What do you do when you realise you have a winning formula? In the movie world, you lather, rinse and repeat – enter, the superhero franchise. Bunnahabhain’s Limited Releases might well be considered their own little whisky universe. There was the much-heralded Pedro Ximénez, which, at £85, was one of the bargains of 2017–if you could get your hands on it. Then came its less impressive sidekick, the Mòine Brandy Finish. The franchise looked to recover with the release of the 1980 Canasta Cask Finish, and the 2008 Mòine Bordeaux Red Wine Cask Matured soon followed in 2018. Interested to know more about these releases? There’s a Malt article for that here (and here).
This brings us to Bunnahabhain’s latest instalment in the series, the 1997 Palo Cortado Cask Finish. Let’s start with a brief origins story. Questions need answering, so what do we know about this whisky? Starting life back on 22 November 1997, this Bunnahabhain sat in “traditional oak casks” for 19 years until it was moved into Palo Cortado casks for just about a year and bottled on 27 April 2018.
This just raises more questions: where does Palo Cortado come from? What does it taste like? Does it have an Infinity Gauntlet? Will I ever not finish popcorn before the movie actually starts? Keeping it simple, Palo Cortado translates literally into “cut stick” in English. Fino casks in the bodega would be marked with a single angled stroke or cut (palo). The cask would be marked with a second stroke/cut across the initial stroke (cortado) once it is evident that the cask has turned to Palo Cortado.
Okay, so what is Palo Cortado? And why do you rarely see Palo Cortado matured or finished whisky available to purchase? The answer: there is simply not much of it around. Palo Cortado starts life designated to become a Fino or Amontillado sherry. In 1-2% of casks, the flor film (the natural yeast that develops on the surface of the sherry as part of the maturation process) protecting the wine will – through variables affecting the grapes, cask, atmosphere or yeast itself – die off prematurely, and then the wine ages oxidatively (like an Oloroso sherry) and develops into Palo Cortado. The resulting characteristics of the wine are a combination of Amontillado on the nose with an Oloroso body and palate.
Remember, while the Palo Cortado finish is a lovely bit of work, we are talking about a very small part of the maturation time spent in there. It is, however, not immediately clear what the “traditional oak casks” in which the spirit spent the first 19 years of its life are. I searched far and wide, from Sakaar to Wakanda, and all I found out is that the majority of the maturation was in refill (likely ex-sherry) casks. Not exactly helpful, but sometimes we just have to live with the plot holes.
Despite a very limited 1620-bottle release, it is great to see how many open bottles of this there are around and, separately, how many people have told me they have managed to grab a dram. Maybe that is a credit to the success of the other Bunnahabhain releases – people actually want to drink their whisky. That also means they are not collecting dust in a basement in Odin’s trophy room on Asgard or hidden away with The Collector on Knowhere (I wonder how many Macallans he has).
To practice the transparency we preach, a dram of this was purchased for me by a friend on an evening out, discussing who would win in the fight between Batman vs. Superman… wait, nobody won with that film.
Bunnahabhain 1997 Palo Cortado – review
Colour: Deep Saffron.
On the nose: Scores of aromas that slowly envelop the senses. A lovely bouquet of ripe red berries (strawberries, raspberries and cranberries) kicks things off. This leads into a bit of vanilla and pear. There is a bit of cinnamon spice to balance out those sweet notes. And we cannot forget the smell of peanut brittle – someone has definitely included walnuts in the recipe. A touch of minerality chimes in. Some light whiffs of peat smoke add a bit more complexity and excite the senses.
In the mouth: You immediately notice the texture – oily and syrupy, it envelopes the mouth. The flavours here complement the nose wonderfully. There are more dried red fruits than the fresh ones on the nose. There are notes of dark chocolate with sea salt that flicker in and out of the mouth. A touch of orange marmalade and peanut butter. The earthy notes are far more present here than in the nose – a mix of rich soil, fungal, thicket and forest flavours. The finish is medium-long – concluding with oak, molasses, slate and sugar cane. The beauty is this dram’s ability to keep all of this in balance.
This one was not easy to grade. The complexity was lovely and the flavours that came together were really interesting. At times I thought this is really marvellous. Then there were moments where I could not bring myself to say, definitively, that this was one of the top whiskies I have tried in my lifetime or even in the top echelon, and that’s where it falls short of a 9.
Honestly, £260 for a 20-year-old whisky is a lot of money. Even £70-£85, for some of the other limited releases in the 10 to 15-year-old range, is on the expensive side. However, the whisky in these Bunnahabhain Limited Editions is, for the most part, very good. These bottlings are also fairly transparent when it comes to the provenance of the liquid and the wood used (just tell me what traditional oak casks are!), which is something we here on Malt espouse time and time again. And I thoroughly enjoyed this particular whisky from start to finish – so very much a personal choice if you want to part with some hard-earned change to have a bottle to yourself.
Coming to the end of this piece, I find myself wondering what is next for the Bunnahabhain Limited Edition bottlings. Hopefully, it is a continued focus on quality, and the Bunnahabhain team does not fall into the trap of resting on its laurels in reliance on prior successes.