Nose: Pungent. One gathers from the color and the cask type that this is fairly close to the distillate, except it's rested for nearly a quarter-century. That being so, this is some distillate. You can smell the weight. There's some mustard, sulfur, overripe fruit, and a light minerality. What a combination! With a few minutes in the glass, Ben Nevis's trademark lemons start to emerge a bit. Further, there's a bit of bitter olive oil with cracked black pepper in it. A little touch of low-salt soy sauce. As it often does for me, water brings out more of the minerality, with more of a focused pink salt feeling now.
Taste: Arrival is about what'd you expect from a quality-but-near-54% ABV malt: not much heat, but a little nip, and a good mouth-coater. In terms of flavor profiles, the first thing to grab me is bitter citrus (grapefruit) followed by some subtle honey. Unlike the nose, which is fantastic as-is, I think we'll benefit from some water here. It does, although it doesn't bring out a ton more. The nip is gone, but the salient note continues to be grapefruit. Pleasant but austere. I'm also finding a slightly medicinal quality. A good style, but a bit more over fruitiness or waxiness would be a nice balance here. I'm quibbling a bit, but we're at a high-level, so this matters.
Finish: Neat, it's bitter but not particularly drying, which I don't mind at all.
Comments: I bought this on the strength of Angus MacRaild's WF review and the fact that I figured it'd serve as an excellent counterpoint to the other '96 Ben Nevis I already own. That one was released for the 2019 TWE Whisky Show. I reviewed it here: https://www.whiskybase.com/whiskies/whisky/139776/ben-nevis-1996-twex
In the comments to that review, I expressed a desire to compare and contrast the lightly-sherried version I'd tried with a much more naked, refill bourbon version. Well, I found that. I'm scoring them the same, but for very different reasons. The Whisky Show bottling was immediately approachable and had those crowd-pleasing orange notes. While the complexity was there, it's the kind of malt that I'd pour for just about anyone who enjoys his or her whisky. This, on the other hand, is not a beginner whisky or one that can be easily quaffed. Rather, you need to take your time with it and give it proper consideration. Approaching it that way, it's another very impressive iteration of this vintage, which is already approaching legendary status. I will say, the nose is slightly stronger than the palate, in my opinion. I could nose this all day. I appreciate the palate, but I do wish it had a bit more to offer. The nose could have pushed this to 91-92 point, but the palate brings it down to a still very solid 90.