All the rumours are true: Bunnahabhain feels like the most remote and difficult to get to of all the distilleries on Islay. The final stretch is spent driving a long way down a nondescript single lane road. What they don’t tell you is that the Bunnahabhain Distillery complex looks like something out of a nuclear fallout movie, with seemingly old and rundown industrial buildings. Any fear of mutants subsides once you’re there, as the view of the Sound of Islay is amazing and they have this wooden pier that goes a fair bit out into the water that offers amazing views of the Distillery.
Of all the distilleries I visited on this trip, Bunnahabhain is the least corporate. In fact, it’s probably the antithesis of corporate. There’s no cell reception, it’s remote and difficult to get to, and really the Victor Centre feels like you’ve stepped into the General Store of a small town in a bygone era. Suffice it to say it’s quaint.
We had a pretty large group of about 20 or so. Some Germans, some Fins and a lot of Norwegians. Walking into Warehouse 9 you’re hit with a blast of cold and damp air. But what sticks with me most of all is the smell of Angel’s Share. It was like we’d walked into a Chocolate and Cherry Liqueur Factory. Similar to Bruichladdich it was clear that this was a warehouse that is regular use and not for show
Our guide Kat was great, friendly, approachable and probably the peppiest guide I had had the pleasure of meeting thus far. She invited us to take our seats on the old church pews surrounding the casks we would sampling. Kat was friendly throughout the entire tour and when we got back to the Visitor Centre she was more than happy to pour us samples of whatever we’d like for free; usually, you have to pay for samples. She even poured me a sample of the 2018 Feis Ile Bottle which was aged in Spanish oak and was priced at 250 pounds.
Here’s what I drank:
Cask 331 (13-Year-Old and unpeated) Manzanilla Butt – 51.3%
Fun fact about this one is that it was distilled on Valentine’s day. There wasn’t too much in the cask, unfortunately, so Kat had to valinch this one ahead of us arriving in Warehouse 9, that was actually quite nice as it gave it a nice chance to breathe when compared to all the other’s I’ve tried straight from the cask where many times it feels like the dram would benefit from some air and time.
Nose: Salt and savoury, maple, cherry preserves, light milk chocolate, sickly sweet, breathing deeply a bit more salted chocolate.
Water – Bring outs more bread with salted butter notes and more maple.
Taste: Salted porridge with chocolate flakes, cherry liquor.
Water – Much more cherry liquor chocolates, helps to tone down the salt.
Finish: Warm baking bread, oak, maple and a big of chocolate.
Water – really helped to balance this out and brought out this melted butter note.
Notes: Manzanilla is known for being very salty, and it sure lived up to that reputation. I enjoyed it but the salt and savoury notes were a bit too much for my personal tastes. I enjoyed this but I felt that the savoury notes almost drowned everything else out.
Cask 555 (14 Years Old and unpeated) full Maturation in a first fill Pedro Ximenez Noe Cask 54.8%
Nose: Sugar powder dusted Black Forest cake, salted butter. Quite an oily aspect to this, candied rye bread.
Water – Brings out more minerality, all the notes without water remain but they become much more balanced and integrated, blueberry preserve on rye bread. Water also made this much oilier.
Taste: Intense salt, warm bread, brown sugar, cocoa, and stewed cherry.
Water – Salt and cherry, oak, powdered sugar, charred blueberry, shishito pepper.
Finish: Oak, very tannic, charred meat and cherry liquor.
Water – brings an intense Icelandic blueberry jam note that dominates and blows my mind (as a side note, Icelandic blueberry jam is just about the best jam money can buy).
Notes: A Noe cask spent a minimum of 30 years as a part of a Bodega’s solera system. Oddly, the appearance of this one was incredibly light; but the old maxim of never judging a book by its cover could not be truer here. This dram opened up beautifully with time and the water provided a balance that tied all the notes together. This was my favourite of the tasting by far and I even went home with a small 20cl bottle.
11 Year Old Muscat Finish (First 9 Years in Refill and the final 2 in Muscat – unpeated) – 54.5%
Nose: Table grapes, orange blossom, grape, steamed veggies, cognac.
Water – Brought out vegetal notes and dried grape skin.
Taste: Grape skin, grape seed. Very much grape and salt.
Water – Brings out vegetal and orange rind notes.
Finish: Orange rind, pencil wood, very tannic, grape drank, viognier ice wine.
Notes: This was very well made and very grape and orange dominant. The vegetal notes were a bit of a miss for me, but I still enjoyed it.
Cask ARI3000005 (14-Year-Old – peated – 9 years in refill bourbon, 5 in PX) Moine PX Cask – 53.4%
Nose: Warm peat smoke blown out of a kiln (the smell you get just by standing on the drying floors), rotisserie chicken, salt, bramble, pie crust.
Taste: Gravel road, oak, sweet, salt, viognier.
Finish: Freshly cut peat, graphite, oak, grape skin.
Notes: Another quality dram by Bunnahabhain. I think I just prefer the distillery’s unpeated stuff though. A few of the Fins went home with a lot of this though.
2018 Feis Ile – Spanish Oak (1 year in refill and 14 years in Spanish Gran Reserva Butts) – 58.2%
Nose: Sherry red sweets, salt, oily, bramble, berry field after rain.
Taste: Charred meat, charred berries, oak.
Finish: Berries, salt, oak, tannic.
Notes: It was hard to put notes to this dram after doing the entire tasting prior to this, plus the Visitor Centre had gotten quite loud and crowded. That being said, this was incredible; the intensity of the notes and the balance were just perfect. I would have gone home with a bottle of this, but with some of the other bottles I bought, I had to keep my powder dry.
Overall, I left Bunnahabhain with a much deeper appreciation for its core spirit and I also brought home 2 of the 20cl Noe Cask bottles available. If you can make it out to Bunna, I highly recommend it. Overall it feels like a much more laid back distillery, and you don’t get the sheen of corporate polish that all the others seem to have.