Bunnahabhain 12 Year: 46.3% abv
Background: The KCM crew has covered most of the distilleries on Islay, but we’ve left out a few. Doing our full due diligence, a personal favorite on the list is Bunnahabhain. The name is a little bit more intimidating looking than it is to say, as is the case with many Scotch distilleries. Bunnahabhain was founded in 1881, and reflects a much milder expression of Islay than Laphroaig and Ardbeg do. The 12 year Bunnahabhain competes on the same level as a Bruichladdich 12 Year would, at a reasonable price. Very recently, Bunnahabhain switched from a 40% abv to a 46.3% abv expression, also explicitly stating that the whisky is non-chill filtered. This makes the reasonably priced 12 Year old whisky an appealing offering.
Nose: Although Bunnahabhain doesn’t give you many details regarding this whisky, you get the instant gratification of malt and sherry on the nose. There is a definite feeling of coastal saltiness and seaweed that starts off. Sweet fruits and oak spices lay over the top of the nose, but in general the nose is actually light and lacking in complexity. The spiciness is rather light and hard to depict, but the sherry comes through very clearly.
Arrival: Right on the arrival, the hypothesis is confirmed. There is a very strong instance of sweet, succulent sherry notes. It is a beautiful, enjoyable arrival, giving you the clean, wonderful malt taste that you’d expect out of something like anCnoc. There is definite caramel in the arrival, which raisons and slight spices. At the end of the arrival, a little bit of seaweed and salt comes into play.
Body: The body takes over from here, grabbing the reigns and giving you the spicy side of this whisky. The sherry is no less prevalent here, nor is the barley presence. The caramel is very big in the body.
Finish: The finish retains the big notes from before, primarily maltiness and sherry. That being said, it also introduces a slightly smoky campfire bitterness, almost indistinguishable, as well as giving the intense spiciness you’d hope for. There is some vegetal aftertaste in the finish, with a brilliant earthy flavor coating the tongue. There is still tons of caramel, in addition to a sharp saltiness and alcohol heat. There is a slightly leathery character to the finish as well.
Nose: The nose after adding water picks up some soft vegetal tones, dials down the sherry notes, and pushes forward the salty essence of the whisky. This Bunnahabhain becomes slightly more floral after adding water. There is some sweet cherry juice layering on top of the nose.
Arrival: The arrival becomes more balanced. The salt and spice notes are beautifully laid out now. There is a much more characterful graininess in the arrival now, representing a less fresh malt flavor, and a more mature oaky flavor. The spiciness in the arrival is really good at grabbing your attention, with a good white pepper and allspice flavor that tends to set this apart from other sweeter malts.
Body: The body brings forth some pleasant oaky notes after adding water. The vegetal notes are much more prevalent in the body now, with a more vanilla-driven oak flavor pushing into the finish. Grenadine becoming noticeable on the palate, and clove spiciness is present in the body now.
Finish: The finish is becoming more reminiscent of a bourbon-aged whisky than a sherry-aged whisky, with some rich fruit notes reminding us that there is still something retained from before. The finish isn’t terribly long, but it does provide some complexity and a good balance of different flavors. There is some vanilla bean and fresh grain flavor that is coming through as well.
Final Comments: This might not be what you’d categorize as your traditional Islay malt, as it is lacking some of those key features (ungodly amounts of peat flavor). That being said, it is still an enjoyable Scotch and a good price. This whisky does a good job of representing a completely different side of Islay without losing some of the Islay essence. No, it doesn’t burn off your eyebrows with huge peat, but it is presented at 46%, natural color, and it is non-chill filtered, not to mention just tasting damn good. The complexity won’t knock your socks off by any stretch of the imagination, but after a few drops of water, the balance is worth appreciating. Can we tell you that this is a sherried whisky? After trying the Bruichladdich 12 Year 2nd Edition, no we can’t. But it sure tastes like it, and we’d by this over a Macallan 12 any day.
Why you’d buy it: A good value-per-dollar Islay with a different attitude that won’t break your bank.
Why you wouldn’t: You are a peat purist and believe every bottle of whisky that leaves Islay should be filled with peat moss.