“Tho’ much is taken, much abides” * or, Good Whisky Uncorks and Blows the Marketers Down: The Exclusive Malts’ 1987 Bunnahabhain 26 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

FullSizeRender copy 2I’m currently reading a history of Cognac (no surprise to friends who receive my wee hour emails on the subject) and find it interesting that, as advertising began to flourish among the sellers of cognacs in the nineteen-thirties – entre les guerres, as they phrased it then; between the wars – the equation of age and quality began to be emphasized. If it’s older and was properly matured, it’s better – that was the gist of their primitive marketing message. Now, however, the entire Scotch industry, with its deluge of no-age-statement expressions bearing more and more ridiculously romanticized names, appears hell-bent to deny the equation of quality with age. Say what they will, this 26 year old Bunnahabhain contradicts those Scotch marketers and their transparent mendacities at every sip. The idea that age equals quality is as valid now as it ever was.

The Whisky

Bunnahabhain is the northernmost distillery on Islay and it’s whisky tends to be the least peated of Islay spirits (with exceptions like Caol Ila’s unpeated 14 year old or the unpeated Bruichladdichs). But I don’t need to tell my readers these basics.

This particular bottling of Bunnahabhain juice was distilled in 1987, matured exclusively in a what I adjudge to be a second or third fill ex-bourbon hogshead, and bottled at an ABV of 47.8% in March of 2014. This is a single cask, cast strength whisky, unchillfiltered and unadulterated with the mendacious E150a coloring. This single cask produced only 297 bottles (but seek and you shall find: it’s still out there).

Appearance and Nose

The color in the glass is honey, or light amber, with no rufous blush of sherry or other wine aging or finishing evident. The relative intensity of the color suggests a second fill or (considering its 26 years in cask) perhaps a third fill ex-bourbon hogshead. The legs are thin but numerous and languid. Any whisky drinker would be seduced to follow this potion farther on…

On the nose, right up front, I get almond oil in a new rubber boot (peat?); ethereal wax, warm caramel, yesterday’s cotton candy, a creamsicle fortified with a wash of rum; white and pink Necco wafers in an old tobacco pouch; patchouli dripped on whole wheat toast; light truffle oil mixed with a smidgeon of shellac poured into a woven basket that recently held raspberries and lemons; also, as imagination whirls in this sedating mist, the smell of nylon stockings on a freshly bathed and well turned leg (smooth as silk it is, and not hirsute as that waft of patchouli might suggest); birch bark or – no, not that – balsa and cedar woods carved into a bowl that contains a mix of wet autumn leaves, garden soil, kandy korn, corn chips, salted caramels and a few maple sugar candies. And nutmeg.

This is the olfactory version of a gourmet meal (rubber boot and all!), rich without being overly pungent, enticing, tempting, drawing you forward. It’s all very subtle, but the mix of ethereal and earthly, of candied and organic and epicurean pleasures all in a keen yet beguiling balance of unlikely combinations, each element playing off the next, none overwhelming the others – yes, this is how a good whisky is supposed to greet the olfactory senses – and I like it! 23/25

Palate

Sensual, silky mouth feel. The honey, nutmeg, salted caramels and almonds find taste buds to connect to all over the top of the tongue, and then this nutty, sweet wash brings the toast and light truffle oil up and, slowly, a milder, lightly smoked paprika, which remains the dominant spice. The citrus and raspberries are still there, but are far more subtle now. While not quite as complex as the nose, this is serious pleasure. 22/25

The Finish

The paprika spice comes forward and it is the element of the finish that endures and lasts for several minutes, but it doesn’t completely overwhelm the honey-vanilla-truffle-oil sweet earthiness of this elixir. The creamsicle is still there, too, along with what seems to be a bit of unripe peach. As the spice grows in intensity, the experience slowly transforms from wet to dry and from sweet to savory. This is very good stuff. 22/25

Structure and Balance

The structure here, as with so many bottlings from Exclusive Malts, is a tight architecture of disparate but counterbalancing elements. Over the years of drinking whiskeys from this very consistent independent bottler, I’ve really grown to enjoy the challenge that each of their single cask tonics presents. Because the structure is so tight (is this the cut? the attention to and control over maturation? cask selection? all of these?), these whiskeys force the connoisseur – one who takes the time to savor and unfold his or her experience – to be patient, to give the whisky the time it requires to be properly and fully understood. This particular whisky is no different and it rewarded my patient parsing of its promise with one curiosity and delight after another.

Bunnahabhain’s own distillery bottlings are excellent, but their structure is more loose and their sweetness not quite as well balanced (as this Exclusive Malts bottling is balanced despite being an unblended product of a single cask) with other more drying and savory elements. However, I must say, the maritime characteristics are more prominent in the exquisite 18 year old distillery offering. And while I can’t say for sure if this Exclusive Malt single cask is the best Bunnahabhain I’ve ever drunk – one reason being that my memory of the distillery’s own 25 year old, which I only had once, is, though glowing and positive, vague – it very well might be. It is certainly one of the three or four best bottlings from this distillery I have ever had. 23/25

Total points for this whisky: 90

300_tennyson* This line in my title is taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which you can read in its entirety here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174659

4 thoughts on ““Tho’ much is taken, much abides” * or, Good Whisky Uncorks and Blows the Marketers Down: The Exclusive Malts’ 1987 Bunnahabhain 26 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

  1. “The idea that age equals quality is as valid now as it ever was.”.

    Age itself does not equal quality. You know better than most all of the factors that go into the quality of spirit. The quality of the distillate itself, the quality of the casks they are aged in, being bottled at a good strength and non chill filtration etc are all equally as important as the age. I’ve had many fantastic young whiskies and I think you have too to know that older is not always better. Is it often better? Perhaps, but it isn’t always. Take Springbanks for example- I think we both agree that their best expressions are 12 years and younger. Their are also many excellent NAS offerings out there such as the English Whisky Co and AnCnoc Rutter. I’m OK with a NAS statement so long as the juice itself is good. That after all is the most important thing. I do agree however that it is a bad thing when distilleries use this as a way to hide or make use of an inferior product. Luckily I have not run into this much as of yet. If that does happen I’d be the first person to boycott NAS.

    • Long maturation does not assure quality, but it is a factor in most of the best Scotch whiskeys I have drunk. Laphraoig 25, Glenfarclas 25, Rosebank 21, so many of the older bottlings from the independents (think Exclusive Malts’ Glencadam 22, Longmorn 28, Glenlivet 36 or Cadenhead’s 22 and 29 year old Caol Ilas or Signatory’s 25 year old Highland Park or Classic Casks’ Dallas Dhu 28, it’s 40 year old blend, and on and on and on). Of course other factors come into play (I mention “properly matured” in the very paragraph you quote from) and the absence of coloration and chill filtering are often factors, as you say. I would also suggest other things like dunnage warehouses and worm tubs as factors resulting in great Scotch whisky. And yes, there are some great younger bottlings such as Exclusive Malts’ 8 year old Laphroaig and Kilchoman’s 5 year old PX finish and the absolutely stunning Longrow 7 year old Gaja Barolo from Springbank. But NAS? Sure, there are some decent ones out there, but none are great (with the possible exception of The English Whiskey Co.’s offerings, JW Blue and Kilchoman’s Machir Bay and Loch Gorm – these latter two because the distillery makes it a point to get everything else right). And think Navigator – absolute swill with no Old Pulteney character whatsoever compared that distillery’s 12, 17 and 21 year olds). So, as a general rule, when given the choice, I will nearly always take the older bottle over the younger. As a general rule, all of my favorite Scotch whiskeys have been older whiskeys. As for Springbank – It is my experience (pretty deep with this distillery if I do say so myself) that everything they make ranges from very good to excellent. But, as a rule, the 14 year olds and 16 year olds and especially the 18 year olds (Longrow and Springbank itself) are better than the 12 year olds. Yes, the 12 year old CS is an amazing bargain, but I’d say the 16 year old CS has the edge in quality. Again, the operative phrase here is “as a general rule” – the 7 year old Longrow Gaja Barolo is one of the best whiskeys I have ever had.

      • Now that that’s out of the way, great review as always. This truly was another excellent malt from The Exclusive Malts impressive stable. A pity that we ( in Massachusetts at least) haven’t gotten the last few batches. Hopefully that changes.

  2. Pingback: Like a Master Boatwright’s Apprentice: The Classic Cask’s 1991 Bunnahabhain 22 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky | maltfreak

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