There’s “honey barrel” years. There’s “weird casks”. There’s a distillery making a spirit completely differently than they normally do. Distillery warehouses get full, and eventually, it’s not just blenders buying their barrels, it’s independent bottlers.
And frankly, I love it all. Each time a distillery has some ebb and flow it really is fun for me. I find malts that are different and fun.
But whisky nerds, new and old, dedicated and fine with one distillery, may not. If you pick up, for instance, a Ben Nevis, and it’s not like it was prior to 1996, or let’s say peated (they do that?). Do you buy it? Do you take a chance?
Fuck it, I did. So today we explore Ben Nevis (weird, that was my example!). In three cases it’s from the honey barrel year of 1996 when you’ll notice that the price suddenly jumped because asshole reviewers like me couldn’t keep their gobs shut, and a peated one that was rumoured for years to be distilled solely to be used in Japanese blends.
And we all know what rumours are like, right? Exactly, an amazing album that stands the test of time. Totally no other thing I meant by that at all.
Also if I mention cranberry at any time this is not sponsored by Ocean Spray. Just saying.
Let’s see how these taste, shall we?
Ben Nevis 22 1996 Single Malts of Scotland Kensington Wine Market
Price: $179.99 CAD
Cask Type: Sherry Butt
Cask number: 1659
Number of bottles: 440
Colour: 2.5Y 7/10
Nose: Tangerine, mineral, balsamic vinegar, papaya
Fruity, acidic, citrusy with lots of different mineral notes to balance it. It jumps between fruit and that note and reminds me of something between a fancy restaurant dessert and a fancy restaurant salad. It’s odd, but nice.
Taste: Orange, caramel, saltwater, carrot cake with cream cheese icing, sesame
More orange, some mineral, and more tang. Really acidity is taking the centre stage here, and as someone who would rather step on an orange than eat it, I’m not really about that life. On the one hand it’s balancing the sweet notes, and wow, there’s a lot to balance.
Finish: Orange soda, cardamon/ginger, oak, lime, caramel
Hey, more orange! And spice that’s like orange! But also kinda warm! And lime, to be a bit different on the citrus scale! Which I prefer! Like using exclamation marks needlessly!
Conclusion: Orange forward. I’m not the biggest orange fan. Not just because of who’s in charge of the US, more so because I’m not the biggest fan of their flavours. It just keeps hammering on that note over and over. It’s everywhere. The taste has too much sugar and still, the orange stands out.
As such, I’m not digging this, but you may if old people and warm summers (and holding the rest of the country hostage via voting rules), then you may like this dram (that whole thing was a Flordia joke). It’s decent quality, just not my thing.
Ben Nevis 4 2015 Carn Mor Strictly Limited
Price: $94.99 CAD
Cask type: Sherry Hogshead
Cask Number: 12
Number of bottles: 290
Colour: 10R 3/10
Nose: Chicory, anise, mint, apple-cinnamon, Guinness Cake
Immediately different from other Ben Nevisan offerings. Spice, youthful, and lots more spice. Water brings out a deep flavour of malt/chocolate as well, which is impressive given how young this is.
I think maybe this cask was a bit too strong to be blended.
Taste: Apple-cinnamon, peat, caramel, algae, strawberry
More spice, however, some of Ben Nevis fruit is there. Some mineral, obvious peat is obvious, and water brings out strawberry.
If the nose was a surprise, this is a strong peated dram with sherry. Which isn’t bad, it’s just not going too far beyond that.
Finish: Dry cocoa, peat, mint, root beer, anise
The finish has more of the cocoa, but that is blasted by spice like a Starbucks board meeting on flavours for Autumn. More simple peat, and more spice.
Conclusion: A spice crazy dram for the insane. This whole thing is bonkers. It’s obvious it’s aged to be blended in to add certain flavours with tiny amounts. There are only a bit of Ben Nevis notes of a bit of fruit, and even then it’s not as developed.
That said, I am a peat head, and as such, I do really love a young, peated, and sherry dram. No joke, it’s crazy but I really did enjoy it. Is it “sell your prize possessions” good? No, it’s just really weird.
Ben Nevis 22 1996 The Whisky Agency
Price: $248.00 CAD
Cask Type: Hogshead
Colour: 7.5Y 8/8
Nose: Pear, white chocolate, grassy, cantaloupe
Initially simpler and less insane. This is the first one that isn’t sherry driven. Simpler, I think the Angel’s did a number here, so you need to take some time. Good grassiness, some acidity (but balanced), a bit sweet though. Granted I like white chocolate. Or as my wife calls it, “fake-chocolate” or “complete bullshit”.
Taste: Honey, pear, licorice, wine gummies
The grass grows into honey, the spice from it goes spicy, and the pear sticks around. Some tart notes remind me of alcohol like gummies.
I’m reaching for more here, but it’s not giving up more that easily. Too bad.
Finish: Licorice, molasses, lime, grassy, burnt sugar
The finish shows off more of what I assume should have been throughout the dram. Grass, acidity, anise, and molasses/burnt sugar all mesh nicely. Frankly, it’s turning what was nearly just an okay dram into a good one, and the reason I keep going back.
Conclusion: If the finish wasn’t there, this should have been blended away. The nose is nearly there, the taste is simple and lacking, and the finish is doing a tong of work.
It’s basically a dram that I have to say I wish hadn’t lost so much into the ceiling. This should be a sublime, grassy, and spice forward dram that plays with the cooler sides of sugar. Instead, it’s a bit too muted to get there. Worth having as a dram or two.
Ben Nevis 23 1996 Old Malt Cask
Cask Number: HL1570
Cask Type: Refill Butt
Distilled: Oct 1996
Total Bottles: 601
Colour: 7.5Y 7/8
Nose: Brown sugar, papaya, banana, currant, mace, strawberry
Tons of tropical fruit on the nose. Lots of different note, some funk, some red fruit, some spice, and some molasses. It’s getting to that “I’ve written too much” notes point and I’m judging myself more than normal.
Taste: Butter, papaya, black pepper, red fruit, chestnuts, nutmeg
Butter, tropical fruit, some heat/earthy, good mix of sherry and spice. Shows off the whisky profile but still has some fun with the sherry.
Finish: Mushroom, sunflower seeds, mineral, chestnuts, cardamon
Good sherry forward finish, lots of nuttiness and earthy. Balanced, I don’t get too much, there’s the right amount of orange (yes, there is such a thing), it’s well-spiced… Yeah, more. I want more. Whisky, not complexity.
Conclusion: Basically everything I wanted and have had from these “honey years” from Ben Nevis. Yeah, some of them are overhyped, but this? Right here? From an IB I typically snub my nose at and am a dick to? Yes, great.
If the first dram was too much orange, this had a good amount of acidity to balance. If the third one had the complexity but was missing some elements, this kept up the endurance throughout. And the second one was pure insanity but with spice, and this had the right amount of spice.
So go past what you think is the right one to pick and try new things. I guess.
Scotch review #1313-16, Highland review #209-212, Whisky Network review #1970-73