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Bunnahabhain (pronounced: boo-na-HAV-en) is something of a quirky name in the whisky world. For decades it went unsung as a vast blenders malt but in recent years it has had something of a renaissance. Although it has not been a heavily peated malt since 1963, it still offers a unique and distinctly Islay flavour profile, one that has many fans.
Water Source: Margadale River
Stills: 2 Wash. 2 Spirit
Capacity: 2.5 million litres per year.
Early years: 1963-1983
Before 1963 Bunnahabhain was a very heavily peated malt like all others on Islay. However the trends in drinkers taste preferences dictated a switch to unpeated in 63 to provide the blenders with more peat-free spirit for their blends. This was also the year that Bunnahabahin added a second pair of stills and converted to shell condensers and internal heating. To taste this old style of Bunnahabhain is very difficult indeed as there are virtually no known independent or official bottlings from before the switch. There was an old style aged bottling distilled in the forties and bottled in the seventies that I was fortunate enough to smell at the distillery once and while I remember it being peaty and aromatically stunning I couldnt say more than that. There was also the official 40yo 1963 vintage bottled in 2003. This displayed fragments of peat but the sherry casks were a little too heavy to allow it full voice.
The style of Bunnahabhain many would consider classic is an unpeated one, a malt that is immediately very fresh, Atlantic and invigorating with a distinctive nutty, buttery and sinewy quality. Bunnahabhain is one of the easiest of the unpeated malts to identify blind. There are more and more fantastic aged versions of Bunnahabhain from the sixties and seventies appearing these days. Excellent versions are available from Duncan Taylor, Signatory, Adelphi, and The Whisky Agency. Bunnahabhain ages very well, often retaining its coastal signature and acquiring more green fruits, lemon, liquorice and some drier herbal edges as well.Ã‚ There are several stunning aged official bottlings as well, notably the 1965, 66, 67 and particularly the legendary 68 Auld Acquaintance. Apart from the 67 these are all sherry matured versions that capture more salt, minerals and intense dark fruit characteristics. Some of the early editions of the famous distillery 12yo are also wonderful and are still relatively affordable, although the official 12 has been somewhat inconsistent through the years.
Recent times: 1980s- present.
Bunnahabhains flavour profile has been more consistent since 63 than most other distilleries. Even today the 12yo displays much of the same attributes of honey, salt, nuttyness and some sherry fruit although maybe not in the same levels of concentration and complexity as older bottlings. This means the biggest differences lie inevitable in the quality of the casks being filled. While there are no longer any of the sublime sherry casks from before the early seventies available to distillers Bunnahabhain still makes an effort to fill a variety of cask types. There are plenty hoggies and butts of both major oak varietys filled there and this is a refreshing change from the industry trend towards more first fill bourbon barrels. The biggest development in recent years was the decision in 1996 to re-commence production of peated spirit at Bunnahabhain. Peated to around 40ppm and produced for half the year there have already been some pretty stunning casks of this new peated make from a variety of bottlers. It is intensely medicinal, coastal and full of dry, grassy peat characters and minerality. Already many great casks have arisen and as it ages further into its teens it should become more and more fascinating. There has been a move in recent years to produce more finished whiskies at Bunnahabhain as special bottlings and some as more cemmercial products. These are by and large pretty terrible as the spirit does not bend well to over bearing cask technology and often feels flattened by this process. The best Bunnahabhains remain the ones that mature naturally. Lets hope there will always be plenty of those to choose from.