Monday, February 29, 2016

Bunnahabhain Roundup

Regular readers of this blog may recall my travels to Florida to host Scotch dinners in 2013 and 2014. Those who are especially observant may have also noticed that the event was absent from my writings in 2015. Lengthy travel wasn’t an option for me last winter for a variety of reasons, but my presence in the sunshine state was still requested. The most workable solution was for me to orchestrate the event as usual but host the dinner remotely, via Skype.

Unfortunately, the date chosen for the dinner ended up being in conflict with other commitments for most of the potential attendees and it had to be cancelled at the last minute. A year later, I did end up back in Florida for a repeat performance, but logistical issues forced me to find a new theme and select different whiskies than the ones I had lined up for the event that never came to be.

Before the Skype dinner was called off though, my counterpart in Florida had sent me one-once samples of all the whiskies that were to be discussed. Since those little bottles have been sitting on my shelf for about a year now, it’s high time that I taste through them and explore some relevant topics.

The origins of the theme for this event actually go back to my first visit to Frenchman’s Creek. As I observed my surroundings in their various food & beverage outlets, a bottle of whisky caught my eye; a green bottle of Bunnahabhain 12 year. That was early in 2013, and more than two year prior, in the fall of 2010, Bunnahabhain had stopped chill filtering their single malt bottlings, as well as raising the alcohol level to 46.3% and doing away with caramel coloring. Those changes coincided with the traditional emerald green glass bottle being replaced with one that was a dark shade of brown referred to as “smoked oak”.

It was likely that no one there knew that they were sitting on something that was already somewhat of a rarity and which would only become more scarce as time marched on. I noticed that a few of those bottles were still floating around the private resort community on my second visit a year later and decided that they really ought to be taken advantage of. Six months later, when the subject of a third dinner came up, I was told that there was still enough of the old Bunnahabhain 12 year in inventory to use for the event. I asked that it be set aside and started my search for the other bottlings I would need.

My plan was to focus just on Bunnahabhain and explore the full range of flavor profiles that can come from a single distillery, in addition to having a pretty direct comparison of a whisky with and without chill filtration. I also wanted to include Toiteach, Bunnahabhain’s heavily peated expression, as part of the lineup. This would be a perfect accompaniment to the hand-rolled cigars with which the event typically ends. For the fourth selection I wanted something that differed more drastically from the 12 year than the official 18 year old bottling. I ended up going with a Gordon & MacPhail bottling of Bunnahabhain which is 8 years old. Fortunately I still have just a bit left in my own bottle of the 18 year, so I can throw that in the mix as well.

The plan was to have two screens set up at the event; one to display me on Skype and the other with a slide show of images from my tour of the distillery. Topics of discussion were to include the technical differences between the various expressions, the history of the distillery, the changes of ownership and the effects they’ve had on the brand over the last 20 years. For this post I’m going to taste through everything, then lay out all of the imagery and finally cover the above-mentioned topics.

But the first order of business was to have been a toast. “Westering Home” has been Bunnahabhain’s adopted motto since it was first bottled as single malt in the 1970’s. For many years part of the traditional Scottish ballad that inspired the motto was printed on the back of the back of the bottle:

Westering home, and a song in the air,
Light in the eye, and it’s goodbye to care;
Laughter o’ love, and a welcoming there;
Isle of my heart, my own one!

Tell me o’ lands o’ the Orient gay!
Speak o’ the riches and joys o’ Cathay!
Eh, but it’s grand to be wakin’ ilk day
To find yourself nearer to Isla.


8 year (Gordon & MacPhail), 43%, chill filtered:
color – Pale, golden-yellow. Chardonnay-like.
nose – There’s a slightly youthful, almost corn-like grain character but it’s pretty well balanced by pear notes and a pleasant grassy quality.
palate – The grassy notes lead, but they are backed up by the fruit character as well as a hint of malt and a gentle floral note.
finish – Warming spice notes come on to hold things in balance and keep the youthfulness and grassy notes in check.
overall – An approachable aperitif-style whisky. The world needs more honest, moderately aged and modestly priced single malts

12 year, 43%, chill filtered:
color – Darker golden yellow.
nose – There’s some commonality with the aromas of the 8 year, but it seems more refined and mature. It shows less grass and grain, and more fruit. A subtle hint of leather also joins in.
palate – This shows a nice balance of oak, complex fruit and gentle malt, but it also shows some of that perfumed floral character which I’m not a fan of.
finish – The flavors evolve gracefully, though very subtly as it moves through the finish. Everything is very well integrated.
overall – Stylistically, this isn’t really my cup of tea, but it is very well made and I can see why this bottling had its devotees.

