The Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay is located on the north of the island, with Caol Ila as
its only neighbour. Situated on the coast of the Sound of Islay, it's protected from the fierce
winds blowing in from the Atlantic ocean.The upeated style of the 'Bunny' reflects this.
Bunnahbhain is the only unpeated malt whisky that is produced on Islay; even the
mild spirit that is made at Bruichladdich (under that name) is very lightly peated.
Bunnahabhain distillery was constructed in 1880/1881 by the Greenlees brothers
and first opened its doors in 1983. The number of stills was increased from two to four
in 1963, at a time that many other distilleries did the same. By the early 2000s, the
Bunnahabhain distillery has the largest production capacity on Islay.
In 1999 Highland Distillers (the then-owners of Bunnahabhain) were acquired by the
Edrington Group - themselves the result of a merger in 1996. They only held on to
Bunnahabhain for a few years; in 2003 Bunnahabhain (both distillery & brand) were
sold to Burn Stewart Distillers, together with the 'Black Bottle' brand. In the words of Ian Good, chairman and chief executive of Edrington: "The disposals are in line with the
group's strategy of concentrating our investment resource behind developing our core
brands." The Glasgow-based Edrington group said that its strategic aim is to
concentrate investment behind developing its flagship brands; the Famous Grouse
and Cutty Sark blends and the Macallan and Highland Park single malt whiskies.
The fact that Bunnahabhain is (at least potentially) the biggest distillery on the island
may come as a surprise to some, but when some of the maniacs visited Bunnahabhain
in June 2005 we could verify for ourselves that the stills were absolutely massive.
Perhaps it's just as well that Bunnahabhain was released from Edrington’s grasp, because both Macallan and
Highland Park dropped from my Top 10 of favourites after the Edrington Group were finished 'developing' them.
In both cases it meant that the quality of the regular, 12yo expressions that had been affordable favourites of
mine during the 1990's started to drop to 'average' levels while the prices were cranked up a notch or two.
Even though Bunnahabhain was sold to Burn Stewart, the Edrington group is still its biggest
customer. Bunnahabhain may not have the biggest 'profile' of the distilleries on Islay, but it
has the largest production potential of all distilleries on the island. They haven’t ran at
full capacity for some time, though. This made Caol Ila (located just a little to the south)
the distillery with the biggest actual annual output on Islay in 2007.
The trip to the distillery is worth it, even if you
don't fancy basking in the glow of the huge stills.
Most whisky activity is on the southern part of
the island and around Loch Indaal, but a trip
north will take you along Loch Finlaggan.
This detour is worth the time and effort...
It's hard to believe if you visit the remote,
quiet island of Islay (population +/- 3,000),
but it was once the centre of a large empire.
The centre of that empire was Loch Finlaggan.
Within Loch Finlaggan are three small islands, two of which lie close to
the north shore; Eilean na Comhairle (the council isle) and Eilean Mor
(meaning 'large island') which contain the remains of ancient buildings.
The chief of Clan Donald ruled as the 'Lord of the Isles' over the West
coast and islands of Scotland for centuries.
Most traffic to and from Islay moves through
the harbour of Port Ellen on the south shore.
This makes Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila the
most ‘remote’ distilleries on the island.
It is worth to make the trip to the north of
Islay though. If you take the A846 from
Bridgend to Port Askaig you will pass Loch
Finlaggan, a an interesting historical site.
This will also take you near Bunnahabhain...
If you happen to find yourself in the area, it would be a shame if you didn’t take a distillery tour.
Bunnahabhain offers different distillery tours - including a ‘standard tour’, a ‘dram tour’ and a ‘tasting tour’.
The distillery is open to visitors for 7 days a week throughout the year, but making an appointment would be wise.
1) In 2005 Bunnahabhain employed around 11 people.
That may not seem like a lot, but on a small island like
Islay every job counts. If the workforce of the other Islay
distilleries is of a comparable size, that would mean
that all Islay whisky is produced by +/- 100 people.
2) The name Bunnahabhain refers to the Margadale
River. It means 'Mouth of the River' in Gaelic.
