This whisky is the classic Bunnahabhain, the chief core expression of the distillery tucked away in a cove on Bunnahabhain Bay on the northeastern coast of the Queen of the Hebrides, the isle of Islay, where the distillery to resident ratio is about 1 for every 400 people. It is very hard to find a place of public accommodation on the island that doesn’t have a very nice whisky selection and Bunnahabhain is well accounted for in all.
The Whisky Wife and I visited Bunnahabhain in July 2018. A driver fetched us for a rather luxurious tasting of whiskies. Whiskies tasted were a 1980 Canasta finish at 49.5%, 46 years at 41.8%, the classic 25 years at 46.3%, 13 years at 46.3%, Moine Bordeaux finish at 58.1% and an American craft ale barrel finish at 50.5%. The distillery was undergoing major renovations, so photographs were not as plentiful or as classic as I might have hoped. I was able to photograph some of the work going on, including pieces of stills being replaced. Our hostess shared that the distillery is expanding production and creating a visitor’s center, while reducing warehouse space with the plan being to mature whisky off island (as does Caol Ila). The tasting was held in the back room of the current sales building, a tiny hut like structure that was quaint and simple. It suggested one is there for the whisky rather than the ambience, at least until the renovations are completed on the new visitor center.
Bunnahabhain is appreciated by this writer for being one of the lesser peat influenced distilleries, with a great variety of expressions from the distillery and from independent labelers, often with sherry cask or other than bourbon cask maturation and finishes (though I have to say, I am favorably disposed toward some independent bottlings of Bunnahabhain which are entirely bourbon casked whiskies). I have enjoyed several travel exclusives and expressions that are of unusual finishes. But I’ve never really thought about the standard 12 year old Bunnahabhain single malt until recently.
I returned home from work, prepared dinner and after dinner, I decided I wanted a dram. I had been hankering to open a Bunnahabhain 12 for a while. For a reason I cannot explain, I looked through all my bottles of Islays and found 2 bottles of the 12, pictured. There are multiple differences from one bottle to the other. Look at the writing by the neck (age v. birth year of distillery). The Captain of the ship is in completely different portraits on the labels. One label focuses more on the age of the whisky (the number 12 appears thrice on one bottle), whereas the other focuses on the small batch distillation and offers tasting notes. Both are natural color and non chill filtered, 46.3% ABV.
I opened the 12 on the right, which featured the number 12 only once, lower on the label and proclaims itself “Small Batch Distilled.”
Color: a light amber, clearly the ex-sherry cask influence is dominant.
Nose: a big snootful of sweet spices including licorice, nutmeg and cinnamon with fresh raisins and a slight sense of coastal sea salt air.
Palate. European oak is strong on the fore, with rich dry spice, fruit and dry sherry sweetness that combines with the ex-bourbon American oak casked whiskies in the marriage to produce a soft caramel feel.
The finish is lightly oaky, with a crisp, almost tart rather than syrupy or sugary sweetness, and quite long, mellowing gradually.
Postscript: the day after preparing this note, I had one of my colleagues at work pour me a dram from the bottle of 12 I gave to him for the holidays. Same label as the bottle I sampled at home. The color was lighter, more gold than amber, while the nose and flavors were essentially the same. Go figure.