Colpo di Fulmine! The infamous “thunderbolt” of The Godfather. It’s that intense, powerful, and captivating love at first sight. Many witness it in their life, some are touched by it briefly, and an extremely lucky few go their whole lives being melted by its heat. Sometimes the thunderbolt is permanent and manifests in a singular form, while other times it’s fleeting and appears in different incarnations. Regardless of its appearance there’s no denying its power for those who have been struck.
My own thunderbolt struck several years ago and has remained in its singular, original form: soft and subtle yet vigorous and rich. Embodying the classical traits of the month of March. Coming into my life like a lion and going out like a lamb. Not to be described, but only to be experienced. Vanishing when she wishes only to return on a whim, somehow becoming even more enticing with each instance of her apparition. Reminding you of how much you have learned and how far there still is to go. A modern twist on classical beauty. She’s unforgettable, rare, well put together, and expensive. If I didn’t know any better, I’d claim she truly is divine. Just when I think I’m out, she pulls me back in! She is none other than [NAME REDACTED]… well actually she’s Bunnahabhain 25!
As you might have guessed by this point, Bunnahabhain (pronounced “boon-ah-har-ven” and is Scots Gaelic for “mouth of the river”) makes some of my favourite single malt scotch whiskies. It is also one of the exceptionally few distilleries whose entire core range of age statements I keep stocked. For those unfamiliar with the distillery, or who have only heard about it or seen it in passing, Bunnahabhain represents the gentler side of Islay. The core age statements lack the heavy peat, smoke, iodine, and meaty qualities that most of the neighbouring distilleries possess. It’s a softer style of whisky, yet richer and with a wider array of flavours. While many expressions from Ardbeg, Laphroaig, or Octomore will f**k you (can we swear on Malt?), Bunnahabhain makes sweet love to you. The character of its distillate leans more towards creamy and nutty flavours, supplemented by no small degree of fruit and spice from sherry-influenced maturation.
Permit me to go over some history and production methods of the distillery; I adore that kind of stuff. Picking apart the roots and procedures gives insight into how a product you like comes to be, and I find that I owe it to the whisky craftsmen (and myself) to be educated in such a luxury product that much of the world does not have the means to enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with spreading a little knowledge, plus comparing techniques utilised by various distilleries can help you find similar whiskies that you may enjoy in the future. Besides, we all fawn over what we love in one way or another. All that being said, please feel free to skip down to the part of this article you came here for while I indulge in a little nerding out!
Bunnahabhain itself was founded in 1881 in a location so remote that a new 1-mile road had to be constructed to connect the distillery with Islay’s primary roads. The water utilised in the mashing process originally came from Loch Staoinsha but nowadays it is supplied from privately owned water spring, which is replenished by the Margdale River. It was incorporated into the Islay Distillery Company Ltd in 1882 and by 1887 the distillery became a founding member of the Highland Distillers Company, themselves a precursor to the infamous Edrington Group. All of the output for the majority of Bunnahabhain’s history has been placed into blends, including: Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, and Black Bottle. In fact, by the time of the 1920s, Bunnahabhain was supplying heavily peated whisky to 180 blenders. The peat level at this time was around 35 to 40 ppm, most similar to the peat levels found in the Kildalton trio of Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Bunnahabhain would not bottle it’s own single malt for sale until the 1970s, almost a full century after its founding! Can you believe that in this day and age of the modern whisky boom?! A distillery not selling its own single malt for half of the time it has existed?!
By the 1960s, Bunnahabhain made the decision to specialize into malt peated at low levels (2 to 3 ppm), as well as unpeated malt altogether, for its whisky. The distillery has been open, closed, and limited in production in various degrees throughout the 20th century, but the past 20 years has seen something of a renaissance for Bunnahabhain. Edrington mercifully released the distillery from its clutches in 2003, and after a decade of production increase and various changes of ownership, it ended up in the hands of South African distributor and liquor conglomerate Distell.
Fun fact about Bunnahabhain: the original 7-ton capacity, cast iron mash tun was removed in 1900 in favour one with over twice the capacity. The old mash tun found its way to Bruichladdich, who utilize it to this day. Additionally, Bunnahabhain has not malted its own barley since 1963 and nowadays it is sourced from other producers. Around 80% of its malt is unpeated and supplied by Simpsons Berwick Maltings, with the remaining 20% being peated and provided by Port Ellen Maltings. Another unique feature of the distillation process at Bunnahabhain is that the grist within the mash tun is sprayed with increasingly hot water four times instead of the usual three times. The first two sprays of hot water are 64°C and 80°C respectively, while the last two sprays are at 90°C. The extra spray of water is done to accommodate the larger size of the mash tun, which can hold up to 15 tons of malted barley at a time. The worts from the first two sprays of hot water are destined for the washbacks with the last two being retained for use in the following mashing cycle.
