It’s now Day 2 of my Islay expedition and this one will be quite a more arduous journey then any other distillery tour I’ve experienced here on Islay. Not because of the distillery experience itself but because of it’s extremely remote location being the northernmost distillery on Islay.
Since my dad and I didn’t have a car to use on Islay and the bus schedule would only take us 4 miles south of the distillery, we decided to have a brisk morning walk all the way up, which was a really bad idea in hindsight because Islay in early October is exceptionally windy so if you don’t get pushed off the hill into the sheep fields you’ll be enjoying a 4 mile trek through vast wilderness while also simultaneously dodging semis on a 1 lane dirt road. But if you’re coming to Islay in better conditions and have time on your hands the walk up is absolutely beautiful with green fields on one side and a vista looking onto the Paps of Jura on the other, and eventually you’ll find some tasty whisky either at Ardnahoe or at the crown jewel of the Northern Islay trio (in my opinion), Bunnahabhain!
Bunnahabhain Distillery lies right on the Bunnahabhain Bay and at the mouth of the nearby Margadelle River, hence it makes sense why Bunnahabhain in Gaelic means “mouth of the river.” Before the distillery was built in 1881 there was absolutely nothing in the area outside of farmland. The road to the distillery was only installed 40 years after the distillery was built. Before this time, any people and goods came from the docks including anything the distillery needed to import from the mainland as well as any whisky it had to send back, mostly for use in blends like Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse when it was formerly owned by Edrington. Warehouse 9, which is where we’re heading for the warehouse tasting, was previously the malt floor before it was converted 50 years ago. It holds 14,000 casks currently but previously held 23,000 before the warehouses were knocked down for needed renovations. All Black Bottle blend stocks are currently in East Kilbride while all the whisky for Bunnahabhain single malt is now lying here in Warehouse 9. In terms of production, all of Bunnahabhain’s unpeated malt is sourced from Simpsons Maltings and all peated barley comes from Port Ellen Maltings. For any peated, such as the Moine, bottlings Bunnahabhain uses barley peated to 35-40ppm, however at this moment the distillery they will be distilling some barley peated to 80ppm for some experimental, or blending, purposes. So be excited for the possibility of extra heavily peated Bunnahabhain by 2024 or later!
For this tasting we’re led by our guide Elise, who is very knowledgeable of the distillery and the many styles produced here, who takes us to the end of Warehouse 9 with some barrels laid out and a few cozy chairs and barrel/tables to rest our drams on. It was a small tasting with only 2 other guests, a pair of good lads from Germany, tasting along with us so it was a nice relaxed experience enjoying the lush dessert like smells of the warehouse. So let’s get onto the warehouse tasting reviews!
Bunnahabhain 6 Year Old Bourbon Cask
This first Bunnahabhain is a young expression of unpeated Bunnahabhain that’s been entirely aged in a first fill bourbon cask sourced from Wild Turkey Distillery. It’s bottled at 57.5% ABV.
Colour: Light Gold
Nose: Very light and floral, banana, heather, apple juice, lemon, vanilla oil, plump raisins and baked dessert loaf
Palate: Nice chewy caramels, plump raisins, vanilla bean, apple butter, tea tannins, nice oiliness and ripe mango
Finish: Long with apple butter, raisin jam, spice cake and pears
Phenomenal young bourbon cask. The nose is light but still very complex and the palate and finish have some great chewy caramel notes and a nice buttery and oily mouthfeel. A great start to this tasting and yet another example of quality distillate shining through at a young age!
Bunnahabhain 7 Year Old Re-Juvenated Oak
Sticking with some younger drams, we move onto a 7 year old unpeated whisky that’s been aged in “re-juvenated oak” which previously held Wine Brandy from France. It’s bottled at 57.3% ABV.
Colour: Light Copperish Amber
Nose: Rich brown sugar and maple sap, then some vanilla, dry caramel, lemons, plump raisins, cocoa and licorice
Palate: Nice pepperiness, allspice, cinnamon, clove, apple jam, cranberries, gooseberries, chai tea, roasted oak tannins and cherries
Finish: Medium with sweet vanilla candies, cinnamon toast crunch and soft caramels
Not as long as the 6 year bourbon but the complexity is just as good if not better. Really interesting maple and anise forward nose which develops into the palate with green fruit and dried fruit notes reminiscent of some well aged French white wines along with nice soft tannic qualities. Wonderful stuff.
