Some products are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to assume they have been around forever.
Bunnahabhain 12 year old is one of those whiskies. Well priced, good flavour, many would say it regularly tops its category. I reviewed a recent batch of their 12 year old signature malt. In April 2016 Mark reviewed an older version of the 12 year old; interestingly, Mark concluded with a commitment to go back and review older versions of the release… but as far as I can see the vertical tasting never materialised, until now.
Jump forward five years from Mark’s musings and the world is a different place. One element of COVID that has been a boon to whisky enthusiasts the world over is the acceptance of online video calls as a method of sharing and discussing whisky. Tens of thousands of whisky samples must be mailed around the world each month. Whisky enthusiasm has grown from small clubs in local pubs to a genuine online community who meet and share whiskies remotely. Whilst other online communities are fighting or solving murders, the small “Bunnahabhain Fans” WhatsApp group I am a member of delved into the history of Bunna’ 12. The same group also argues incessantly about the correct sequence for spreading scones: jam first or clotted cream first. We’ll save that controversy for another time!
The project was led by a pair of whisky enthusiasts based in Croatia going under the Instagram handle @whisky_click, who kindly provided lead photo (and others). Check out their Instagram feed containing some fantastic whisky photography and musings. Whisky_click took the lead planning the tasting, doing some fascinating research, and procuring the bottles before sharing the samples with us at cost price of just £31 for 5 generous samples. Before we get into our historical discoveries, it’s important to add the caveat we are very much amateur investigators… so, if you think this version requires some adjustment, please drop into the comments!
The first and most fascinating thing that I learned is that Bunnahabhain does not appear to have ever bottled any whisky under their own brand until 1979. Despite the whisky distillery being established in 1881, all the production went into blends for almost 100 years. Bunna was owned by The Highland Distilleries Company plc, whose main brand was The Famous Grouse. Prior to this, some Bunnahabhain made it to independent bottlers, but only in very small proportions. The first bottle in the line-up hails from the earliest expressions of single malt from Bunnahabhain.
During the 12 year period of this bottle style there is little information about changes to recipes or batches; in fact, there is little to distinguish the two bottles from one another, besides the change between fonts of the “12” and the alteration of the black seal on the top of the bottle (circled above). As a result, we did not source both versions of this bottle, choosing only the one on the right.
During this period Bunnahabhain still used boats to bring raw materials to the distillery and to send out stock. The road built to the distillery in 1960 caused a steady decline in the practice, before it was abandoned completely until 1993. Phillip Morrice records in 1983 that Bunnahabhain 12 was the only distillery brand at the time (Morrice, The Schweppes Guide to Scotch, 1983). No other age statement was available.
The whisky research took Whisky Click to the British Newspaper Archive where they found, amongst other things, early advertising for Bunnahabhain and a cracker of an article recounting sale of some whisky on the dreaded secondary market way back in 1989. The article records:
“[A] woman who does not drink whisky paid £3300 for a vintage bottle of the hard stuff yesterday. Wine-and-cheese-shop owner Sue Samson, whose shop is in George Street, Oban, bought a 120-year-old Royal Gordon Perfection, last of a batch of six belonging to a Worcestershire pensioner. The price amazed auctioneers Christies at their Glasgow sale of ancient malts and blends. They expected the bottle to fetch about £400.”
Royal Gordon Perfection was a Pattison blend which featured in the 1901 trial of the Pattison brothers, due to it being marketed as 15 years old but usually only containing components less than 8 years old. (Miller, Whisky Science: A Condensed Distillation). The collapse of the Pattison empire precipitated a whisky crash so rapid and deep that just 15 distilleries were working by 1933, a period when Bunnahabhain itself was idle.
The research also revealed that in 1982, Highland Distillers had taken Cadenhead’s to court over trademark infringement for using “Bunnahabhain” on one of their famous black dumpy bottles. This was one of the earliest known indie bottlings of Bunnahabhain, no doubt a dream to collectors. The early 1980s also saw the closure of the distillery that continued until 1983. In this, the newspapers help more than the whisky books; the period from 1983 until the early 1990s is sometimes reported as a period the distillery was closed, including in Charles McLean’s Whiskypedia, which claims it was closed until 2004. In reality, the period was one of reduced capacity only, evidenced by a plethora of 1980s and 1990s vintages previously released (thanks to Ian, @poshscotch, for the clarification here).
