The History Behind the Ben Nevis Distillery

Ben Nevis distillery sits in the town of Fort William in the Scottish highlands, the banks of the River Lochy at the doorstep and its namesake Ben Nevis mountain overlooking the distillery. The Lochaber lairds of the 17th century desired a legal distillery in their area, and gave the task to Angus Mcdonnell, who built the distillery in 1825, production starting in 1826 with some 900 litres of spirit being produced a week.

Beyond this however Angus is sadly forgotten to history. Despite building the distillery it was not with not with him that Ben Nevis would gain its fame, that was with ‘Long John’ Macdonald, so named for his stunning height at nearly 2 meters tall. While Long John would take the distillery and himself to great heights during his time, before this he was reportedly a bootlegger, on at least one occasion being attacked by ruffians who labelled him a turncoat. How he got to working at the distillery is unknown, but speculation has arisen that Long John was a relative of Angus Mcdonnell and worked in the distillery before purchasing it.

What is known is that Long John became a partner in 1830 and purchased what remaining stake Angus had in the distillery the next year, borrowing the £1,200 needed (today equivalent to £125,311 or two bottles of Bowmore Black 1964) to cover the cost and looking to make it all back.

To do so, Long John would use his height and charisma to great effect, seizing opportunities to make a name for himself. Knowing the area of the pitfalls of the mountains, Long John would often rescue hikers and tourists who had lost themselves in the mountains, on one occasion in 1838 rescuing the Duchess of Buccleuch and her party after the fog descended on the mountain. Apparently he used her plaid as a saddle, bringing her down from the mountain on the back of his horse. Acts such as this seized on the imagination of the media, and his name and distillery spread through the land.

Reports of the fine quality of the whisky and of those who drank it began to spread, the Duke of Sussex, supposedly the King of Holland, and reaching the point that a cask of Long Johns whisky was sent to Buckingham Palace, with instructions that it was to be kept for the Prince of Wales’ 21st birthday! With the gift being received and the goodwill of the Duke of Buccleuch still standing, Long John’s Ben Nevis Whisky began being advertised as ‘patronised by the Royal Family, the Duke of Buccleuch, and most of the Scottish nobility’. That’s an advertisement money can’t buy, and bottles of ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis’ were sold at 42 shillings per dozen.

Unfortunately the good times for Long John wouldn’t last, the whisky was desirable and enjoyed all over but it wasn’t enough. Having borrowed initially to purchase the distillery from Angus Mcdonnell, his debt to the banks still stood. Long John went bankrupt in the 1850’s and died in 1856, though his name continues to live on to this day on bottles of Long John whisky.

With his death, the distillery would pass to his son Donald Peter MacDonald. Now where Long John had had a flair for marketing and capturing the imaginations, Donald had a flair and knowledge of business. Seizing the draw that Ben Nevis whisky had, Donald would expand the distillery greatly, by 1864 producing some 10000 litres weekly, and by 1877 he would employ dozens of workers and market his whisky still with his father’s name as ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis Pure Highland Malt Whisky’. While the label must’ve been long to fit that all in, it is an amazing example of an early single malt, with the term Pure Malt being a precursor to single malt.

In 1878 Donald would build another larger distillery at the mouth of the river Nevis, named Nevis distillery which would employ some 200 workers and produce over a million litres of spirit annually. With the increase in production Long John whisky began being exported the world over, through France, the United States and as far as Australia. Through Donald’s life the distillery and whisky went from strength to strength, and with his passing in 1891 Long John was said to be one of, if not the most drunk Single Malt Highland Whisky in the world.

It’s a shame what occurred next then. Donald’s sons would inherit the distiller and faced hard times with the market becoming gradually more and more dominated by the blended market. The whisky bust of the late 19th and early 20th century smacked down hard, and Nevis distillery would close in 1908, never reopening though its warehouses were still used until demolished in the 1990’s.

Years would pass by, the Long John trademark would be sold, and in 1941 Ben Nevis would slip from the family hands into those of someone who seemingly took after Long John in many ways, Canadian Joseph Hobbs.

Before purchasing Ben Nevis and a few other distilleries around Scotland, Hobbs had his share of adventures, most notably smuggling whisky into the States during the prohibition. While Hobbs’ past remains shrouded in mystery much like Long John himself, 1920’s America was thirsty and people were willing to get the drink in any way. Owning a few cargo ships, Hobbs would smuggle whisky into the US, most notably large shipments of Teachers Highland Cream. The bottles were initially sent to Antwerp, Belgium, where they were loaded onto Hobbs boat Lillehorn, shipped through the Panama Canal and up to the west coast of the US! How many Teachers? Supposedly 137,927 cases. That’s a lot of cream.

While owning the distillery, the war prevented reopening, and it wasn’t until 1955 that the distillery would restart. Hobbs would install a Coffey still alongside the pot stills as well as concrete washbacks, as well as experimenting with blending malt and grain new make spirit together before maturing them. Hobbs would pass in 1964, with production stopping again in 1978. His son, Joseph Jr, would sell the distillery back to Long John Distillers and Whitbread in 1981, and the distillery would open again in 1986 for a total of two years. In 1989 it changed hands a final time to its current owners who would reopen in 1990. So who owns the distillery nowadays? The Japanese giant Nikka Whisky Distilling Company.

It’s quite interesting looking at Ben Nevis. Their history is full of colourful characters, huge highs and lows, fascinating history and have always produced amazing whisky. Currently the distillery has one lauter mash tun, six stainless steel washbacks and a pair of stills, with a production capacity of 2,000,000 litres annually. Their range has grown to include the now sold out but highly collectable Forgotten Bottlings, as well as the 40 Year Old Blended at birth ‘Single Blend’, courtesy of those experiments Hobbs started all those decades ago.

But with all that said and done, Ben Nevis has one more interesting note, an open secret. With that huge production each year they still don’t release too much whisky, something that has stumbled a few folk. So what happened to it? Well, once distilled and before maturation, as new make spirit it goes on a journey, all the way over to Japan where it is used in the creation of blends.

We’ll leave it at that.

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