With a title such as Celebration of the Cask someone else should be reviewing this for Malt. However, we’re here now so let’s see what this Càrn Mòr Bunnahabhain has to offer noting this particular release features specifically in the Morrison & Mackay Black Gold range. This showcases the ability of the darkest sherry casks potentially placing colour above the actual nose and palate of the whisky.
A question I ask myself now and again is that are we placing too much emphasis on the cask as part of the whisky equation? Nowadays the line we’re fed suggests that this wooden vessel is responsible for a huge proportion of the flavour in a whisky. At least 60-80% depending on who you believe. It’s an interesting opening gambit as in my eyes and experience this is more suggestive of how the other elements of the whisky process have been eroded and standardised in recent decades. This leaves the cask as the king of the hill and the main canteen for dishing out an array of flavours. The strives towards efficiency have been thorough, with malting centralised, often utilising the crop with the highest yield – as opposed to flavour – and not necessarily using local barley. Fermentation times nailed down, the potential of yeast rarely explored, distillation rendered down to a computer programme whilst all the marketing talks about traditional craftsmanship.
There’s more to it of course, some would highlight the use of condensers as being a significant step alongside the mass migration away from directly fired stills. Individually these elements may have only resulted in a minor change but when complied, the differences in today’s whiskies from those of the past are noticeable. The casks themselves have not remained untouched by this new dawn, with efficient harvesting of wood being commonplace alongside a new breed of casks that rarely held sherry for a prolonged period. In recent months I’ve grown weary of these forceful sherry cask brutes that only offer a limited spectrum of flavours. More and more releases are the showcase for a type of cask rather than the distillery itself.
Some may argue that the sherry cask was the original type utilised by the whisky industry before their export was banned in 1981. Decanted, these great casks from a bygone period were snapped up and sent north along with Port and Madeira also proving popular. A massive sea of change was underway throughout the industry during the 1930’s with the arrival of the post-Prohibition era. The passing of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act in 1935 confirmed that bourbon barrels could only be used once. Unsurprisingly this created a growing stockpile and a resource that Scotch tapped into with the decline in popularity of sherry, Port and Madeira. It also safeguarded the coopers of America and ensured a continuous demand for timber. If the single usage was to be revoked then it would have dire consequences for everyone involved including the Scottish distilleries who now rely heavily on the availability of ex-bourbon casks.
A great cask is exactly that. Whether its bourbon, sherry, port or a former wine host. We’re too quick nowadays to dismiss ex-bourbon casks as tired, bland or a pale imitation of their European rivals. I’ve had discussions with distillery owners about the sourcing of casks over the last year. Some have lamented the quality of casks shipped from Jack Daniels and given the scarcity of casks, in general, have been forced to purchase what’s left. It’s these casks arguably we’re seeing now coming into the whisky equation in what resides in your glass. Much like the aforementioned modern sherry butts that are a pale imitation of bygone decades, bourbon casks have become mass produced, abused and overly charred.
It’s food for thought and we mustn’t forget to celebrate the potential of every cask. For now its all about the 20 year old Bunnahabhain in front of us. Distilled on 16th January 1995, it was bottled on 1st June 2015 resulting in an outturn of 246 bottles at a strength of 51.1%. Being a sherry hogshead means there will be more interaction with the wood as the cask is around half the size of a traditional sherry butt.
Càrn Mòr Bunnahabhain 1995 20 year old – review
On the nose: a pungent vanilla soaked with cherries. Red apples and cinnamon with a touch of charred oak and nutmeg rounded off by a soya sauce. Water reveals more alcohol, milk chocolate and candy floss. More spices with all-spice and orange peel.
In the mouth: very odd, almost incomplete. Where’s the Bunnahabhain? Maple syrup, cherry cola, blackberry jam and blueberry muffins. Water reveals a floral note followed by Parma Violets and Turkish Delight.
A really bizarre whisky. It’s like an orchestra without a string section. Something isn’t quite right and what’s left doesn’t offer enough body on the palate. Again a celebration of the cask but at the expensive of Bunnahabhain and the overall whisky.
My thanks once again to the incredible Jenga Queen Noortje for the sample and stunning photographs.