Bunnahabhain 11 Year Old Manzanilla Cask
Next, we get into the 10+ year range with an 11 year old whisky that’s been aged entirely in a Manzanilla Sherry Butt. It’s bottled at a lighter 54.2% ABV.
Colour: Light Amber
Nose: Quite a light nose with sea salt, white pepper, dry lemon, dry cherry, vanilla stalk, woodsmoke and light plum
Palate: Nice red licorice, blackberries, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger root, dark chocolate, pine nuts, dry lemons, red and black plums and vanilla cream
Finish: Medium with lemon peel, ginger paste, ginseng and dark sultanas
Really well composed. Outside of a shorter finish then I’d like this is such a wonderful sherried whisky with some lovely creaminess, nuttiness and concentrated ginger that’s very much up my alley.
Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Palo Cortado Finish
Our last unpeated valinch dram of the tasting is a 12 year old finished in a Palo Cortado sherry cask for an undisclosed amount of time. It’s bottled at 55.7% ABV.
Nose: Big juicy Valencia oranges, eucalyptus, lemon drops, dry vanilla, caramel, cherry, gingerbread
Palate: Huge chocolate, gingerbread, Christmas cake, sea salt, heavy brine
Finish: Long with massive sea salt and white pepper along with apple jelly, pickled onions
This is such a funky big bold Bunnahabhain. The barley spirit and the cask integrate very nicely and make for some lovely Christmas flavours, as well as pickled onions if you like that, along with some great coastal and medicinal flavours. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
Now before we got to try the last valinch of the day Elise decided to share a fun dram with us that’s not part of the valinch tasting, so big thanks to her for the dram!
Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2019 Limited Edition 2001 Sauternes Finish
This next bottling, the second last of the day, is an extra wee dram that Elise gave us before our adventure concluded. This was one of the 2019 Feis Ile bottlings Bunnahabhain put out which is 14 years old and finished for 5 years in Sauternes wine barriques. It’s bottled at 54.2% ABV.
Nose: Lovely honey, soft white pepper, rich pears, vanilla bean, cinnamon, candied lemon and white wine grapes
Palate: Smoky caramel and milk chocolate, cinnamon, fleshy green grapes, minerality, honey, light apricot and winter melon
Finish: Medium with melonbread, baking spices, dry lemon and fresh apricot
Very well put together and complex, very much the ideal summer whisky for many, but at 195 pounds a bottle I had to take a pass on this one.
Bunnahabhain 16 Year Old Moine Bourbon
To end our tasting we now get to the peat! This was a 16 year old bourbon cask Bunnahabhain peated to 35ppm of phenol. It came out at 55.4% ABV.
Nose: Nice soft seafoam and toasted peanuts, fresh apples, cinnamon spice, soft toffee, sea salt, walnuts and soft oak tannins
Palate: Nice soft spices, vanilla, roasted nuts, then massive salty peat
Finish: Medium to Long with smokey nuts, cocoa butter, jammy apples and raisins, pear slices and tea leaves
Very well put together and very old school in how jammy and cocoa-forward it was. Definitely worth a buy in my books and my 2nd favourite of the tasting after the 12 Year Palo Cortado Finish!
A wonderful tour and some of the best whiskies I’ve had on Islay! For someone around my age Elise did a wonderful job taking us through these whiskies and really showed us through a lot of great history about this fantastic little distillery. It also helps that the distillery exclusives come as 200ml bottles costing 35 pounds each so you don’t have to buy a whole bottle to have something small and special to bring home with you if the liquor limit is tight where you’re from! Bunnahabhain is definitely very remote, much like Kilchoman Distillery is (which I sadly wasn’t able to make it to, but I definitely will on my next journey over!), but it’s well worth the travel because the whisky truly is world class and the people here really do treat you to some fantastic examples of their wares to thank you for coming all the way to their humble abode especially during their renovation period. As long as you’re okay with dodging carrier trucks on a windy Fall day then you’ll love what Bunnahabhain has to offer! An absolute must-do, maybe even moreso then Bruichladdich!