Efficiency is the name of the game for the fermentation cycles at Bunnahabhain. The fermentation runs on Monday and Tuesday last for two days while those done on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday last about 4.5 days with distillation being performed the next week. The stills at Bunnahabhain are the tallest on Islay and among the tallest in the entire single malt scotch industry, just shy of 21 feet. Theoretically, this keeps the heavy, oilier compounds in the body of the still with the lighter compounds rising up the neck. A lighter and cleaner spirit is the outcome. The resulting spirit from each fermentation run is mixed back together before being placed into casks. A combination of both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks are used to age the Bunnahabhain distillate, along with an ever-expanding array of various types of wine barrels. These casks are placed into dunnage-style warehouses that are no more than 100 yards of the ocean (possibly contributing to the slightly briny flavour of the whisky). For those who don’t know, a dunnage warehouse is one with an earth floor, stone walls, and a low roof made out of a metamorphic rock called slate. Casks are only allowed enough room to be stacked 3 barrels high, and the overall design allows for maximum air circulation and increased humidity. This prevents significant temperature variation from occurring in areas of the warehouse and limits the amount of spirit lost to the notorious angel’s share.
Non-chill filtering and elimination of E150a caramel colouring is something that Bunnahabhain embraced back in 2010, much to the joy of us whisky nerds. They also increased the proof of their main age statements to 46.3% ABV, so what you get is a much more natural presentation of a whisky compared to chill-filtered and lower proofed counter parts. While the entire core range of age statements are quite good in my opinion, the 12 year-old remains one of the most solidly well-made and reasonably priced single malts available on the market to this day. For those of you who are curious about a different side of Islay, I promise that your curiosity will be rewarded in visiting the expressions of Bunnahabhain. It’s a scotch-lovers scotch, made by scotch lovers for scotch lovers.
This may be a good time to bring up the issue of batch variation. Keep in my mind that these are merely my anecdotal experiences and they will most likely differ from yours. Bunnahabhain does make excellent whisky but I have experienced noticeable differences between batches and years. Nothing anywhere near to as bad as the drop off in quality from notorious Edrington single malts mind you. The 12 year-old is by far the most consistently good, it warrants a spot on anyone’s shelf at any time. The 18 is a big step up in richness and complexity yet I have found the 18 can range anywhere from what I would score 5/10 to 8/10, or average to great. That can be a bit disappointing when spending the kind of money that many 18 year-old whiskies command. I have only ever owned two bottles of the 25 and have nothing but good things to say. Batch variation is natural and unavoidable since no two runs of mash or ferment will ever be exactly the same. That also goes for the barley, as no two crops will ever be identical in their sugar content and composition. For this reason the job of the master blender/distiller is both of utmost importance and unforgiving. They must ensure that each batch is as identical to the previous as can possibly be achieved. It’s one thing to offer a quality product, it’s quite another to maintain that consistency from year to year. Bunnahabhain does a good job of this with the 12, not too bad with the 18 but with room for improvement (in my experience), and the 25 I haven’t drank enough bottles of to make a proper comment. When the 18 is off it’s average and when it’s on it is fantastic.
Lastly, before getting into the review proper, it is important to talk about the types of casks that are used for older whisky. It is not often that a distillery begins the aging process with the intention of making an old whisky. Rare is the cask that can hold a whisky for decades without annihilating any of the distillate’s character and overpowering it with sheer woodiness. The cask has to be just active enough to slowly caress the distillate with years of sugar breakdown, but not so active that the spirit would become one-dimensional. One method of tackling this issue is to use refill casks for the entire aging process. Supplementation with more active first-fill casks can also be done if the refill casks prove to be too gentle. The danger is that you risk ruining something that may be aging relatively well with an overactive fresh cask, a la Bladnoch Talia.
But enough of all this technical mumbo-jumbo and production details, you came here for Bunnahabhain 25! This particular single malt is sentimental to me as it was the first highly aged expression I purchased a full bottle of in my whisky journey. Ordering and tasting that first pour from a bar, out of sheer curiosity one night, is what ignited my own personal thunderbolt with the 25 year-old. I purchased a full bottle as soon as I had the opportunity. There was no doubt about in my mind that this was my palate equivalent of the thunderbolt. Love at first…sip?
This particular iteration of the Bunnahabhain 25 was bottled at 46.3% ABV with non-chill filtration and no added colouring. Those are the magic words we want to hear and see more distilleries embodying, isn’t it? While the exact cask mix is unknown, this was aged primarily in a mix of refill bourbon and refill sherry casks (with the mix being more bourbon than sherry) before being transferred into a combination of 1st fill and 2nd fill Oloroso sherry casks for a short finishing period. I am told that there is no definitive cask recipe, so it is up to the master blender to select which casks have the desired traits from year to year. Cask placement within the warehouse is not as vital due to the smaller, more compact nature of the dunnage-style warehouses. Bunnahabhain does have one warehouse for racking, but again it is small enough that temperature variation is minimal.
