Bunnahabhain is unique for a very simple reason: It’s one of the only Islay distilleries to produce unpeated malt whisky. That’s not to say no peated whisky is produced there (see: Toiteach A Dhà), but unpeated Islay single malt is more or less the spiel. That and the common bottling strength (46.3% ABV).
Situated on the Sound of Islay near Port Askaig and Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain’s name refers to the Margadale River, from where the distillery obtains its spring water that’s “uninfluenced by the abundance of peat found throughout the Islay landscape.” It originally opened in 1881 only to close in the 1930s before reopening about three decades later, largely thanks to a newly built road leading to the distillery. Fast-forward a half-century, an acquisition, rebranding, and line extension, and Bunnahabhain has become one of the more venerable Scottish distilleries in the modern day.
Paramount to the distillery’s success has been the standard 12-Year bottling, originally released in 1979. A frequent recommendation for scotch newcomers, Bunnahabhain 12-Year boasts stellar stats to back up its acclaim. Beyond the age statement, it’s matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, is non-chill filtered, forgoes color additives, and is bottled at a respectable 46.3% ABV. All of this for a widely available scotch that retails around $50-$60 locally.
Nose: Big time raisin and fig with an increasingly prevalent butterscotch note. Has a unique earthy quality that strikes a nice balance between sweet and musty. Almost reminds me of marsala or a sweet mushroom sauce. Light maritime essence laced throughout, namely with regards to salt. Charcuterie board with soft, baked bread in the background. Everything comes together to give this a “dirty” aroma in the best way possible.
Palate: Medium viscosity. Comes across lighter in profile than the nose suggests, but still rich. Raisins, butterscotch, and caramel sauce. Vanilla and fruitcake too. Salty character shines through, granting a wonderful contrast to the sweet notes with a subtle impression of smoke. Tart fruit on the mid to back palate.
Finish: Ever-present and building pepper with a drying sensation. Warm oak and lingering fruit notes present like a toasted and generously buttered cinnamon raisin English muffin. Balanced and delightful.
I was late to the Bunnahabhain party, a decision that led to an immediate head-smacking once I tried the 12-Year. Just from the aroma I knew I was going to enjoy this more than the likes of Glendronach and The Macallan, yet I was stunned all the same. There was so much more going on than I anticipated. Looking at the bottle’s statistics paints a picture that the whisky lives up to so well, I’d probably take it over almost any other scotch I’ve tried to date. I’m ready to attribute much of it to the bourbon and sherry casks used, which I feel is only further enhanced by the distillery’s location lending some maritime influence. It’s more subtle than overt, but the results are striking and delightful all the same.
Perhaps my biggest surprise is just how flavorful Bunnahabhain 12-Year is. Many of the more entry-level, flagship scotches that get recommended have fallen short in my eyes. Part of this comes from me being a bourbon-first consumer, particularly the higher proof variety since they often present the most flavor. Transitioning from that to scotch, which is a considerably different beast in the details, can understandably make for an awkward experience. I’d compare it to following up a strong cup of espresso with a gently steeped herbal tea. Bunnahabhain’s flagship, however, seems to be a more natural transition bottle, like a generously steeped cup of chai or Constant Comment. It provides a level of flavor, richness, complexity, and depth that I’ve rarely gotten in other spirits, all while being easily accessible with an agreeable price tag. An absolutely perfect dram? Maybe not, but it’s about as close to perfection as a bottle of its stature can get in my book.