Writing for Malt isn’t without its perks. Sometimes there are invites to various events in London which I politely refuse and occasionally the odd sample of a whisky that in reality would be out of my normal price range. This Bunnahabhain 1980 Canasta cask finish is such a bottle that is just reaching the market with an asking price of £1800.
This is special occasion whisky for the majority of Malt’s readership although having just walked around Westminster earlier today, I suspect the local population would see this as an everyday dram. Such are the extremes we see in UK society today where cash is king. The beauty of whisky is that a good dram can come from unexpected quarters and the most humble of bottles can deliver a knockout blow. Lofty prices are not the guarantee of a memorable or lavish tasting experience rather an admission fee to an exclusive club. Yes, they do confirm the existence of some wonderful packaging and this Bunnahabhain is no different. Inspired by the vessels that used to sail to Islay and its sea fairing history, design team Pocket Rocket, came up with the intricate wooden inlay of the box that plays host to this visually impressive Bunnahabhain.
Such is the popularity of whisky nowadays that a whole new market for these premium whiskies has appeared in recent years. Once the domain of Macallan and Dalmore, now we are seeing such whiskies on a regular basis from a variety of distilleries. Some coming from unexpected hosts such as Tullibardine, which for most of its lifespan has struggled to deliver a drinkable whisky. It’s in this realm where age remains king and the more extended the maturation the better. Often thrown into the mix is the element of cask usage and here the Dalmore excels at supposedly finding the most luxurious casks and using these in increasingly complex arrangements. It sounds great especially on a press release or via a brand ambassador and adds to the pomp and ceremony. The packaging enhances the premium exterior with the visual appearance often being elevated above the bottle contents itself.
For Bunnahabhain it’s a sign of the times at the distillery since being taken over by African giant Distell in 2013 for a fee of £160 million that also included Deanston and Tobermory as part of the Burn Stewart Distillers acquisition. Since then we’ve seen considerable investment on Islay as the rather weather battered and worn distillery has received some overdue love and attention. Bunnahabhain remains a personal favourite to visit with a remarkable viewpoint across the Sound of Islay to the Isle of Jura. It is difficult not to be swept away by the strong whisky tide of emotion whilst sitting on the pier with a dram. In such a setting even the humble – by Canasta standards – 12 year old is elevated to new heights.
The £11 million investment at the distillery gives it a new shiny hull to tackle the rugged conditions it faces in such a prominent position. Mark’s already talked about this cash injection during his Bunnahabhain 46 year old Eich Bhana Lìr review so let’s change tack on a new course.
Do these clutch of Bunnahabhain releases represent a premiumisation of the distillery? In reality I’d suggest not, rather an impressive inventory that is being deployed accordingly. The days of dumping aged casks into blends, vattings or being utilised to support existing younger age statements are fairly rare nowadays. With a history stretching back to 1881, I totally understand the desire and buoyant market conditions to tap into this more luxurious berthing. Every distillery wants a piece of the action. And based on my experiences Bunnahabhain does produce some wonderful whiskies at the more advanced age of the spectrum. Officially, the 25 year old remains a firm favourite and I can still fondly recall Dr Kirstie McCallum’s warm and engaging tale of the whisky and the Bunnahabhain setting all those years ago at the Edinburgh Whisky Luxe event.
This Bunnahabhain has been bottled at 36 years of age, as an edition of 1200 with a suggested retail price of £1800. Initially matured in Oloroso casks before a final year in the sweeter Canasta sherry hosts, its bottled at 49.5% strength.
Bunnahabhain 1980 Canasta cask finish – review
Colour: an incredibly rich maple syrup.
On the nose: very plump and rich on the nose with a robust sherry nature. Honeycomb, ripe raisins and roasted plums all step firmly forward and a touch of sweet cinnamon sweeps up behind. Dark chocolate underpins the experience with a vanilla infused resin followed by gently roasted coffee beans that adds a luxurious savoury quality. Given time in the glass a brine-like quality with a touch of saltiness comes through alongside a strain of yeast and liquorice. Water heralds cherries and an creamy nature.
In the mouth: interesting, initially there’s the initial impact of vanilla and then a rush of sherry characteristics – nutmeg, orange peel, sultanas – before an odd detour of that salty brine coming through most unexpectedly. The finish gives this Bunnahabhain a rough tinge and vigour before the dryness from the cask takes hold leaving a creamy toffee.
As a whisky I find this Bunnahabhain strangely compelling. What would have been really interesting was to try this whisky prior to the Canasta finish and what this has since delivered? The reasoning for such a final flurry – which I presume has brought a creaminess and sweetness to the final product – after all that time in the original sherry cask. Is it worth £1800? In a word, no. Does it taste 36 years or so in age? Again, I’m not totally convinced. Ultimately, at this current price point it is firmly out of my reach and even with the bespoke packaging I would look elsewhere for a more value based Bunnahabhain whisky.
In the glass stripped naked of the packaging and asking price, what you’re left with is an interesting Bunnahabhain that represents a very good whisky and talking point, but not one I can recommend in its current guise unless you live in Westminster.
My thanks to Distell and the Deanston distillery team for this sample.