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Bunnahabhain was founded in 1881, around the same time Bruichladdich was opening on the other side of the island. Bunnahabhain is the most northerly of Islay’s distilleries, built in a remote spot that would make good use of the fast flowing sound between Islay and Jura. Supplies were delivered by Clyde puffer‘s and casks of new spirit carried to the blending houses on the mainland. Building a distillery in such an isolated spot wasn’t without its challenges however. The island’s weather can be wild at times and a pair of boilers were once blown from the beach as they waited to be installed.
The puffers have long since gone of course and the distillery is now served by a stretch of single track road from Port Askaig, an avenue of travel best described as “scenic” with large tankers forced to negotiate a series of twists and turns, whilst simultaneously avoiding oncoming traffic. Nervous drivers need not apply.
Bunnahabhain was founded by the Islay Distillers Company Ltd but in 1887 it merged with Glenrothes-Glenlivet to create the Highland Distilleries Company Ltd, which would later take the name of parent company The Edrington Group in the 1990s. Bunnahabhain was sold to Burn Stewart in 2003, along with the Black Bottle blended scotch brand, bringing it under the same umbrella as Deanston and Tobermory. Burn Stewart itself would later be taken over by the Distell Group of South Africa, who retain ownership of the three distilleries today.
Bunnahabhain has the tallest stills on Islay, and generally uses them to produce an unpeated spirit, though this was not always the case. The distillery once produced the sort of heavily peated whisky that is so associated with the island it calls home but in 1963 it was modernised and expanded and the peat was abandoned, radically changing the character of the whisky. Towards the end of the 90s however, experiments with peated malt were carred out and today, between 10-20% of production is reserved for peated whisky.
Since the 1980’s, Islay has played host to the Fèis Ìle, a festival dedicated to celebrating the Gaelic culture of the island. The distilleries joined the party in 2000, hosting open days and releasing exclusive bottlings to mark the occasion. The 2020 edition of the festival had to be abandoned in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but has resurfaced in virtual format, with many of the distilleries making limited edition bottles available online…
Fèis Ìle 2020 Madeira Cask Finish 2002
This 17 year old single malt was distilled in 2002 and bottled 2020 at 53%. Retailed for £199 a bottle.
Smell: Touch of varnish about this. Possibly furniture polish. Hazelnut. Also Honey. Agave syrup. Caramel. Salt. White Pepper. Cinnamon. Berries. Orange peel. Fudge sauce.
Taste: Nutty – hazelnut and almonds. Orange. Caramel and honey. Cinnamon. Oak. Raspberry and blackcurrant. Ginger. Sea salt. Brown sugar.
Thoughts: I think it’s safe to say we take a trip to bizarro land when we decide to buy Festival bottlings. With anything between 1000 and 4000 bottles available they aren’t particularly rare and often aren’t especially old so the consumer seems to be paying a premium to have the words Fèis Ìle written on the label, which is even stranger when you consider how much of an abstract concept this year’s festival has had to become. Apparently, Bunnahabhain’s response to Bruichladdich pricing their 16 year old Port Charlotte at £150 was “hold my dram” and they’ve arrived at a price of £199 for this admittedly delicious 17 year old. Still, at least it’s a lovely memento of that time you watched people talk about whisky on your device screen.
Snark aside, credit to Bunnahabhain for at least making tasting packs available for less than you’d pay for the same drams in a pub. At least people can try the whisky without re-mortgaging their house.
There’s no doubting the quality of the dram. It’s rich, luxurious and very more-ish. It may struggle to live up to the price tag, but how good would a whisky have to be to justify paying £200 anyway? Especially one from Bunnahabhain who’s 12 year old is one of the finest “affordable” single malts on the market. But then, perhaps that is the biggest compliment I can pay them: not many distillers put the same care into their entry level as they do their limited editions but it feels like Bunnahabhain do just that. Regardless of where a bottle sits in their range, or how much it cost, the buyer can trust that they will find an excellent liquid inside the bottle, and that is something worthy of applause.
Fèis Ìle Mòine Amontillado Finish 2010
Distilled in 2010 and bottled 2020, this peated single malt was finished in Amontillado Sherry casks. Bottled at 56.9% it retailed for £99.
Smell: Absolutely gorgeous nose. Woody smoke and brambles leap from the glass. There’s also raisins, caramel and maple syrup. Vanilla. Malted barley. Pepper. Charcoal. Leather. With water there’s biscuit and honey.
Taste: Wonderful oily texture. Juicy raisins and sultanas evolve into dry woody spice before perfumed peat smoke takes over at the finish. There’s also salted caramel, pepper and orange.
Thoughts: With 1600 bottles of this peated Bunnahabhain made available the price looks closer to being reasonable at least, though it remains some distance from affordable. It is an absolutely delicious dram and I suspect most who stumped up the cash will be rather pleased with themselves when they crack it open.
Bunnahabhain’s “Mòine” series has been nothing short of exceptional and this latest addition easily maintains the standard. It doesn’t come cheap but it will make you feel like it was worth it. The sort of whisky that demands your attention. Switch off the TV, put down your book, stop whatever you are doing and just, sip… My God, that’s good. The only disappointment is a finish that doesn’t quite last long enough, because trust me, you’ll want this one to stick around a while.