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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Single Malt Report: Bunnahabhain 14yr 1997 van Wees The Ultimate

(Peatin' Meetin' post #3a)

Even though Bunnahabhain's regular malt is said to be unpeated, everyone from Serge and the Maniacs to Charlie MacLean have said there is a faint whiff of peat or smoke to it.  Last year in Vegas, I had a glass of the official 12 year and certainly caught a phenolic whisper -- though I haven't found it again since.

In 1997, the distillery did do a trial run of heavily peated (35-40ppm) malt to see how it would result or perhaps jump into the peated Islay market.  They officially bottled it for the Feis Ile for a couple of years, but also let a quite a number of casks go out to independent bottlers.  Each year, thanks to those indies, a few more single cask bottlings of that 1997 run hit the retail market.

Here in The States, there are a few Singatory Unchillfiltered bottlings of it and at least one Murray McDavid.  Overseas, specifically in the continental European market, there are considerably more offerings, such as today's single cask, cask strength version coming from the Dutch bottler, van Wees.  Trying one (or more!) of these indies was a part of my whisky journey I've been looking forward to.  Happily, I found this bottle at Peatin' Meetin' and was able to escape with a 30+ mL sample to take home with me.

Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Independent Bottler: van Wees (The Ultimate)
Age: Dec 11, 1997 - Dec 7, 2012 -- five days away from 15 years
Maturation: Hogshead
Cask number5560
Limited bottling: 292
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 54.2%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

Color - Light amber
Nose - Wow, very young and brash.  A combo of mossy shoe polish and smoldering plastic hits first.  Then some white vinegar and tiny whiff of vanilla.  Finally, new car smell!
Palate - Cigars, chocolate, bananas, grassy peat, and heavy ash.  Lots of ethyl.  It's very raw, not much oak, like a naked mossy astringent Ardbeg......which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Finish - Woody smoke, pencils, hot grassy peat take the lead.  Sugary sweetness shows up at the tail end, as well as a bit of vanilla.

Nose -  Starts to feel a little more organic.  Black pepper, dried ginger, wasabi, chalk, plastic toys, cardboard.  It's also kind of beachy (sand, seaweed, ocean shallows).
Palate - Gets even more mossy.  A little caramel, maybe some more vanillins, a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of soil.
Finish - Peat moss, wood smoke, ocean, and vanilla.

This tastes and smells very young, much younger than one would expect from its age.  And very little oak presence as well, so this must have been either a much-used (or worn-out, to be less polite) hogshead or a very lightly charred one.  I know I rarely request more oak, but while this is a fun crisp malt, it would be tremendous with a first or second-fill American oak barrel.  The peat and spirit are very good and could probably compete easily with the rest of the island's heavy hitters.  There's good potential here, so there will definitely be more reports on the '97 Bunnies.

[For a little postscript: Bunnahabhain began peating batches of malt again in 2003.  These batches resulted in the Duty Free Cruach-Mhona and the more widely available Toiteach bottles.  These are decent whiskys, but they're still a little young.  Can't wait to see how these develop or if they'll be allowed to...]

Availability - Some continental European specialists
Pricing - $70-$80 (minus VAT, plus shipping)
Rating - 82


  1. It's really fascinating how the distilleries on Islay making peated whisky mostly buy their malt from the same place, but produce such different varieties. I definitely agree that Bunnahabhain has something unique to bring to the table. I'm especially looking forward to the day when their stocks become old enough that it can become part of the regular line up, especially if they take the same tack as their standard bottles and blend together bourbon and sherry casks.

    1. Yeah, almost everyone on the island gets their malt from the Port Ellen facility. As of 2010 (according to Charlie MacLean), 10% of Bunnahabhain's malt also came from Port Ellen. I wonder if that's where the peated stuff is coming from.

      And I do hope they've left some of the peated malt aging for a 12 year (earliest 2015?). As you'd mentioned, if they mix bourbon and sherry casks of it they could confidently strut that stuff in the market. If Bowmore's regular range doesn't improve and if Ardbeg loses ground/quality, Bunny could make a run at Islay's Top Three. Okay, that's all bunch of what-ifs but it would be fun to see them succeed.

  2. I was digging through my bunker the other day and found a Bunnahabhain that I had completely forgotten buying (I wasn't even drinking). From the first round of Exclusive Malts that the Davids grabbed in 2011, I purchased the Longmorn and Bunnahabhain because the prices were great ($99 for a 22 year Bunna is not something you'd see today). Time to crack open the bottle.

    1. That must be the Longmorn of K&L legend. It stole all the attention away from that Bunna.