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Last week I was invited to join the Hipflask Hiking Club in their first virtual whisky tasting of the year. The evening featured a selection of drams chosen and ably presented by Brendan McCarron, Master Distiller for Distell, owner of Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory. Not only were the drams impressive but Brendan shared some really interesting information about his approach to whisky making and his plans for Bunnahabhain going forward.
Interestingly, those plans seem to include a serious reduction in the amount of peated whisky being produced at the distillery. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that because I’ve always loved the distillery’s smoky releases. The unpeated stuff is excellent as well but the variety of different styles on offer is one of the things I find really appealing about the brand. I’ve no doubt the quality will remain high but Bunnahabhain peat monsters becoming rarer beasts is somewhat lamentable.
The Hipflask Hiking Club, meanwhile, was established in 2012 but what began as a way for friends to enjoy a walk and a wee dram together evolved into regular whisky tastings in various venues around the city of Glasgow. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic saw the club evolve once more with weekly zoom nights serving as an important outlet for members during the seemingly never-ending lockdowns. The Hipflaskers strive to be different to other whisky clubs and there’s no doubt it was one of the quirkier groups I’ve encountered but they’re having fun and I like that. It’s nice to see people who appreciate whisky without taking it too seriously. They’ve incorporated everything from live music to whisky-themed Variety Shows into their zoom sessions. Remember the Whisky Ice Cream Float challenge? That was them. I also entirely endorse the use of T.T.F. in sound-tracking their introductory video. As a former DJ myself, it’s long been my opinion that there’s nowhere near enough crossover between rave and whisky.
This isn’t a review as such but below you’ll find tasting notes and some of my thoughts on the drams we sampled. I feel like I may need to put in a wee disclaimer, however. My dog Hamish had to have an operation on Thursday. He was in a bad way after it and I got very little sleep overnight. By the time the tasting came along at 8pm on Friday evening, I was flagging badly but the day I can’t rouse myself to sip six Islay whiskies is the day I give up on life. However, it would be fair to say my mind wasn’t at its sharpest so please bear with me while I try to make sense of my scribbled notes.
Bunnahabhain 12-year-old (46.3%)
Tasting notes: Malty. Oaky. Sultanas. Fudge. Chocolate orange. Dark chocolate digestives. Walnut. Slightly meaty. Slightly coastal. There’s a blackcurrant note that reminded me of Ribena. Maybe a touch of raspberry as well.
Thoughts: There’s not a lot I can say about this dram that hasn’t been said before. To put it simply, I can’t think of a single whisky that offers better value for money. Not one. You can taste a bit of the malt spirit, there’s a ton of delicious sherry oak on offer and a wee subtle sea breeze reminds you you’re in Islay. Excellent stuff.
Bunnahabhain An Cladach (50%)
Tasting notes: Getting that wee meaty note again. Almost sulphury. Road tar. Sea salt and pepper. Fudge. There’s a sherbet / confectionery note as well. Charred oak. Dried fruits. Cinnamon. Cumin. Paprika.
Thoughts: I hadn’t tried this one before. It felt a bit like a younger, rawer version of the 12-year-old. Seemed a very similar flavour profile only a little feistier, spicier. Not sure I’d be willing to pay the £55 – £60 asking price for it – not when the 12 is under £40 and so, so good. Though it should be noted that An Cladach is a travel retail exclusive and the price is for a litre bottle.
Bunnahabhain Eirigh Na Greine (46.3%)
Tasting notes: Tropical. Tinned fruit cocktail. Vanilla. That meaty note again. Sea breeze. There’s a forest fruits / red berries note. Caramel. Honey. Baking spices. Wee touch of smoke on the finish.
Thoughts: There was a slight cardboard note that Brendan apologetically assured us was a bit of cork taint. To be honest, I didn’t find it in any way unpleasant. It seemed pretty well integrated and the dram opened up really well with a wee splash of water. Not quite as sherry-dominated this one with some of the spirit having been matured in red wine casks. Felt like an interesting diversion after the first two. Another travel retail release that comes in a litre bottle. Priced around £70 by the looks of it. I quite liked this one. I’d consider it at that price.
Bunnahabhain 2014 Oloroso Butt (61.1%)
Tasting notes: Toffee popcorn. Dank dunnage warehouses. Slight struck match / sulphur note. A little bit funky. Fiery peppers. Lots of dried fruits, of course. A splash of water brought out some vanilla fudge and a buttery note.
Thoughts: An 8-year-old cask sample chosen exclusively for the evening, this was one of the standout drams. Full of intense sherry character, almost aggressive but not so much as to completely smother the spirit. You still know you’re drinking Scotch whisky. Interestingly, Brendan spoke of a desire to introduce a core expression that would be a no-age-statement cask strength bottling, created using casks like this one. If that ever comes to pass, sign me up.
Bunnahabhain 2003 Sherry Butt (52.6%)
Tasting notes: Lots of sherry. Sherry soaked raisins floating in a cask full of sherry. Currants. Prunes. Treacle. Christmas pudding. Leather. Furniture polish. Slightly floral perfume note. Chocolate bars. Touch of pepper.
Thoughts: Another exclusive cask sample. This time a rather magnificent 19-year-old. Drams like this sometimes leave me a little torn. I feel like I should always be able to taste something of the spirit character in but this is almost totally sherry-oak dominated. Having said that, when I let go of my pre-conceived notions about what the dram should be and concentrated on what it actually was, I found it to be utterly bloody delicious and probably my favourite of the night.
I like to think of a sliding scale of Scotch whisky. At one end is a spirit-led flavour profile with only the slightest hint of cask interaction. Opposite are drams that taste almost entirely of the oak and its previous contents. In the middle is the point where you get balance between the two. I’ve heard people say, probably said it myself, that the sweet spot is cask and spirit in perfect harmony but I’m not sure that really holds up. The fact of the matter is, there are outstanding whiskies all along the scale. This one veers toward the oaky end but does that make it a bad whisky? Absolutely not.
Bunnahabhain 2017 Mòine Oloroso Butt 60.1%
Tasting notes: Treacle. Prune juice. Maple syrup. Bonfires. Ash. Lots of sticky, tooth-coating sherry. Chilli peppers. Honey. Caramel. Liquorice. There used to be a breakfast cereal called Honey Nut Loops – this is what I imagine they would taste like when burnt.
Thoughts: It was a brave decision on Brendan’s part to end the tasting on a sample of the peaty whisky he’s determined to kill! This feisty young 4-year-old was a lovely way to round off the evening. It sill showed the sherry-heavy house style but the smoke brought something different to the party. I’ve often felt a bit of peat smoke really helps a spirit cut through the big sherry blanket and that’s what was going on here. I just hope the Moine stuff doesn’t become so rare it’s impossible to get hold of going forward.
All in all this was a lovely evening, even if I did take part in a fog of no-sleep fuzziness. Some really interesting behind the scenes stuff from Brendan – it’s always nice to hear from the people who actually have a hand in making the stuff. We whisky geeks can often become obsessed with the purity of the single cask but that ignores the creative genius of the blender and it was nice to hear some of what goes into creating a new product – or maintaining a current one. Great stuff. Glad I took part.
Many thanks to all involved with the Hipflask Hiking Club.