Bunnahabhain 12-year-old Cask Strength

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A sustainable future for Bunnahabhain?

Bunnahabhain Distillery dates from the Victorian age. It was established in the north-east of Islay in 1881. In those days, that part of the island was largely empty. The village that now surrounds the distillery was built purely to accommodate the workers. All deliveries were made by sea with fuel and supplies dropped off and whisky shipped off to the mainland to be sold to the blenders and bottlers of the big cities. It wasn’t until 1960 that a road was constructed to link the distillery with Port Askaig. Even then, deliveries by boat continued until 1993.

The distillery has come a long way since those days and the Scotch whisky industry has become somewhat obsessed (with good reason) with reducing its emissions. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has set a target of net zero emissions by 2040. Bunnahabhain, however, hopes to beat that date by a considerable margin.

Work is currently underway to construct a £6.5million energy centre at the distillery. Fuel will take the form of a combination of forest biomass, sourced within 15 miles of the distillery and draff, a by-product of distillation. Biomass is a term used to describe renewable energy from burning wood, plants and other organic matter. The process releases carbon dioxide but only a fraction of that released by the burning of fossil fuels.

Distell, the South Africa-based owner of Bunnahabhain, says the “entirely locally sourced fuelling system” will support Islay’s forests and economy using wood chippings from low value timber felled on the island. They will apparently also be “restoring” peat bog and planting new trees to replace existing conifer forests. Ash from the nutrient-rich biomass fuel will be used as a natural fertiliser for the re-planted forest, creating a circular model for sustainability.

It all sounds great but as any visitor to Islay will tell you, the island doesn’t appear to be blessed with an abundance of trees. I can’t help but wondering exactly how much wood chip needs to be burned every day to produce an output of 2.5million litres per year and where it’s all going to come from. What if Islay can’t supply the full requirement? Will it be shipped in from elsewhere? Won’t that create more emissions just to bring fuel in? In any case, I think it’s great to see steps being taken. Whether they prove to be the right steps, only time will tell. I sincerely hope Bunnahabhain’s new system works exactly the way Distell say it will. At this stage, any and all attempts at progress should be welcomed.

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The Whisky

In 2021, Bunnahabhain announced the launch of a new annual product. The 12-year-old cask strength bottling is said to be inspired by their Warehouse 9 tastings. For those unable to make the trip to Islay, this new release provides an opportunity to taste the Bunnahabhain single malt in its most natural form: straight from the cask, un-diluted, un-chill-filtered and un-coloured.

Smell: Raisins & sultanas. Figs. Milk chocolate. Tobacco leaf. Rich caramel. Cherry. Chocolate buttercream. Honey. Cinnamon and fresh ginger. Black pepper. Malty biscuit note in there as well.

Taste: Arrives with the same dried fruits character… Raisins, sultanas, prunes. Salted caramel. Peppercorns. More chocolate. Oak char. Malty, cereals on the finish. Some fresh leather. With water there’s vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce.

Thoughts: I’m a huge fan of Bunnahabhain’s standard 12-year-old bottling. In terms of core range, age-stated releases, it’s about the best value for money you’ll find today. The idea of a cask strength version seemed to hold a lot of potential but I did wonder how much better it could be, given the impressive standard of the original. As it turns out, the original could be improved upon. Quite a bit, in fact. The sherry character seems more intense in the cask strength version. In fact, everything seems to have been dialled up a notch. The raisins are juicier, the caramel richer and the peppercorns spicier. It’s just altogether… bigger.

Value for money: At £75 a bottle it’s almost double the price of the original 12. Is it twice as good? Probably not but it is better. In terms of value for money, the original 12 will always make more sense as a budget-friendly buy but that doesn’t mean the Cask Strength version isn’t worthy of a purchase as well. This is a single malt of the very highest quality and I would advise fans of the 12 to try it. Splash out, at least once. You can always go back to the regular bottling next time having tried something that’s a wee step up.

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