12 year, 46.3%, non-chill filtered:
color – Darker than the 43% 12 year, moving away from yellow and toward mahogany.
nose – The tree fruits still come through, but the more dominant note is a gingerbread-like maltiness. Hints of cola and vanilla add complexity to the aromatics.
palate – Sweet (but not overtly) maltiness is the key note here; ginger snap cookies, brown sugar and a touch of butterscotch. Elements of dried fig and warm apple pie add depth.
finish – Cinnamon and other baking spices quickly come in, turning the finish dry and making a lovely counterpoint to the sweet, malty notes that were dominant up front.
overall – A subtle hint of the perfumed floral notes might still be coming through, but just enough to add complexity. For my tastes this is a dramatic improvement over the 43% 12 year.

18 year, 46.3%, non-chill filtered:
color – Darker still, more of a golden brown.
nose – The malty character is toned down in this expression, with dark, stewed sherry fruit notes becoming more prominent. Leathery oak notes come out as well. The tree fruit character is all but buried here.
palate – This one is less sweet and more deftly balanced up front than its younger sibling. The gingerbread-like malty notes are still there, but with more sherried fruit notes; Dundee cake, Demerara sugar and stewed berry fruit. Dry spice notes arrive on the mid-palate along with some oxidized nuttiness.
finish – Leathery oak and dry spice come to the fore, with a slightly astringent note (but in a respectable, mature way). Long and contemplative.
overall – I think the 18 year actually differs from the 12 year more than I realized when I compared them a little over three years ago.

Toiteach, 46%, non-chill filtered:
color – Quite pale; straw yellow. Lighter than the 8 year.
nose – Peat smoke is the dominant note, but the aromas have a very elegant quality. A bit of grassiness comes through and it has an obvious coastal character: brine-soaked fish nets draped over smoldering peat embers.
palate – As on the nose, the peat smoke on the palate is the dominant flavor, but it’s not a huge, in-your-face peat monster. The elegance is sustained and the peat makes an intriguing counterpoint to the grassy notes and tree fruit.
finish – The coastal qualities seen on the nose were subdued up front, but they’ve been resurrected on the finish and joined by gentle, warming spice notes. The spice notes build as it meanders and evolves.
overall – This is a subtle and thought provoking dram; it’s no wonder my hastily made notes from the fist time I tasted it at the distillery were lacking.

It’s hard to find technical details of these whiskies, especially with regards to the types of casks they were matured in, but I’ll go over what I came across. First, it should be noted that much of Bunnahabhain’s production goes to blends. I found a review from about five years ago which mentioned that only 5% of what was produced was bottled as single malt. A more recent piece put that figure at between 10% and 20%. Most of the distillate ends up in Bourbon barrels, with just 10% finding its way to Sherry casks. It’s likely though that most of the whisky going to blenders is in Bourbon barrels, so the single malt bottlings can still have a fairly high percentage of Sherry cask whisky in the mix. The tech sheet for the Gordon & MacPhail 8 year states that it is aged exclusively in refill Sherry casks. I should mention that this bottling is only done for the U.S. market. A similar looking 8 year old is available in Europe, but it is made from heavily peated malt.

Speaking of peat, most of the barley that Bunnahabhain uses is very lightly peated, to 2 ppm or less. The tech sheet for the 12 year states that it is aged in Bourbon barrels (20%), Oloroso Sherry casks (20%) and refill casks (60%). That description leads me to believe that the first two parts are first-fill casks, but the 60% portion’s description is pretty open ended. That could be any type of casks and it could be 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc, fill. They’re a little more specific with the 18 year, listing it as 35% Bourbon barrels and 65% Oloroso Sherry casks. But, without it stated, it’s hard to know if these are 1st fill, 2nd fill, 3rd fill, etc.

The Toiteach is made from malt which has been peated to between 35 and 40 ppm. I’ve seen a report stating that when this distillate is run, the cut of the heads and the tails coming off the second still are adjusted to be different than the runs of regular distillate. It does not have an age statement, but is said to be between 10 and 11 years old. I also found some references to this being aged in a mix of Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks, and even with a few places noting them as Manzanilla Sherry casks. My suspicion is that it’s aged primarily in Bourbon barrels and has a Manzanilla finish. Okay, on to the history of the distillery.

Located on the remote north shore of Islay, Bunnahabhain was established in 1881 by a small group of entrepreneurs who had experience in the whisky industry. It’s likely that the distillery was built where it was primarily for the natural bay there. This made the distillery easily accessible to puffers, the shallow-draft, commercial steam boats that transformed the economies of Scotland’s islands from the late 19th century.

The puffers were a reliable connection to the mainland, bringing in coal, barley and casks, and taking out aged whisky. But that part of the island was previously uninhabited, so in addition to building the distillery and warehouses, the company also had to construct a pier, a village with housing and a school to accommodate the workforce, and a road to connect everything to the rest of the island. The views from that route, as well as from the distillery itself, across the sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura are no less than stunning. Today, the puffers have been relegated to history and large trucks use that road as a link to the nearby modern ferry terminal at Port Askaig.

In my writings on Bruichladdich, I mentioned that it was Islay’s first purpose built commercial distillery; with all others before it morphing out of farming concerns where distilling had been a supplemental activity. Bunnahabhain could make the same claim, as both were established in 1881, but for the fact that this distillery took longer to go into production. Because of all of the supplemental construction, it wasn’t until October of 1882 that the first spirit ran and full production didn’t begin until January of 1883. Outside of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, and until the opening of Kilchoman in 2005, all of the other distilleries on Islay, both operational and long closed, had been established before 1850 (okay, I’m ignoring Malt Mill, which was a small distillery that operated within Lagavulin from 1908 to 1962).

I’ve seen many different phonetic spellings of Bunnahabhain, but “BOO-na-HA-ven” seems to convey the proper pronunciation fairly well. The Gaelic origins of the name mean either “mouth of the river” or “foot of the river”, depending on how one translates it back to the original words from which the name was derived. The river the name references is the Margadale, which feeds into the bay just north of the distillery and is the source of Bunnahabhain’s water. Originally drawn from the river after flowing over peaty bogs, the source water is now piped to the distillery directly from the spring that feeds the river, a distance of over a mile. This keeps the source water free of any phenolic influence.

The company that established Bunnahabhain in 1881 started off as the Islay Distillers Company. In 1887 William Grant & Co, who had established the Glenrothes distillery in 1878, merged with the Islay Distillers Company to form Highland Distillers.

From here the history of Bunnahabhain’s ownership looks simple at first glance, but it’s actually a little more complicated when you scratch below the surface. Highland Distillers slowly added distilleries to their portfolio through the years, bringing on Glenglassaugh in 1892, Tamdhu in 1899, Highland Park in 1937, Glenturret in 1990 and finally Macallan in 1996. They also acquired the company that owned the Famous Grouse brand of blended Scotch in 1970, as well as buying the Black Bottle blended Scotch brand in 1995. This is when Black Bottle was reformulated to include whisky from all of the active Islay distilleries, and its new recipe was centered on Bunnahabhain.

This is where things get a little confusing. In 1999 Highland Distillers was purchased by the Edrington Group in a joint venture with William Grant & Sons (with 70% and 30% stakes, respectively). If you’re thinking “Wait, wasn’t William Grant one of the two companies that joined to form Highland Distillers in the first place?” you might be on to something. But that was an entirely different William Grant (note the “& Sons” versus the “& Co” in their names); the one I’m talking about now established Glenfiddich in 1887 and Balvenie in 1892.

There is still a link to the past though. One of the founding members of the Islay Distillery Company was a man named William Robertson. He had started off as a Glasgow based whisky broker, establishing his firm, Robertson and Baxter, in 1861. The company had many subsidiaries and was involved in warehousing, bottling, coopering, distilling and blending. Finally, in 1961, the three Robertson sisters inherited the various business interests of William Robertson, who was their grandfather. They brought everything together under one holding company, naming it Edrington. In fact, Edrington already held a 28% stake in Highland Distillers before the 1999 purchase.

Robertson and Baxter had also owned the Glengoyne distillery since 1965, so with the 1999 purchase of Highland Distillers there were eight single malt distilleries under Edrington’s ownership. The company decided to focus its efforts on a few of the brands in its portfolio, primarily Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse. Others were neglected and eventually sold off. Bunnahabhain and Glengoyne were the first two to go, in 2003. Next went Glenglassaugh in 2008. Then in 2010 they sold the Glenrothes brand (while keeping the distillery itself) to Berry Bros. & Rudd while at the same time acquiring the Cutty Sark blended Scotch brand from them. Finally, in 2011 Tamdhu was sold off.

In the 2003 sale, Bunnahabhain, along with the Black Bottle brand, was bought by Burn Stewart. That company was established in 1948 as a London-based blending, brokering and export business. In 1988 it was bought by a group of whisky industry insiders and shortly thereafter began to acquire distilleries. Deanston was first in 1990 and Tobermory followed in 1993. Burn Stewart itself was bought in 2002, going CL Financial, a Trinidad based conglomerate, a year before the Bunnahabhain purchase. Then, in 2009, CL Financial had a financial meltdown resulting in a liquidity crisis and eventual government bailout. This situation meant an uncertain future for many of the company’s assets, including Burn Stewart. The situation was finally resolved in 2013 when Burn Stewart was sold to Distell, a multinational brewing and beverage company which is based in South Africa.

