant in Seattle for what would be my first Korean Barbeque experience. A rather neat dining concept where the food is provided raw and the customers then get cook it on small grills built into their tables. Fun. And a clever method for getting people to unwittingly pay a premium for little more than an ingredient delivery service and a readily available supply of propane. But, novelty or not, to this day, this meal is still, probably, my biggest ever textural blunder.

“Honeycomb beef”. It sounded appetising enough. I love Crunchy Bars.

Only as opposed to describing what the flavours of the dish were, the name was entirely related to its shape. Some of you have no doubt spotted my error already…

What arrived had nothing to do with sponge toffee or sweet, sugary flavours. A large, pallid piece of cow stomach (tripe) sat alone on an equally white plate. This was to be the entirety of my lunch. And let me tell you, I cooked that ashen, rubbery piece of stomach lining to within an inch of its life atop my personal tabletop firepit. Less culinary art, more thorough cremation. Doubtless to the chagrin of the restaurant staff. And whilst I sat there, far from enjoying my blackened, charcoal covered meat approximation, it was still a struggle for me to comprehend, let alone enjoy the textures of this (rightfully) maligned dish.

Mouthfeel is inherently tied to our overall sensory experiences – alongside aroma, visual, audio and tactile cues, it plays a vital role in influencing our preferences for certain foods and drinks. And these preferences for texture can vary as greatly as our palates and olfactory systems. Where some toil, others revel.

The texture of a whisky is determined by a wide variety of factors stemming from its creation – alcohol, water, tannins, vanillins, phenols – all play a part in influencing the mouthfeel of one whisky over another. And in turn, these variables go some way to explaining how the same distillate can feel widely different in the mouth depending on the cask type that it has been matured in.

Many ascribe the mouthfeel of a whisky as being directly related to its ABV. And to a degree this is correct. The volume of water vs. the volume of alcohol plays an inherent role in how the mouth can interpret the body and weight of a liquid. Alcohol causes a ‘prickling’ effect, whilst water is more calming. However, simply drinking a whisky at the highest possible ABV doesn’t necessarily result in the most amount of mouthfeel – the underlying composition of the distillate and the characteristics it has taken on board during maturation are also crucial determinants of the mouth qualities that spirit will present.

Tannins are often used in tasting notes terms purely to describe how dry a whisky feels – but similarly to wine these are fundamental to promoting the structure of a liquid. At lower concentrations they form bonds which might be described as velvety or syrupy. Whilst at higher intensities, they may produce an overall astringency – which significantly inhibits the mouth’s ability to detect mouthfeel – over and above the dryness and bitterness that the tannins induce.

Similarly, vanillins and long chain esters are vital contributors to mouthfeel that can sometimes be described as rich, or even oily. And it only takes very small quantities of these compounds to produce these detectable sensations. Whilst vanillins are of course primarily derived from the interaction of the spirit with oak, esters result from fermentation and are then reinforced through distillation. It’s the end-to-end processes of making whisky that result in its final mouthfeel – and whilst certain stops along the way will result in increased weight and texture – it is only the full progression from wort through to fully matured spirit that gives rises to the mouthfeel sensations you detect from your glass.

Each of us interprets texture in a unique way. However, unlike our myriad descriptors for aroma or flavour, there are far more commonalities between us when it comes to mouthfeel. Despite our experiences being alone (even when shared), whiskies will often commonly be defined mutually as ‘thin’, ‘thick’ or ‘oily’. It seems that whilst we will never truly agree on the aromatic qualities of whisky we can often concur around how a whisky presents in the mouth – when the sweetness hits the tongue – the point at which smoke is palpable – a detection of waxiness or even an underlying fatty-meaty quality. And when it comes to judging the qualities of a whisky, and in particular its balance – texture is a significant component within the broader gamut of our experience of that whisky and how it evolves throughout our palates.

It's something I look for and attempt to understand in every whisky I taste. It is as unique and as identifiable as many other immediately recognisable distillate characteristics. And at times, its manifestation can take a good whisky and dial up its profile into something that becomes truly exceptional. Now if only I can continue to avoid that honeycomb beef...

Released as part of the third batch of The Whisky Exchange Single Cask range (you can read our reviews of the Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and Glen Elgin which were issued alongside), today’s bottle hails from Ben Nevis Distillery. Nevis is one of those distilleries that has been on the radar of a niche of enthusiasts for quite some time, but over the last few years has really exploded in wider interest – and demand – and therefore price.

Much of the liquid is still utilised for other purposes outside of producing Ben Nevis single malt under its own name. Or at least it currently is – changes in the Japanese whisky labelling regulations might yet have an impact and enforce future changes on bottlings such as ‘Ben Nevis from The Barrel’ and similarly, the distillery is all too aware of the pent-up demand for more OB releases. I’d certainly not bet against more Ben Nevis being made available in time.

Nevertheless, much of the interest in this spirit, including my own, stems from its natural weightiness and full-bodied character. This often manifests itself, particularly with well-matured examples, as a deep, intense and oily whisky which at the same time can inexplicably possess an incredibly light deftness of touch. A liquid paradox. And frequently delightful.

The TWE bottling was distilled in 1996 and bottled 23 years later towards the tail end of last year. It comes from a single ex-bourbon hogshead (#1709) which produced 205 bottles at 52.1% ABV. These are available for £199 a pop (pricey, but such is the attraction for Ben Nevis nowadays), but were allocated to the retailer’s London-based outlets. As such, you’d need to make an entirely “essential” trip into the Capital in order to make a purchase – and I’m unsure how many fans have already done just that.

Nose: Vibrant, polished, sweet fruits – tangerine, melon and guava. A confectionary core runs throughout – akin to fruit pastilles – juicy jelly sweets with crunchy sugar. Dried mango slices and citric cream are assembled with sheets of filo pastry into a decadent mille feuille, whilst floral asides of honeysuckle add a balmy summeriness. Dilution presents a vein of chocolate – milky and smooth – alongside wafer biscuits and caramel stroopwafels.

Taste: A grand entrance with a thick and adherent texture. Mango, pineapple and Fuji apples are served macerated, in syrup and with an oily coating. Alongside – well lacquered oak panelling, chocolate ganache and icing. Bright fruitiness gives way to a lighter mid-palate texture of whipped cream combined with a drop of peppermint essence, before bread-and-butter pudding provides a selection of buttered bread and raisins. The addition of water reveals a softer side – a reduced body, but still with plenty of mouth cling. Chocolate orange and orange zest together with sunflower oil and freshly cut kitchen garden flower stems.

Finish: Medium to long in length. Fruits converge and diverge around sweet and sour, whilst perfectly balanced aromatic oak provides just a tingle of ginger spice.

A memorably excellent Ben Nevis from The Whisky Exchange that has me all the more eager for the end to lockdown and an opportunity to travel into London. Excellent body, consistent vivacity, and high definition are on display throughout, together with both complexity and an intensity that provides plenty of second (and third) sip intrigue. Delicious whisky that is begging to be befriended. Tonight’s gonna be a good good night.

Review sample provide by The Whisky Exchange

Score: 91/100

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