The packaging is gaudy, but frankly, I have seen much worse. The wooden box is beautiful, polished, and secures well. The latches and tiny plaque are classy and at the very least it feels like you are getting your money’s worth in presentation, even if you could knock $50-$80 off the price without this box. There’s some type of burlap cloth material nestling the bottle inside and it almost reminds me of a casket transporting precious goods. Maybe that’s what they were going for? This is the older packaging, however. Recently they switched to a newer packaging that is more of a plastic box with the bottle sliding out from the side, similar to the Glenlivet 21 presentation. Either way this will definitely look the part it plays on your top shelf or cabinet if you like that sort of thing. Price-wise, this cost me ~$390.00 CAD from the infamous Ontario liquor monopoly. Not too bad seeing how Master of Malt has it listed for $582.70 CAD (note they do not deliver to Canada) as of March 3, 2020. My rant on the LCBO and its fickle pricing shall come one day, if I can stay calm enough while writing such a piece. The Whisky Exchange will set you back £345, which is the same price as Master of Malt, or £309.34 via Amazon. Note these links are for the current version. Anyway, time for some liquid pleasure!
Bunnahabhain 25 year old XXV – review
Color: I always struggle with this. Older whiskies all tend to be some various shades of orangey-brownish. Let’s call this one some shade of copper?
On the nose: The first flash of that thunderbolt, cracking into your life. The promise of something special to come! Rich and dense sherry at first whiff, followed by a big hit of honey, orange peels, damp earth, and something that reminds me of shoe polish/lacquer. I remember the shoe polish/lacquer being much more upfront during the first two pours I had from this bottle, it seems to be yielding more to the earthy sherry and honey as it oxidizes. Letting it sit and open for another 15 minutes brings smells of baked candied almonds and chestnuts, the kind my mother and grandmother used to make at Christmas time. It is joined by a leathery scent and the faintest smell of what could be described as tobacco, along with cherries, dark chocolate being melted in a pan, heather flowers and more of that damp, earthy warehouse. After 30-45 minutes the scent is taken over by this incredibly rich and dark honeyed note. Kind of like Manuka honey that’s been caramelized for a dessert. It’s nothing short of incredibly how much this evolves in the glass and how balanced it all is. No scent overly dominates the others; everything gets a turn in the spotlight. This is definitely a nose that rewards patience.
In the mouth: Unique chili pepper spiciness on the lips that I’ve never really gotten from a whisky before. Not a bad quality but certainly different. As it sits on the tongue and palate there are flavours of hazelnut, milk chocolate, blueberry jam, and a hint of some kind of fresh berry that I can’t quite pin down. I would say it’s most similar to a blackberry. The taste of sugarcoated plums is present as well. The longer it sits in the glass, the more a walnut and chestnut flavour starts to develop and really coats the mouth with waxy creaminess. A gingery, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar sensation creeps in towards the 20-minute mark, and the unmistakable taste (at least to me) of honey crisp apples after the 30-minute mark. The overall mouth-feel is really creamy. The back of the tongue and throat are left with notes of black pepper, toffee, roasted nuts, light saltiness/brine, and an almost imperceptible hint of smoke. It might be more earth than smoke as I’m having a difficult time telling them apart due to how subtle it is. However, much like the Apollonia of your life, it is gone too quickly. The finish only sticks around for 10-15 seconds before disappearing, prompting you to take another sip as you chase that dragon.
This is a hell of a dram. The balance really struck me, as all the flavours are present without fighting each other. There’s no heavy oak or woodiness that I could detect either, which is impressive for a whisky of this age. Sure, those warehouse and earthy scents are there, but no outright woody smells or flavours at all. The true way to tell would be to do a blind test though, which I am eager to try with this one someday. It is safe to say that Bunnahabhain 25 is the epitome of the subtle yet rich style of whisky. The flavours are soft but require no detective work to find. It’s the whisky equivalent of the richest yet lightest tiramisu you’ve ever eaten after an Italian dinner.
I don’t know that I could have fully appreciated this even as little as 5 years ago. It rewards patience and is easily a scotch that you could spend an hour or more picking apart and enjoying in the glass. When chasing the peat smoke and brine monsters of Islay, the sherry bombs of the Highlands, or that funky groove taking over Campbeltown, it’s easy to overlook a whisky of this style even when it can compete with the best the other regions have to offer. The only thing that has marred what I consider to be an otherwise perfect whisky is the somewhat short finish. It doesn’t vanish right away, it sticks around just long enough that you wish it lasted even a few seconds longer.
When I score a whisky, particularly when I score one highly, it is equivalent to me telling you to go spend (or not spend) your hard-earned money based on my word and reputation alone (not to mention the reputation of MALT itself). Bunnahabhain 25 is a whisky that I truly feel is worth the money if you have experience with scotch and are looking for a special bottle for yourself or someone extremely close to you. In fact, I almost want to say don’t share this with anyone, it’s that good. Certainly among the top official bottlings I’ve had from a distillery. That finish though. Like a crack in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s the only flaw holding this back from being divine. Instead, it is simply phenomenal.
Given how much Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich seem to be enjoyed here at MALT, I should pledge that my next review will be of something more contrarian and will surely earn looks of disdain. A certain OB Laphroaig comes to mind. Until next time!
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Photographs 1 and 2 kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange.