When I was 17 years old, on holiday somewhere between Oban and Fort William, I strolled into a white-washed pub that overlooked a small body of water. It had been miserable weather outside at the time, but I rather liked being inside and looking out through the murk. The place wasn’t much: dreary red carpets, an empty pool table, old wooden furniture. I wandered towards the warmly lit bar, which was being cleaned by an elderly fellow (I guess everyone seems old when you’re 17). Behind him stood a vast array of whisky bottles, and I was absolutely entranced. This was late afternoon, one August day in 1998.
I should say, for the sake of responsible drinking, that I had already consumed a few whiskies by that point in my life so knew full well what lay waiting in those bottles, and that the barman ought to have, in contemporary parlance, checked my ID. The late 1990s were simpler times though, and no one gave you grief about things like that.
Anyway, as I say, I’d already had a few whiskies, but I hadn’t really developed the love for them. Those things come with time. I’m not really sure anyone takes their first sip of whisky and adores it. So I asked the barman: what would be something good to get into whiskies properly – a solid single malt, something interesting to a relative newcomer. Something I should be drinking. Without hesitation he reached for the Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old and poured me a measure. I remember looking at the dark bottle with the little mariner icon as he placed it back on the shelf.
So I took my glass away – whisky didn’t come in Glencairns or Copita sherry glasses back then, but instead a tiny tumbler – and took a seat by a window. And it was there, in 1998, staring outside at the sideways drizzle that drifted over a hill somewhere in Scotland, that I fell in love with whisky. Or at least, I fell in love with the idea of drinking whisky, which I think is the more important step to take when getting into something. Tasting notes? All I recall were sensations. Of inner fires being stoked. Of a drink that could be every bit as invigorating as a hilltop wind. An elemental substance, something made of the land and that tasted of it too. A liquid that reminded you that you were alive.
That was… some time ago now. I visited Bunnahabhain back in 2013. I took the above photo from outside the distillery, in perhaps the most scenic place on Islay. About half an hour before that was taken, I saw two eagles circling above. There was a wonderful mood about the landscape. It’s a lovely place, both stark and welcoming; though someone on the island said that a few years prior it used to be considered bandit country. Today, one can get very excited about the distillery itself. But these days I’ve found it terribly hard to get excited about Bunnahabhain’s whiskies, which is a great shame (although the 18-year-old is a charmer). It rarely makes bad whisky, but just not exciting whisky. With that in mind I decided to return to the Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old, albeit a more recent version – no doubt the composition of that original Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old has long-since changed.
Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Tasting Notes
Colour: deep copper, burnished. On the nose: quite pleasant and approachable, but not actually a huge amount going on. Gentle peat smoke, which is more like smoke from burning hardwood. A little estery, with old-fashioned lemonade. Blackcurrant jam, very pronounced. A touch of golden syrup.
In the mouth: Peat smoke and sharpened pencils. Industrial coastline, sea shores and engine rooms. Then a clutch of sultanas and raisins, and actually blackcurrant – or even a touch of elderberry. There’s an oiliness and nuttiness that calms down the wood spices. A short finish for most of the flavours, although you’re left with a bitter woody note that’s not especially pleasant. It’s simple stuff, but those simple flavours are actually rather nice. And yes, I think it remains a very good stepping stone to other things, even now.
You can never go back. That much is obvious.
So when I first tasted it I was a bit disappointed. Strangely, now I’ve revisited over time, I grew more impressed. It’s not complex at all, let me be clear, but there are two key bold themes – one of dry wood smoke and one of jam-like dried fruits – and with those two flavours really standing out it creates a well-defined exchange between salty flavours and sweetness on the palate. The Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old costs less than £40, which makes it priced about right for what you get. If you’re relatively new into whisky, I still think this would be a sensible purchase.
There is a next step, however, and that’s to track down a late 1990s edition of the whisky. I need to properly go back to the source, which means going to the auction sites…