6) Bunnahabhain is one of almost two dozen malt whisky distilleries that were founded over a century ago during
the 'whisky boom' of the late 19th century and which have managed to survive until this day. Other survivors include
Aberfeldy, Ardmore, Aultmore, Balvenie, Benriach, Benromach, Bruichladdich, Craigellachie, Dalwhinnie, Dufftown,
Glendullan, Glenfiddich, Glenrothes, Glentauchers, Knockandu, Knockdhu, Longmorn, Tamdhu and Tomatin.
3) Bunnahabhain's location was chosen mainly
because it's easily accessible from the mainland by boat.
7) After Burn Stewart took over Bunnahabhain in 2003 they came up with a new slogan for the distillery.
It was 'Bunnahabhain - The Spiritual Home of Black Bottle' - which suggests that their focus was on blended
whisky instead of single malts. If the main 'core value' they wanted to express was the fact that the Bunnahabhain
malt whisky is used in a blend (albeit a tasty one), Burn Stewart may not have been in the best position to take
full advantage of the single malt whisky boom of the early third millennium...
4) The warehouses of Bunnahabhain also contain casks of Tobermory and Ledaig malt whisky because there
is insufficient storage capacity on the island of Mull itself. Illogistically enough, the freshly distilled whisky is first
shipped from the Tobermory distillery to the Deanston distillery for filling, and then onwards to Bunnahabhain.
5) Together with Glenmorangie and Isle of Jura, Bunnahabhain used to have the tallest pot stills in the industry.
However, different sources quote different sizes - and quite a few stills were replaced in recent years at those
distilleries. So, I'll stay away from mentioning exact numbers at this point.
2003 - Four years after the Edrington Group mothballed the
Bunnahabhain malt whisky distillery in 1999, it was purchased
by Burn Stewart - together with the 'Black Bottle' brand of
peated blended whisky. At the time Burn Steart already owned
the Deanston and Tobermory distilleries, and the highly variable quality of their official bottlings in previous years did not give
me much hope for Bunnahabhain OB’s in the future.
2008 - My worries about the quality of Bunnahabhain OB’s turned out to be unfounded. Since 2003 Burn Stewart
have released some great bottlings and in 2008 they introduced two brand new 'standard' expressions of the
Bunnahabhain malt whisky: "Darach Ur" and "Toiteach".
2010 - Bunnahabhain increases the proof of their official bottlings from 40% or 43% to 46.3%.
2013 - Burn Stewart Distillers (the owners of the Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory distilleries) was
sold by CL Financial to Distell from South Africa for £160 million.
Bunnahabhain 25yo (46.3%, OB, Bottled +/- 2011)
Nose: Wham! Starts off with a heavily sherried punch with a fair amount of sulphur. Overpowering.
Over time subtler elements get a chance. Mint? Faint hints of leather? And now Jaegermeister. An odd one.
Taste: Surprisingly sweet and smooth start - and then the smoky, tarry centre and finish are another surprise.
A 'narrow' profile; the smoke pushes aside the other elements. Somehow, this malt feels 'doctored'.
Score: 82 points - this shows a very different (smoky) side of Bunnahabhain, but not a lot of it, actually...
Given the steep street price, you might as well invest in a bottle of the 12yo OB AND a real peat monster.
Bunnahabhain NAS 'Toiteach' (46%, OB, Peated, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Light and peaty. Chloride with flowery and farmy notes in the background. Organics - a little sweaty.
Taste: Sweet and smoky start. Memories of tar, diesel oil (and other "industrial" oils) and liquorice.
Score: 81 points - recommendable, although the light colour suggests that this whisky is fairly young.
Bunnahabhain 8yo 2001/2010 (54%, The Whisky Agency's Liquid Library, Oloroso Sherry, 180 Bts.)
Nose: Dark tea. Dry raisins. Complex woody notes. A hint of tobacco? Incredible complexity, just brilliant.
Spices, clove, cinnamon, bonfire, passion fruit, ... My fingers simply can't keep up with my nose and brain.
Taste: Chewy, smoky, woody, fruity, smooth, glowing, sweet, figs, prunes, tannins, chocolate, PURE HEAVEN!!!
Score: 92 points - it's shocking and amazing that a whisky can be THIS brilliant after just eight years.
