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

Bunny22Bunnahabhain is one of those distilleries I can usually pick out of a line-up – especially independent bottlings of it. Its juice, in those instances, typically displays a very tight, subtle structure and has a core character that is quite distinct, with hard candy, lettuce, butter, cherries, wax and nuts at play, though the emphasis on each of these elements will differ.

Bunnahabhain ages well and age most certainly makes a difference with this elixir – which is not to say that the 8 and 12 year olds out there aren’t worthy of close attention and patient savoring – they are. But the older bottlings of Bunnahabhain I’ve had have nearly all approached greatness in one way or another.

So, if every good independent’s bottling of Bunnahabhain has strong similarities to every other (which is my experience), things like structure, level of refinement, signs of good casks and good cask management – and unusual characteristics – come forward to distinguish the best from the better and the better from the good (Bunnahabhain is always at least good). Therefore, less emphasis might be given to the flavor and aroma profiles, though there will be distinguishing individualities here as well that must be noted.

The Whisky 

This is a single cask bottling of Bunnahabhain from Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask line distilled in 1991, bottled in 2014 and reduced to an ABV of 46 percent. In appearance, it has a light golden honey color that, considering its 22 years in cask, suggests a second or third fill ex-bourbon barrel was used. Twirled in the glass, it displays multiple thin but slow viscometric rivulets. It was not chill filtered and is untainted by the duplicitous E150a caramel coloring.

Nose

Iceberg lettuce as ribbon candy; a large tab of sweet cream butter floating in a small cup of cherry juice; a refined earthiness (truffle?) over which a breeze of ozone floats like fog; pear juice and acetone spilled on a just-unpackaged flannel shirt; slices of Honey Crisp apple marinated in ‘lite’ caramel and Mott’s apple sauce on a slice of lightly toasted whole wheat sourdough bread. Mmm-mmm good… 24/25

Palate

Subtle, pleasant and warming. The oak comes through like the taste of the air in a small room where oak boards have been recently sawn – like walking into a room where oak floors have been sanded and tasting that! The sweetness is bitter and the bitterness is sweet, like biting into a sappy apple and chewing some seeds with the flesh. There’s a maltyness but it is tight and light. I suspect this juice came from a tight, secure, long-undisturbed cask – there are really very few signs of its rather advanced age. This drinks like a Speyside but has all the gustatory elements of the Bunnahabhain core. Which is an unusual thing but a good thing. 22/25

The Finish

Buttery candy with a whisper of white pepper and hot sauce that is thin and muted at first but follows through for a spicy, warming, moderately long finish. The kind of whisky that, once swallowed, causes one to pause for a long moment before speaking. 20/25

Structure and Balance

This has the tight architecture of The Exclusive Malts’ 26 year old single cask Bunnahabhain, but it is not cask strength and isn’t quite as good at balancing disparate elements. It also, like that 26 year old, lacks the mouthwatering maritime character that comes through in every distillery bottling I’ve had. The arc from nose through the palate is a good one, with consistent elements embellished by some unique differences, but interest falls off in the finish, which is notably simpler. Having said all that, let me emphasize that this is a very good whisky; I enjoyed drinking it very much. But I’ve been privileged to drink some very, very good Bunnahabhains and this falls a measure short of those. 20/25

Total points for this whisky: 86

“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

Icarus in a Bottle: The Classic Cask’s 1989 Bunnahabhain 24 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

icarus9In Greek myth, Icarus was the son of the master inventor Daedalus. When Icarus and his father are about to attempt an escape from Crete with wings that Daedalus constructed from feathers, twine and wax, the father warns his son first of being too complacent and then of pride, what the Greeks called “hubris”. Do not, daddy Daedalus told his son, fly too low, nor too high, because the sea’s dampness would weigh the wings down or the sun’s heat would melt the wax holding the wings together. Icarus ignored his father’s instruction not to fly too close to the sun and the melting wax caused his wings to disintegrate and Icarus to fall into the sea, where he drowned. Yes, this has something to do with the whisky here under review.

