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Bunnahabhain 12 Year Cask Strength and Bunnahabhain 18 Year

What’s the best way to get your hands on a whisky?

The most economical method (stealing it) is probably not advisable. Purchase at suggested retail price is my preferred approach; it eliminates so many complications. I can hear our readers’ eyes rolling from here. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: anything available at retail price isn’t worth buying, while anything worth buying isn’t available at retail price.

You could pay up for a bottle at auction or on the “secondary market,” but I’d caution against it. Many vigorously hyped whiskies barely justify the SRP, never mind any markup above (or multiple of) that ask.

Let’s get creative, then. The less… shall we say… “socially inclined” among you will blanche at the suggestion that making friends is the most enriching way to get your hands on desirable drams. However, it’s been a surefire method for me, though I’m happy to report that I end up feeling more grateful for the friendships than for any resultant whisky that makes its way into my hands.

If you’ve got a creative streak in you, I can suggest writing about whisky. Not long after the day I started submitting reviews to Malt, a slow trickle (later a raging river) of whisky started making its way to me. The sources of these samples (eventually bottles) were many. Sometimes, a distillery keen to get some attention would offer to send some of their wares my way. These contributions to my whisky library are dwarfed, however, by the amount of whisky generously shared with me by strangers.

The whisky community is a remarkable one, and I have been the beneficiary of more than my fair share of its largesse. Small packages arrive stuffed with all manner of containers, usually two ounce glass bottles. They contain great and good (and sometimes not so good) whisky from folks who are interested in my opinion, or who are merely keen to spread the love around.

One such magnanimous chap is Michael, who got in touch following my recent review of a Bunnahabhain, specifically one bottled independently under the “Staoisha” name. He wanted to know if I had tried the 12 Year Cask Strength expression, or the 18-year-old member of the core range. Learning I hadn’t, he made sure samples got into my hands, for which he has my heartfelt thanks.

Starting with the younger members of the trio: Bunnahabhain began releasing the 12 year old cask strength in 2020; it is currently on its third iteration. Michael sent me a pair for consideration, the 2022 (56.5% ABV) and 2023 (60.1% ABV); I’ll be tasting them in chronological order of their release. Bunnahabhain lists the 12 year old cask strength expression for sale at a price of $89. It is closer to $100 at my local.

Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Cask Strength 2022 Edition – Review

Color: Medium dark golden brown.

On the nose: Sherry cask influence is deftly balanced against the underlying malt. Sultanas, dark chocolate, and fudge brownie notes play against some lighter elements like wild grass and raw blonde wood. If I move the glass away from my nose slightly, I start to pick up a rich fruitiness of berries that combines with the aforementioned notes to create the impression given by a fruity espresso bean.

In the mouth: Surprisingly quite different from the nose, this starts with the meaty nuttiness of cashews in the front of the mouth. This turns into the rich, roasty creaminess of stout beer as it moves toward the middle of the palate. There, the whisky resolves into a single flavor combining malt, tannic wood, and a citric bite, with accents of all the elements heretofore mentioned. The wood notes become more prominent and tannic as this progresses toward the back of the mouth. The finished starts with another sherry driven burst of dried fruit before becoming completely comprised of more stout and coffee notes (indeed, a coffee stout, perhaps?) which fade gradually, leaving a tingly heat on the lips and tongue as a reminder of the solid ABV.

Conclusions:

When I saw “12 Year Old Cask Strength,” I made the mental association with the Redbreast 12 Year Cask Strength expression. This whisky is about as far away as you can get from that whiskey. Whereas the Redbreast is tilted toward lighter, sweeter flavors, this is anchored in heavier flavors at the low end of the register. I particularly like how the coffee and stout flavors are periodically offset by the sherry cask influence. This feels like one that would disappear dangerously quickly (in light of the high bottling strength), as it is so delicious and enjoyable to drink. At the price, it is one that I am adding to my shopping list of “bottles one should not be without,” and I am happy to award this a correspondingly high score.

Score: 8/10

Last year’s release has set quite a high bar for its successor. Let’s see if Bunnahabhain can turn in a repeat performance with this year’s entrant?

Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Cask Strength 2023 Edition – Review

Color: A lighter, more orange medium gold.

On the nose: A marked departure from the prior dram, this has a rich, buttery aspect to it that is evident from the first whiff. There are some sherry cask notes of dried fruit in here, but they’re buried under a layer of creamy, oaky vanilla. Revisiting after a few moments, I am picking up some Asian culinary notes of soy sauce, five spice, and lemongrass. There’s a faintly bitter citric accent of orange peel at play here as well.

In the mouth: This builds flavor very slowly, being almost mute as it passes the lips, but then picking up a full head of steam as it moves toward the middle of the mouth, taking on some of the creamy aspects of the nose. There’s a moment when this really blooms, with intense dried fruit flavors amplified by a tingly, almost effervescent texture as a reminder that the ABV on this has a “6” handle. That mutates into a wood note that is drying, but stops just short of being sour or acrid. The heat is felt most acutely through the finish, where I regret to inform you that it numbs the palate and crowds out most of the other flavors. There’s not much in the way of lingering flavor here, perhaps a bit of musty cupboard and earthy notes.

Conclusions:

An entirely different beast from the 2022, this had me until the very end. I loved the creaminess of the nose; although it threatened to overwhelm the rest of the aromatic notes at times, balance was eventually restored. The palate had an intriguingly slow build, but nonetheless managed to achieve… if not completeness, then at least a convincing cohesion, in the middle of the mouth. The finish lacked follow-through, however, leaving me slightly unsatisfied. Though my preference is clearly for the 2022, this is still an overall positive experience which, considering the price, merits a score among the midpoint of the range.

Score: 6/10

Moving along to the senior member of the group: this is the 18 Year Old, coming to us non-chill filtered and at its natural colour (huzzah!). It is bottled at a strength of 46.3% ABV. The Bunnahabhain website has the 18 year old expression listed at $130, which is the price I will use to evaluate this on our price-sensitive scoring framework. It is not currently available in my neck of the woods.

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old – Review

Color: Medium-dark chestnut.

On the nose: A faint floral aroma is quickly overtaken by caramelized brown sugar notes. There’s scoopfuls of dried fruit here, mostly an intense scent of raisins. Christmas spice, and an ephemeral rubbery scent that I often pick up in sherry cask matured whisky. With some time in the glass, more wood (polished walnut) and spice (peppercorns) emerge, alongside a maritime salinity, in a nod towards the distillery’s coastal location.

In the mouth: This is altogether less generous and more composed from the start. A tannic nip of wood greets the tip of the tongue as this enters the mouth. I like this most as it moves from the front of the tongue to the middle of the palate, where those sweet notes from the nose reemerge. In the middle of the mouth the wood sings out again momentarily with a dried floral accent of potpourri, before this moves toward the throat with another delightful, gooey sweet flavor of hot fudge sundae topping. There’s a residual aftertaste of dried autumn leaves (not that I’m in the habit of eating them, but you get what I mean) as a sole marker of what is otherwise an undistinguished finish.

Conclusions:

Unmistakably sherry-influenced, this has several points at which it is a real pleasure to drink. At other points, however, this falls a bit flat, with the weakness concentrated mostly in the mouth. It’s very autumnal, which makes me think that it would be best enjoyed on evenings when there’s a chill in the air, but when it’s not yet cold enough to demand the warming, medicinal qualities of more forceful Islay malts. On net, and in consideration of the price, I feel like this sits right at the middle of the range.

Score: 5/10

The descending scores in this review shouldn’t make you think that my opinion of Bunnahabhain is similarly declining. On the contrary, the more whisky I try from the distillery, the more favorably inclined I am. Being able to produce expressions that are reliably decent to good (and sometimes great, as was the case with the 2022 release of the 12 Year Cask Strength) is something of which any distillery should be proud. When I’m looking to experiment in Scotch going forward, Bunna will be near the top of my shopping list.
Images courtesy of Bunnahabhain.

CategoriesSingle Malt

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