There must be some serious magic happening at Bunnahabhain if they can produce casks like this one.
Bunnahabhain 2005/2010 (58.5%, Exclusive Malts for Whisky Live Taipei 2010, C#29, 268 Bts.)
Nose: Oh, that's odd... And quite pungent. Smoke and shoe polish. Perhaps some herbs in the background?
Machine shop smells after a minute. This is a very unique whisky. Not VERY much change after I added water.
Taste: Heavy smoke and tar, followed by sweetness. A big but smooth & short. Strong tannins in the dry finish.
Score: 86 points - it has some rough edges, but it's hugely enjoyable. A lovely liquorice sweetness taste...
Keeping in mind that this whisky is only five years old and crossed half the globe twice, that's impressive.
Bunnahabhain NAS 'Darach Ur' (46.3%, OB, for duty free, 1 litre, Bottled 2009)
Nose: Strong fruits. Pleasant but not very well defined. The faintest hint of smoke in the background.
The fruity elements feel slightly 'pressure cooked', but there's plenty of character. Almost like a fruit distillate.
Taste: Substantial, but fairly rough and hot. Woody. Unsweet. Not integrated enough to reach the 80's for me.
Score: 79 points - potent and scoring above average, but IMHO it's not quite worth the RRP of 48 Euro's.
This bottling has been matured in new oak casks; 'Darach Ur' is actually Gaelic for 'new oak'.
Bunnahabhain 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Coffee. Very sheavily sherried with smoky notes in the background. My kind of style, but it lacks complexity.
Taste: Very sherried with decent amounts of wood and smoke. Enjoyable tannins - but the mouth feel is rough.
A tad dry in the finish. My type of whisky, but it also has quite some rough edges that keep it in the lower 80's.
Score: 82 points - wow, they have really changed the profile of the Bunny - it is now a sherry monster.
Bunnahabhain 12yo 1997/2010 'Moine' (54%, Riverstown, C#5415, 259 Bts.)
Nose: Light and farmy. A touch of peat as well it seems. It feels quite young. Not as powerful as the palate.
Taste: Oy! Definitely peaty. Quite salty, but sweetness slowly blossoms as well. Smoky, medium dry finish.
I like the palate better than the nose, but it doesn't really respond at all to water. It loses a few points there.
Score: 82 points - so, what's that nonsense about Bunnahabhain being unpeated? When did that change?
Bunnahabhain 41yo 1968/2008 (41.2%, Adelphi, C#12401/3, 719 Bts.) - MISPRINT! ACTUALLY BTLD. 2010!
Nose: Enormously big, sweet and fruity. Cassis, Black berries. Spices, Organge zest. Christmas cake.
Some smoke and a whiff of strong Earl Grey tea. Wood too. Fantastic development, worthy of a gold medal.
Taste: Extremely woody, but not very much else happening until some tannins pop up at the end of the finish.
Score: 89 points - but based on the nose alone it would have made it well into the 90's.
Bunnahabhain NAS 'Toiteach' (46%, OB, Peated, Bottled 2009)
Nose: Feisty. Chloride. Farmy. Dry. Sweetens out a bit over time. A whiff of peat, growing stronger.
Not terribly complex, but it's the sort of profile that I enjoy quite a bit. Clean and dry, a bit like a Caol Ila.
Taste: Sweet for a few seconds, growing peatier and smokier after a second. The sweetness hangs around.
Diesel, anthracite - 'industrial' phenols rather than organic ones. So, a bit like 'bicycle repair shop'.
Score: 80 points - recommendable, although the light colour suggests it's fairly young.
Bunnahabhain 18yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2009)
Nose: Woody with evolved fruits; a classic profile. Subtle whiff of citrus in the background. Lovely!
A hint of bicycle repair shop. This one loses some steam after a few minutes, but it remains enjoyable.
Taste: Fruity, smooth start; evolving into a solid woody centre. Some tannins in the (initially) smooth finish.
Quite solid. There's a whiff of smoke at the end. The smoothness disappears at the very end, growing dry.
Score: 83 points - surprisingly potent. Clearly a few points 'better' than the 12yo of a few years ago.
So, I guess that makes it worth the higher price compared to the 12yo, Toiteach and Darach Ur.