The Whisky

Oily in appearance when rolled in the glass, this elixir is a vibrant, brassy color, like soft, pure gold hammered so thin it becomes translucent. Like all the whiskies in The Classic Cask line (in my experience, anyway), this whisky is from a single cask, un-chill-filtered, untainted by the deceits of E150a and bottled at an ABV of 46 percent. Despite a couple of tastes and aromas that hint vaguely at a bit of sherry maturation, I suspect this juice was aged for it’s entire 24 years in a second- or third-fill ex-bourbon hogshead.

Nose

Juniper berries dipped in varnish and then rolled in watermelon flavored Kool-Aid powder. Below that, the compelling aromas of banana cream pie, a nutty maltiness and vanilla butter, if there is such a thing. There’s the ghost of an almost sour astringency, as if the person next to you bit into the white of a watermelon rind. The ghosts of peat and smoke are even farther off and more diaphanous. I get just a touch of rose water, too, and, above that, an approaching field of heather and carnations (we are driving through the country with the top down, evidently). Also some whole grain bread in there, last Saturday’s cut grass, and cookie dough – but cookie dough for which the recipe substituted lime juice in place of water. Quite a broad and diverse yet enjoyable sojourn across the olfactory bulbs… (23/25)

Palate

The warm and luxurious, mouth-coating light maple sugar sweetness of the delivery here may be the best I’ve ever experienced. For at least a few seconds after you take a sip, as this potion covers and coats the tongue, this is the best whisky you ever had. Anything this opulently perfect can’t last, of course, but that delivery may be worth the price of admission to this entire show. I sipped and sipped and sipped and sipped to keep experiencing that sumptuous few seconds of velvety tongue-bliss over and over and over again, as if I’d found a tiny fountain of splendiferous oral pleasures… And after those repeatable few seconds of heaven pass, you’re still in good territory, but now you’re back down on a recognizable planet. There is a whole grain bready wholesomeness to this second act, which is followed by alternating waves of malt and maple sugars. The nuttiness is still there, and just the slightest hint of nutty astringency along with a nice fluid saltiness and just enough spice to engage the back of the tongue. (24/25)

The Finish

Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe… Everything was going so well before this! Have I somehow swallowed a whisky other than the one that had just been bathing my tongue with such purring pleasures? I fear that isn’t the case. Beautiful Icarus, once again, has flown too close to the sun! Those ghostly whispers of astringency in the nose and palate become fully incarnate and unmistakable here. The malty sweetness is still present, but it is coupling with a pronounced bitterness. Are these oak wood tannins getting out of hand after 24 years? Yes, very likely, but that’s not exactly how this strikes me. It’s more a dance of sweetness and astringency and astringency is either a better dancer – winking at bitterness all the while – or it is just more noticeable because of the wondrous, complex waves of sweet one was experiencing just seconds before. It’s the contrast here that disappoints – this is really not all that bad a finish, but it is distinctly sub-par relative to the broad arc of complexity in the nose and the near perfection of the palate. And the spice becomes an assertive, radiating burn that swells and then fades rather quickly, leaving an astringent maltiness to slowly lose its luster at the back of the tongue. (18/25)

Balance/Structure

What can I say? This experience was like listening to a grand symphony being played almost to perfection when, suddenly, in the final measures, half the orchestra fumbles and drops its instruments to the floor. Yes, the rest of the musicians play on beautifully, but that’s just not sufficient to save the performance as a whole. Or, you might say this was like a ride in a splendid vehicle on a splendid day though a splendid park that ends with a fender-bender. Does that cancel and negate the pleasures of the full ride? No, of course not. Would I seek out and buy a bottle of this whisky? Yes, if only to re-experience that warm, soft, lavish delivery again and again. Should you seek out and buy a bottle? How can I say? I don’t know if your palate would respond as mine did – nor do I know that the awkwardness and bitterness in the finish would disappoint you as it disappointed me. I am very pleased that I got to try this whisky because it has given me a new touchstone for delivery. For all the pleasure it gives, I cannot judge it too harshly. (21/25)

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Total points for this whisky: 86

Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.

