The Characterful Story of Ben Nevis 02.10.2022

One of Scotland’s oldest licenced distilleries, Ben Nevis sits at the foot of Britain's highest mountain, just outside the highland town of Fort William. Taking the mountain's name, the distillery was built in 1825 by Angus McDonnell before being sold to the infamous ‘Long John’ MacDonald six years later. 

A former bootlegger, Long John had been working at the distillery before becoming a partner in 1830. Known for his impressive height and stature, Long John MacDonald was often described as a lovable giant, standing at an impressive 6ft 4in tall. Borrowing an incredible £106,178 in today's money, Long John bought out Angus McDonnell in 1931 for around £1200. A loan of this size required an immediate upturn in the distillery's reputation and Long John MacDonald knew exactly what was required.

Using his height and charisma to incredible effect, Long John rapidly began making a name for himself in the local area, often rescuing hikers from the mountain in order to boost the reputation of himself and the distillery. Upon rescuing the Duchess of Buccleuch in 1938, the media was immediately hooked. Word of the brave Long John and his Ben Nevis distillery soon travelled throughout the land.

With famous clientele including the Duke Of Sussex and King of Holland now drinking Ben Nevis, Long John ensured a cask of his Whisky was sent to Buckingham Palace as a twenty-first birthday present for the Prince of Wales. The gift was received well and being held in high regard by the Duke of Buccleuch, Long John began advertising Ben Nevis as ‘patronised by the Royal Family, the Duke of Buccleuch, and most of the Scottish nobility’. 

Although the ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis’ was an extremely popular Whisky, it sadly couldn’t save the infamous Long John from his sizable debt. Going bankrupt in 1850, Long John MacDonald sadly passed away a few years later in 1856. His name and reputation are still alive today, adorning the bottles of the popular Long John Blended Whisky.

Following his passing, the Ben Nevis distillery passed to Long John's son, Donald MacDonald. A talented businessman, Donald began turning around the fortunes of Ben Nevis. Seizing upon the popularity of his father’s Whisky, Donald immediately began expanding the Ben Nevis distillery, pushing production to 10,000 litres weekly by 1864.

A decade later, Donald turned his attention to building a sister distillery to Ben Nevis. Launched in 1878, Nevis distillery was located just down the river and helped the company expand Long John Whisky into foregin markets including the USA, Australia and Europe. Throughout Donald’s incredible tenure, the brand enjoyed incredible success. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for his sons who would inherit the two distilleries in 1891.

With the market now dominated by blends, the brothers endured two major market slumps before the Nevis distillery would close in 1908. Its buildings were used as warehousing for Ben Nevis until their demolition in 1990. In the years that passed the Long John’s trademark was sold off and eventually the distillery fell out of the family’s control, sold to Canadian businessman and also former bootlegger, Joseph Hobbs in 1941.

Purchasing a number of high quality distilleries throughout Scotland including Bruichladdich, and Benromach, Joseph Hobbs began famously smuggling his Whisky into America during the prohibition. Closed during the war, Ben Nevis would reopen in 1955 complete with a brand new Coffey still and concrete washbacks. Following Joseph’s death in 1964, the distillery eventually closed during the Whisky slump of 1974. It was sold shortly afterwards to the very firm that had purchased the Long John trademark in 1911, Long John Distillers and Whitbread.

Reopening for just a brief period between from 1984 to 1989, Ben Nevis was again sold on, this time to the current owners, Nikka Whisky Distilling Company. Reopened in 1991, the Japanese giant spent heavily refurbishing the distillery around the original four copper stills, exporting around 70% of the produce back to Japan for use in their blends. Producing fine Scotch Whisky ever since, Ben Nevis is best known for its superb ten-year old single malt as well as many notable independent bottlings.