Bottom of the Barrel #3: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old

Nestled in the North-Eastern corner of the island, just down the road from Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain is unique in the fact that it is the only Islay distillery whose core range of whiskys are completely unpeated.

There is of course the Toiteach (Gaelic for smoky) expression which is heavily peated and limited releases, Moine (Gaelic for peat) and Ceobanach (Gaelic for smoky mist), but these are really exceptions to the rule.

Gaelic for foot of the river and pronounced Bunna-harven; something I learnt the hard way a few years ago in a Fort William basement bar to an audience of disgusted locals.
I had nipped in for a dram after grabbing lunch on a supply run from a remote cabin my girlfriend and I had hired for a week. I descended the dark concrete staircase strewn with last nights empty WKD bottles and hundreds of discarded butts. I opened the door and strolled into a dimly lit wooden-panelled establishment with a couple of teenage couples in tracksuits playing pool and some gnarled middle-aged men and women holding court at the bar. The bar maid was pushing 6 feet tall and had a scowl for days.

“Afternoon, what can I get you?”

Perfectly welcoming, here face softened and in crept a wry smile.
Still intimidated and fairly new to whisky I decided to blag it.

“A large pinot grigio and a double Bunna-hab-hein please”

The smile had gone and the scowl was back.

“You what love?”

“The, the Bunna-hab-hein?”

I questioned.

“The what?”

“That black bottle up there”

I gestured frantically in the direction of the dumpy little black bottle from Islay.

“Oh the Bunna-harven!”

She spluttered out, struggling to hold her laughter.

“Yes, please”

The bar erupted in laughter. I was slapped on the back by the fisherman-esque chap next to me and a woman down the bar from me thumped her hand on the bar repeatedly.

The tracksuited pool players looked up confused.

We paid for the drinks and took a shady corner seat to drain our glasses.

I took a sip.

Country: Scotland

Region: Islay

Distillery: Bunnahabhain

Bottler: Bunnahabhain

ABV: 46.3%


Vendor: Waitrose

Price Paid: £27.99 (On Offer)

RRP: £35.00

That day I fell in love with Bunnahabhain. I’ve tried as many of their releases as I could get my hands on and haven’t come across one I didn’t like, and for the most part, love.

Bunnahabhain Distillery was built in 1880/1881 by a partnership which was incorporated in 1882 as the Islay Distillery Co., and later amalgamated with Wm. Grant & Co., (Glenrothes – Glenlivet) to form Highland Distillers, the present owners. Highland are producers of the blend “The Famous Grouse” and “Black Bottle”. The malt supplied to Bunnahabhain requires to be at levels of 3 p.p.m. Bunnahabhain is one of the milder Islay whiskies available and in its taste varies greatly from other fine spirits to be found on the island. The water rises through limestone and is transported by pipeline to the distillery, so it doesn’t pick up any peat on the way. Common bottlings are 12, 18 and 25 years old. Interesting fact is that the 12 yr old is a favourite dram of many Ileach (people on Islay).

Bunnhabhain’s expressions all come in short, stubby bottles made of deeply coloured glass; the 12 year old’s bottle being a smoky black, giving an air of intrigue as to both the colour of the liquid inside and also the fill level of the bottle. Gold writing and nautical elements give hints as to what elements the contents may possess.

The colour of the dram itself is of a rich golden hue offering a hint of the warmth that lies within.

NOSE: 24
The definitive taste of Bunna – Delicate, salty nose with faint hint of iodine and wisps of smoke rising up.
Faintly smoky taste with less salt than the nose belied.
Malty, lightly sherried sweetness pervades the dram,
The malty notes last right through while the sweet sherry notes die back to allow a creaminess to coalesce.
A fantastic dram; a perfect example of the quintessential Bunnahabhain taste.
A warm rounded whisky that perhaps lacks a little complexity at this age.
With a viscous, mouth-coating texture and a degree of gentleness despite the above average ABV, what’s not to like?


Bunnahabhain’s 12 year old expression is rich, salty and characterful. It exudes warmth and feels as comfortable as an old blanket.

Though at first there is plenty to analyse this complexity drops away, and at this age you pretty much have the measure of this whisky after your first few glasses.

If any of you read my Penderyn tasting review from some time back you’ll know that there are some distilleries whose wares just don’t sit well on my palate. Bunnahabhain is proof to the opposite – there are some distilleries that just resonate with me, of which Bunnahabhain is one.
That slight saltiness that underlies every other note, the malty warmth that rises up from the nose and lives with the whisky until it has completely dissipated and the faint smoke that drifts over the dram.

At 46.3% NCF Bunna isn’t scared of allowing themselves to be seen in the open and they are perfectly justified in feeling that way. As an entry-level expression this is a fantastic accomplishment.

Speaking objectively I would say that for the complexity on offer the RRP of £35.00 is a little much, even moreso when the majority of vendors refuse to lower its price below £40.00.

At the close of the month approximately 1 quarter of my bottle was left, which was very quickly consumed in the first few weeks of the next.

If this whisky was available more readily at a sub-£30 price point my quest would be over, but unfortunately I have to say that though this price-drop does occur once or twice a year you have little way of knowing who will make the reduction and for how long it will remain.

I haven’t found Bunnahabhain to polarize people the way that the majority of other Islay distilleries tend to, it is often overlooked but whenever I am introducing someone to the world of whisky this is one of the first bottles I pull out.

Next Month: Strathisla 12 Year Old


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s