There’s a certain irony in today’s whisky realm that is pitched around openness and breaking down barriers. Scotch we’re told is for everyone and not just the geek. Fair enough, no problem here at Malt with such an outlook.
An overlooked psychological barrier is the pronunciation of Scotch. This can be drilled down further to wanting to fit in with proceedings and not being seen as a novice, or out of your depth. YouTube is full of energetic and eager whisky reviewers who make up for their lack of knowledge with passion and belief. It’s heartening that even when faced with the most alien of words, they’ll make a solid attempt at overcoming such a barrier. Needless to say, the end results are mixed but the enthusiasm is endearing.
Imagine for a moment walking into a whisky bar for the first time and wanting to experience whisky for all its majesty. An alien environment, inhabited by knowledgeable enthusiasts and regulars who all stop for a moment to glare at the stranger within their midst. You’ve plucked up the courage to step into such a realm and explore the mysteries within. A tapestry of bottles reside across the back wall and you’re dazzled by the sultry lighting and foreign names. You could be anywhere on Earth, but what you desire is a taste of Scotland. The bartender glides across to your vicinity. The briefest flash of a smile and then the question that seems to halt time itself – what would you like to drink? The clock ticks loudly in the background and you can feel the eyes of everyone observing, eager to debate and judge your selection. I’ll have a Bunna-hab-in-er-Stuart-na-dare please.
This introduction is pure fiction of course, but the barriers are recognisable and so are the emotions that follow. For the industry’s desire to embrace a larger percentage of the population there is a dramatic short-sightedness stemming from certain marketing teams. The step away from age statements has created a booming subindustry of ridiculous names – often Gaelic in origin – from monsters to Lochs and ancient events.
Remember the days of walking into a bar and asking for a 12 year old without having to research the bottle name in advance?
Things have come to a head with the Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair when even I have to stop and think about it for a moment. The stew-radhur means helmsman in Gaelic apparently but why not call it that? This is where the leading brands such as Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Macallan distinguish themselves from many competitors by keeping the name simple. Admittedly the same cannot be said of the packaging or price tag, but at least a Folio or Edition doesn’t require much thought. The fact that they’ve teamed up a thought-provoking name in Bunnahabhain alongside such a title is a double whammy.
Ultimately what is this stew all about? The concept comes from Dr Kirstie McCallum, Master Blender, who has selected a variety of 1st and 2nd fill sherry casks from this Islay distillery. The whiskies within vary in age and are unpeated along with being un-chill filtered and bottled at a robust 46.3% strength. A bottle of this Stiùireadair will set you back around £38, depending on where you shop. Regardless of the name and elaborate storyline the benchmark is the whisky itself and this is where Stiùireadair will sink to the bottom of the Sound of Islay or rise up to relative safety on the famous Bunnahabhain pier.
Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair Review
Colour: a light toffee.
On the nose: quite reserved for a Bunnahabhain initially, there’s a touch of bacon fat and a degree of sea salt involved with driftwood also. It’s quite light and coastal. Caramel comes into play and water reveals roasted coffee beans, a little nutmeg, dirty vanilla and smoked apples, but once again all rather subtle.
In the mouth: very drinkable in reality if a little subdued. Toffee springs to mind, as does a touch of blackberry with a salty tang once again. Woody overtones, prior to the of adding water, which reveals a touch of treacle and dark chocolate. On the finish, the wood bitterness comes through and the salt once more.
On a regular basis I’m confronted with whiskies that promise much on the nose but fail to deliver on the palate. The Bunnahabhain Stiuireadair is the reverse for a welcome change. Even with the flavoursome twist it feels more of a hybrid than what we associate from this distillery. Ultimately, the Stiuireadair doesn’t know what it wants to be and is a mixed puzzle lacking direction. Far from a bad whisky arguably it is a sum of its parts rather than much else? A whisky that is drinkable if you dare attempt to order it at the bar but scant reward for such dialogue bravery. Offering survivors a touch of the coast, this Bunnahabhain is a simmering stew of ideas but far from being the finished Dutch cuisine article. Decidedly average.
My thanks to Michael of the Carnegie Whisky Cellars for the sample