Bunnahabhain 35yo 1974/2009 (56.6%, Adelphi, 200 Bts.)
Nose: Powerful fruits, polished wood and smoke. Cassis? Wonderful complexity and development. Rubber?
This profile is right up my alley, but I can see how the wood would be too dominant for some people.
Taste: Smoke and fruits with traces of antiquity. And loads of wood of course - chestnut and European oak?
A brilliant mouth feel; a combination of menthol freshness and warm tannins in the finish. A woody drought.
Score: 91 points - this is not for everybody, but if you can stand some wood the peppery twist is unique.
This one also made me realise that 'rubber' could be a marker in older versions of Bunnahabhain.
Bunnahabhain 34yo 1974/2008 (59.3%, The Perfect Dram, oloroso, 300 bottles)
Nose: Oooh! La! La! That's more like it... Wood and smoke. Chocolate. Freshly burnt coffee beans.
Mocca. Roasted nuts. Prune, lychee and loads of other fruits. What an excellent nose...
A lot of development over time, but chocolate remains the dominant factor - chocolate soufflé...
Taste: Extremely concentrated fruits. Excellent mouth feel. Liquorice. Smokier and woodier over time.
Brilliant mouth feel. Big, road and smoky with a fair amount of tannins in the finish. Great work...
Score: 93 points - wow, but once again not everybody might agree. I didn't dare to add water.
A really spectacular whisky that stays with you for a long time...
Bunnahabhain 31yo 1976 (47.9%, A. D. Rattray for Single & Single, Sherry Cask)
Nose: Light with a whiff of paint thinner. Passion fruits. Whiff of rubber? Sorrel? Hint of roses? Marzipan?
Appears very refined. Slowly climbs into the upper 80's based on growing complexity & development over time.
Taste: Soft start with passion fruits. Fits the nose like a glove. Hints of rubber and smoke in the woody finish.
Hints of honey and lemon with frequent perfomy notes popping up. This has an extremely smooth mouth feel.
Score: 86 points - although it ventures dangerously close to my appreciation threshold for perfumy at times.
Bunnahabhain 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2005)
Nose: Oil, quickly followed by organics. Very peculiar. A wine finished whisky? Fine white pepper. Malty.
Sweeter 'sake' notes after a few minutes. Bubblegum. Soap? Very freaky, but I have to admit I'm intrigued.
Taste: Fairly unpleasant start. Bitter. Eucalyptus. Cheap perfume. It loses quite some points on the palate!
Well, over time this became quite pleasant, actually. Weird organics. Almost better than average...
Score: 79 points - it falls from grace after a unique bouquet; based on the nose it could have been 83/84.
Bunnahabhain 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2001, 70cl)
Nose: Soft. Obvious sherry in the start - almost fruity. Alcoholic; a bit like rum.
Pinch of salt. Hint of oil after a while. Peat & sweet toffee notes. Not terribly expressive.
Taste: Very sherried. Salty, but not much power. Sour notes. Quite a mouth full...
Malty and a little sweet in the centre. Dry finish with some smoke. No peat.
Score: 80 points - almost a decade after my first dram I still love it.
Bunnahab(h)ain 20yo 1979/1999 (56.7%, Signatory Vintage, Cask #3184)
Nose: Quite sweet. Toffee. Organics. Some sherry. Tobacco? Some fruits too.
Taste: Sweet, smooth start. Malty, bitter centre. Feels softer than the high proof suggests.
After a few minutes the palate turns nasty and bitter. Can't hold a candle to the 12yo OB.
Score: 68 points - hardly worthy of a single cask treatment, methinks.
Bunnahabhain 25yo 1964/1990 (46%, Signatory Vintage, Distilled 30/11/1964, Bottled 2/1990)
Nose: Not unlike the sour mash and washbacks we sniffed during some distillery visits.
Yoghurt and passion fruit. Wonderful organics. Delicious. This is a malt to get lost in.
Taste: Bloody great - a world apart from Signatory's 20yo 1980 bottling
Score: 87 points - I personally felt this malt whisky was highly recommendable.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Bunnahabhain malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Bunnahabhain I tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of bottlings, including Bunnahabhain.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.