For much of its history Bunnahabhain has chugged along uneventfully; a workhorse which supplied malt to a variety of blends. In spite of a closure that lasted from 1930 to 1937, the distillery survived the difficult times of the first half of the 20th century. Its first significant changes came in 1963.

There was plenty of demand in the post World War II boom period, but consumer tastes were changing and there was strong market for lighter, more delicate whiskies. In response Bunnahabhain switched over from the traditional, heavily peated style of whisky that they had always made to using malted barley that was essentially unpeated (2 ppm or less) in 1963. Bruichladdich actually made the same move a few years earlier (1960 or possibly 1961). All of the other distilleries on the island continued to make the intensely peaty, signature Islay-style whisky that they were known for.

That was just one of several changes at Bunnahabhain in 1963 though. Use of the traditional floor maltings ended and the distillery began to purchase commercially malted barley. The number of stills doubled, from two to four. The six washbacks were taken out of the stillhouse and a separate tun room was created to house the six new washbacks, which were nearly four times the size of the original ones. This was also when the stills were switched over to internal steam heating and the worm tubs were done away with in favor of modern shell and tube condensers.

Bunnahabhain was first bottled as a single malt in the late 1970’s, but the 12 year expression was the only official bottling and the distillery was still primarily focused on supplying blends. When the next industry downturn hit, Bunnahabhain was mothballed during 1982 and 1983, and production was somewhat limited for much of that decade. When things started to rebound in the 1990’s, there was also a renewed interest in heavily peated single malts. A run of medium-heavily peated whisky (28 ppm) was done in 1991, and another batch was made at 38 ppm in 1997.

When Edrington took over in 1999, Bunnahabhain was not considered to be an important part of the portfolio and its production was relegated to just a few weeks a year; essentially making only what was needed to supply the Black Bottle and Famous Grouse blends. Thankfully it was only four years before Bunnahabhain and the Black Bottle brand were sold off to Burn Stewart. The new owners immediately brought production back up and worked to improve quality.

They also resumed production of the heavily peated distillate in 2003. It was just made for a few weeks a year initially, but that had increased to 6 weeks in 2006 and was up to 9 weeks in 2014. Some of that heavily peated whisky from 1997 was used for a limited release bottling in 2004 called Moine (Gaelic for “peat”). Then the heavily peated version became a regular, though limited, part of the lineup with the 2009 introduction of Toiteach (Gaelic for “smoky”, pronounced “toe-chack).

The biggest change from Bunnahabhain’s new owners was the 2005 introduction of the 18 year and the 25 year bottlings. While there had been the occasional limited releases going back as for as the early 1980’s, they were always vey limited and this was the first time the standard lineup had been expanded beyond the flagship 12 year old. Then in 2010 another big change came. Bunnahabhain 12, 18 and 25 were all switched over to being bottled without chill filtration and without any artificial coloring. The bottling proof of all three was also raised to 46.3%. The 12 year had been bottled at both 40% and 43% previously, depending on its intended market. The 18 and 25 had both started out at 43%. When Toiteach was introduced the year before, it was already non-chill filtered and at 46%.

There had been a string of good news from Bunnahabhain after Burn Stewart took over in 2003, but I have seen some troubling signs since the company was bought by Distell in 2013. A little more than five months after the change of ownership, Black Bottle was re-launched with a new look and a new formula. It’s supposedly been taken back to its north-eastern Scotland roots, with little Islay influence and a healthy dose of Speyside malts (I say supposedly because there is speculation that the Aberdeenshire malts it was originally based on back in 1879 were actually quite smoky, an attribute which was gradually lost with time). From everything I’ve read, Black Bottle has been thoroughly gutted and is now quite unimpressive.

The other thing that concerns me is how rapidly the price of Bunnahabhain has risen over the last three years. When I reviewed the 12 year and the 18 year in 2012, they were priced at $40 and $80, respectively. I considered the 12 to be a tremendous value and the 18 to be fairly reasonable. The 12 year jumped up to $55 pretty quickly and now it is not uncommon to see it as high as $70. The 18 jumped up to $120, and while that still seems to be the average price I have seen it as high as $150.

I understand that all whisky prices are on the rise these days, but to almost double the price of a single malt that is not all that well known over the course of three years seems a bit excessive. Also, the flagship offering of the lineup should be priced so that loyalists can afford to buy on a regular basis and first time buyers are willing to take a chance on it. For a well-established, heavily marketed single malt I think that ceiling is currently around $60. For a lesser known brand like Bunnahabhain which is trying to gain market share, it should be closer to $50. Time will tell how Distell’s strategy works out.