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Bunnahabhain 1997 Palo Cortado

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 8/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    I think the outrageous price of this expression follows on from the exceptionally well received Moine Oloroso. I had a bottle of that and it was fantastic. That was a peat and sherry bomb combination that worked. I think it was fully matured in oloroso and cask strength and cost £75. This one is a finish. It has some age and I would expect it to be interesting no matter what. But you ask a good question: What is Palo Cortado and can you taste any imprint? Palo Cortado is a rare form of sherry but bodegas know how to produce it without any random element these days. On the palate it veers between amontillado and a light oloroso but in true whisky disclosure we know nothing about the origins of the barrels used. It just has to sound mysterious and enticing for marketing purposes.

    I’m sure this tastes good but why anybody thinks a 19 year old whisky is worth £275 is beyond me. I could buy a lot of good whisky for that and have change for a few bottles of top notch palo cortado too. Seriously, you can fly to Jerez for a couple of days, visit some bodegas, buy some great sherry (it costs $1 euro for one copita in Jerez), eat fantastic food, catch some flamenco and bring home a bottle of sherry as a reminder for roughly the same price as this bottle of Bunnahabhain. Some people would prefer the expensive Bunnahabhain, that’s fair enough. I’m not one of them.

    1. Henry
      Henry says:

      Hi WT – thanks as always for the feedback! You’re right, as part of the article I really wanted to explore the Palo Cortado influence, given the rarity of its use in whisky until recently. I agree that £275 is a lot of money but I find it hard to judge people for what they want to buy (of course, if they actually want to drink it). It is a quality whisky and I agree you could find other quality whiskies at much less and use the spare change to go get something else. However, in today’s world, there are other bottles that fall in the same category that are half the quality, so if people are very keen to stock their bar with this (as opposed to a Macallan 18, which is now more expensive at retail) then I’m happy to pay them a visit to share a dram! That’s the beauty of all of this, right? It’s not your style (especially at the price) but some people fall in that camp. I’m also keen to head to Jerez, so sounds like it’s worth a visit!

      1. Avatar
        Welsh Toro says:

        Hi Henry, I thought I’d just add a final touch. I’ve seen this whisky for £350+ from a well known site. It’s ridiculous. I would place a confident bet that nobody could tell there was Palo Cortado in it unless told. I find it a great shame that whisky and sherry connoisseurs know so little about each other’s world. Those worlds share a great deal beyond ex-barrels.

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