1991 saw a change in the Bunnahabhain 12, dropping from 750ml to 700ml (in line with the standard European spirit bottle) andalso a decline in ABV to 40%. It is suspected that chill-filtration was introduced, along with the use of artificial colour around this time. This style appears to have been common throughout the 1990s until a few years after the acquisition of Bunnahabhain by Burn Stewart Distillers in 2003. Burn Stewart launched a major rebrand in 2006, which also saw the introduction of the 18 year old and 25 year old age statements. This was our second dram.
Our third dram comes from the redesigned bottle that was produced between 2006 and 2010. Still 40%, chill filtered, and coloured until 2010. In 2010, Burn Stewart stopped chill-filtering and relied on the natural colour of the whisky. Bunnahabhain 12 began to be bottled at 46.3% ABV. This continued after Burn Stewart was acquired by Distell in 2014 with the latest facelift of the packaging in 2017.
Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old (1979 – 1991) – Review
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Dusty aged bottle effect, restrained fruit, pear, apple, raw pastry, runny honey, salty and slightly waxy, a little acidic, pencil shavings and crushed granite.
In the mouth: Thick oily, rich fruits, very old-style vibe, gentle sweetness, a tiny pinch of salt, a little wood spice, medium finish.
With this old-style of whisky at lower ABV, it certainly needs time and concentration, but the reward for the patient drinker is there.
Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old (1992 – 2006) – Review
Colour: Rich gold.
On the nose: Again a bit dusty, tight and closed at first, opening up to resemble dram one, old-style whisky, pear, fresh apple, baked apple pie, salty, waxy with a whisp of char, and sawdust.
In the mouth: Medium body, complex fruits, bruised apple, gentle wood spices, it really grows a fragrance once in the mouth that is quite delightful which coats the mouth.
Similar DNA to the first sample, it’s marginally richer. It’s quite amazing how this old style whisky most associated with pre-1980s output in other distilleries was present as late as 2006 at Bunnahabhain.
Bunnahabhain 12 years old (2006 – 2010)
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Rich baked fruits, a bit of pineapple, still a bit dusty, mineral limestone, raisin, a little grist, some salami, white bread.
In the mouth: Soft light spirit, nice gentle wood spice, slightly herbal, some sweetness and a slight sea breeze.
Gentle and inoffensive, it’s a little bland at 40% and chill-filtered.
Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old (2010 – 2016) – Review
46.3% ABV; displayed fourth in the line-up above.
On the nose: Big seasoned American oak sherry, butter caramel, baked fig, chopped dates, a bit of malt and cask char, a little insipid.
In the mouth: More balanced than the nose, the bright spirit shines through brining a saltiness and balance to the sweetness, stick toffee pudding, treacle toffees.
Definitely a change in direction for old Bunna 12 and not really my jam. It all feels a little forced, but the ABV and non-chill filtration give this something to celebrate.
Bunnahabhain 12 years old (2016 – Today)
46.3%; displayed fifth in the line-up above.
Colour: Pale copper.
On the nose: Balanced bourbon casks giving light fruity vanilla notes, driving the nose with sherry bringing only sweetness.
In the mouth: Bright and fruity with a sherry note running throughout. An effervescence. Chocolate cake, toast and marmalade, boiled sweets, with a slightly floral gentle finish.
A good modern style of whisky. I don’t know the proportions of bourbon to sherry but would guess 80/20 or 70/30 which gives a real balance to this. It elevates it above the overly seasoned version before.
*I reviewed my notes of a different batch of 12 year old from this same period and found it much more sherry forward, so batch variation is something buyers should take into consideration. Both scored the same.
Special thanks to @whisky_click for the beautiful photography, for supporting this article, for leading and doing the heavy lifting with the research and all the other tasks required to bring this tasting together.