Whisky and Words Number 50: Bunnahabhain 12 re-review!

It’s been a long time since I reviewed my old fave Bunna 12, and since then they have revamped the packaging, making it a good choice for the 50th review. The new packaging introduces a new style, new palette and a new Bunna captain as well.

The new 12. We expect great things.

Of the whisky inside, the features remain the same: 46.3% ABV, natural color, non-chill-filtered, “Double Matured in Ex Bourbon and Ex Sherry Casks.” What does that mean? The folks at Distell tell me Bunnahabhain “is made using 70% sherry casks with 30% bourbon casks, these casks are married (mixed) together in a vatting.” In this case, both sherry and bourbon casks will have been aged for at least 12 years. This is contrast to other part-bourbon, part-sherry offerings, like Glenmorangie’s Lasanta, where they start in bourbon casks and move to sherry for a final (shorter) maturation. So, Bunna is not actually ‘double matured,’ but the Bunnahabhain approach should result in a richer, more sherry-influenced profile.

Along with the new owners, Bunnahabhain have a new distillery manager since I bought the old bottle pictured below, so there may be more afoot than labeling changes.

Bunna vs. Bunna, new version on right. Click for hi-res.

Let’s start with the bottle. More of the same: a stout, deep shouldered, dark-green bottle adorned with embossed leaves. As you can see on the photo (left, click for hi-res) they present the Bunnahabhain name with a clearer, larger font and with more contrast. The top label is easier on the eyes and focused on the product: “Islay single malt scotch whisky.” The big ’12’ has been moved to the lower label and the Roman ’12’ ditched altogether. It’s a clear and effective modernization of a classic label, yet still maintains the old vibe, thanks to the scripted font and the old sailor badge.

Given the excellent re-do of the top label I find the choice for the lower tag odd. They’ve gone for a harder-to-read gold and red (!) on red palette which I find hard to read. The ’12’ is clear, but little else.

Has Haddock got the job of steering Bunnahabhain?

The doughty captain has been shrunken somewhat, with more focus on the ship’s wheel. Are they trying to tell us something? His stance has changed: whereas before he looked lost, perhaps trying to spy some hidden cove, now he’s stern and fiercely gripping said wheel. They’ve darkened his beard, too. His new expression and the new hat he sports reminds me of Captain Haddock, which I find humorous.

(For those of you not familiar with Captain Haddock, he’s a character from the ‘Tin-tin’ comic books by the WW2-era artist Hergé. Haddock is a nautical man who is overly fond of whisky, though later he’s the poster boy for the Society of Sober Sailors. An odd choice all around! Here’s a close-up of the new guy and his comic book persona. Photo right).

Get to the point, man!

Enough of the design, it’ll serve. What about the whisky? When we visited in 2017 there was much talk of anticipated investment in the distillery from the new owners, Distell. From the Bunna web site, we can see they’ve not cleaned up the walls or whitewashed as brightly as Laphroaig has, and the photo of the still house bears evidence of the unadorned, unpolished stills. That’s fine with me, as the outside of the still or the walls don’t affect the taste of the whisky. However, there is mention of a new visitors’ center. No evidence points to impact on production by Distell. Let’s take a look at the actual spirit.

The old (l) from 2 years ago vs the new (r), noticeably lighter.

As you can see from the photo above, there are two shades’ difference between the older 12 (l) and the new release (r), the older being darker. I expect some variation from batch to batch as Bunnahbhain is not a huge producer; they have but 4 stills, same as Lagavulin (which has smaller stills). Still, that’s a surprising difference in color and I’ll be interested to see if future bottles look the same. The color change might indicate increased re-use of barrels or variation in the seasoning of the sherry casks. (Sherry barrels used in modern Scotch production are ‘purpose-built’; interesting article here.)

A fine looking dram.

On the nose, I find the same earthy peat, strawberry and maritime aromas in both. The old 12 has a creamy toffee and cotton candy thing going, unctuous mouthfeel and a gentle oak finish. I find the newer batch more oak-tannin-forward. It’s not the same luxurious Bunna I remember. Combine that with the color change and I suspect we’re seeing a reduction in the amount of sherry cask aging. Or maybe they are using more European oak (spicier) for the sherry-finish casks?

My whisky-loving wife prefers the new Bunna. She recognizes that the tannins are spicier and more forward, but says there’s less of ‘that motor oil taste’ which of course is the touch of peat smoke Bunna uses (they are an Islay whisky after all). For me, though, the older Bunna was my ‘candy for grownups’ treat, a smoother, gentler dram, and as I finish the last of it for this review, I’m a bit sad. Things change, I know, but there was nothing like the old Bunna and I will miss it.

Bunnahabhain Single Malt, 12 years, 46% ABV (newest batch 2019)

Nose: Sherry and malt, some strawberry, mineral earth, salty maritime aromas and the barest hint of smoke.
Palate: Still has toffee and strawberry but the cotton candy is muted; the mid-palate is less full and more bitter. The tannins are spicier, and it has lost some of the smooth mouthfeel of the older batch from a few years ago.
Finish: The cotton candy aroma is still there, but we’ve lost some toffee and the finish is quite a bit more bitter. In fact the bitterness masks the nice maritime finish the older one ends with.

Bottom Line: I’m hoping this is an off batch. I have always thought of Bunnahabhain as my luxurious birthday-treat dram. That rich toffee, flavorful sherry finish and creaminess on the palate always delighted me. At $75 a bottle, you expect an experience that’s richer than say the solid-but-unspectacular Highland Park 12 (another sherry-casked island whisky). In fact, the Bunna 12 still offers a singular experience planted solidly between the $55-ish 12-years and the older (Lagavulin 16) or specialty (Ardbeg Corryvrecken) drams that push close to the $100 mark. It’s just a little less luxurious now.

Bunnahabhain earns it’s maritime reputation.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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