Euclid Standing in the Morning Light: The Exclusive Malts’ 1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

exclusive-malts-bunnahabhaain-1991For some reason, I’ve been more attentive to structure in the whiskeys I’ve been savoring these days. It’s a mercurial, vapory concept, I know, but I’ve been narrowly focusing directly in on it with many of the whiskeys recently crossing my lips, especially those from the independent bottling lines called The Maltman and The Exclusive Malts, each of which seems unabashedly proud of its solid structures, unfolding them under the glare of one’s senses with no resistance or compunction whatsoever.

Take the time to focus on and truly savor one of these heady elixirs and you will get the sense that you have entered a well-built room in a well-built house. The floors are level and the corners are square and you feel confident that there are no jutting nails, missing steps or untended splinters on which to snag and injure one’s senses. The several whiskeys I’ve had in these independent series immediately instill confidence that I am drinking a well-made, quality product.

The Exclusive Malts’ 1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky is one such product. Bottled at 52.6 percent ABV from what I imagine was a single refill bourbon cask (I don’t pick up a sherry influence here, except perhaps in the spicy tannins that come on in the finish), the experience of this whisky gives one the sense that everyone who had a hand in its making knew exactly what they were doing and did their jobs well.

Appearance

The appearance in the glass is lucid honey, pellucid amber, or perhaps unclouded pine pitch in the cool early morning sun. This whisky coats the glass and is patient, languid, slowly allowing the legs to form, and those legs in turn course very slowly down. (9/10)

Nose

My notes on the nose cover an entire page! At the top I wrote: “I smell precision, whimsical precision” – whatever that means!

The aromas reveal themselves slowly at first. My initial impression, returning my sniffer to the glass again and again, was of iceberg lettuce flavored sugar crystals. Then the flesh of sliced green grapes. But a savory saltiness soon arrives, high-cocoa-content baking chocolate mixed with freshly sawn hardwood, sweet malt, buttery butterscotch, cooling pastry dough on a cutting board (fig squares, perhaps, but not lemon squares). The aroma with the deepest color is that of cherry juice, but it is reticent. And one can also smell brittleness here, as in ribbon candy. Though the nose on this whisky isn’t the least bit spirituous, it is youthful all the same. This nose is all about daylight, sunlight, but it isn’t a spring or a summer day; it’s cold outside and all the vibrations are trebly, of a higher frequency, sequestered and apart from wet and dirty and earthy things. (19/20)

Palate

The palate is fuller, rounder, sweeter and warmer than the nose led me to expect. The sugar crystal aspects turn to mild clover honey here, but I also get a sprinkling of black (licorice) Necco Wafer. The only fruit I pick up is apple, but it’s a ruby-red candy-dipped apple. There is also some caramel and salt water taffy. Still, despite all these sugary and candy notes, this isn’t a cloying dram; what it offers is rather a wonderfully oily and well-integrated sweetness. Finally, we get a hint of darker things, earthier things, the slightest taste of leather, of oak, and the wispiest hint of peaty smoke, as if the source of saltiness and that alone were dried over peat fires. The mouth-feel is silky, slightly oily and coating – wonderful. (18/20)

Finish

The finish is perfect. Malty, buttery ginger candy with a sweet-cool caramel center and a breeze of white pepper. And it is long and warm and surrounds the heart without burning the throat. Perfect. (20/20)

Balance

From one perspective, I could say the balance here is unassailable because the arc from nose to palate to finish is very rich, complex and varied, even logical, without salient flaws or ill-fitting characteristics. On the other hand, everything here is on the bright side, the light side; it all (aside from the wonderfully warming finish) emanates from crisp, invigorating daylight. Is that a problem? No, not really. If whiskeys were divided into two categories – daylight and nightshade – and this were intended as a daylight release, I’d have to conclude the balance is nearly perfect. But we don’t divide whiskeys up that way and I’m left wanting a darker, earthier element to balance all the chill, giddy sunlight at play – some flinty musty autumn characteristics, say, so prominent in The English Whisky Co.’s drams, or the dark pungent soil and sweaty humidity of a Ledaig or many Springbanks and Longrows. Was this whisky (I almost wrote Speysider, and that is telling when we’re on the north of the isle of Islay!) – Was this whisky ever intended to evoke those darker, damper drams? No. However, though I can certainly appreciate how well balanced all the elements are that are at play here, I nonetheless feel that something is missing. Maybe the flaw is in my own taste buds and predilections, but that’s now for you to decide. (17/20)

Quality of the Buzz

Finally, how am I feeling after four unstinting drams of this wondrous stuff? Good, very good, but once again we’re dealing with a daylight twist, this time on inebriation – something almost intellectual and energizing informs this whisky. One cannot, of course, fault a whisky for being bright, linear and energizing, but the more of this electric elixir I imbibe, the clearer my head is and the more I’m energized to keep writing and assessing and reassessing my drink rather than leaning (or falling) back into an inviting, overstuffed chair to read, dribble, and buzzingly doze off, which is typically my wont at this juncture in the experiment… (8/10)

Total points for this whisky: 91

http://www.impexbev.com/exclusive-malts

Bunnahabhain 18 – What Makes Scheherazade Glisten in the Night?

Bottle-Shots-040The deep, rich intricacy of a dear, luxurious Persian rug, with all the stories, from text and notes, found in Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights – all of this taking place on and among the opulent textile’s deep pile of lusty fibers, on a dark, warm, humid night – that’s the experience of Bunnahabhain 18 year old. This is a deep, rich, luxurious whisky. Savor it or leave it to others who will. This is, as I’ve already hinted, the glistening perspiration of Scheherazade on a warm moonless desert night. And this generous, glorious elixir of Lethe seems to glow from within, the color of translucent gold held up before a ravaging sunset. My favorite color of any whisky yet. And the mouth feel is rich, fine oil and silk.

My notes on the aromas wafting up from this whisky are a weave of interlocking redolences, more various and extensive than I can remember writing down for any other whisky.

The nose, then… First sniff… There is a fragrant mustiness that is unmistakably musty but not unpleasant in the least. Long-closed damp old room in an abandoned Victorian garden house. Moist, damp, woolen socks in the laundry closet of an athletic youth with impeccable hygiene. But these are just a few layers among a myriad. As whisky personalities go, this is Sybil’s more complex sister. Not a monster in the mix by any means, but a liquid host for multitudes!

Going back in… Baked cherries, dried cherries, sweet butter, toffee, cheap chocolate wafers from the discount grocer, spilled dried vanilla extract, thin Grade A maple syrup, black licorice, an open can of crushed tomatoes, dry sherry, a touch of citrus – lime? – candy, whole grain wheat bread, malty cereal, salted almonds, honey baked ham, and a very slight influence of peat (from a water source?) but nothing I would specify as smoke per se.

Second and subsequent sips (as the first is always preparatory): A cool, sweet savoriness with late developing spice, drying sherry cask tannins balanced with a wildflower (i.e., not cloying, but understated) honey sweetness, a sensuous warm burn, salt and white pepper, rum-soaked green herbs, those cherries again, sweet maltiness, red grapes, butterscotch candy, and the slight, unexpected taste of Marshmallow Fluff on the roof of the mouth.

The finish is classic, long, with ginger, thin honey, dark raisins in the sun, sweet malt and drying tannins and, finally, a scintillating trace of clove.

This is really, really good whisky!

No, I didn’t even mention that it hales from the most remote and unconventional distillery on Islay, ‘the whisky island’ – what difference does that make?

You can check out the distillery here:
http://www.bunnahabhain.com/

Nota bene: Thanks to Bikram Singh, I was talking to that erudite, gracious hombre Ed Kohl at Andy’s Market in Taunton, MA, the other evening, sampling several of the wondrous malts he represents, and he mentioned that his Exclusive Malts of Scotland independent bottling brand will soon bottle and distribute a single cask 21 year old Bunnahabhain. Based on the quality of other single cask bottlings in this series (the Exclusive Malts of Scotland Bowmore 11 and Clynelish 15 were particularly exquisite – and reasonably priced – in my opinion), I couldn’t possibly be more excited about this forthcoming dream dram.

Here’s some Bunnahabhain 18 sipping music. Take your time and enjoy!

Beethoven

Holger Czukay