I usually have a bottle of a Speyside or Highland in my rather cramped liquor cabinet for those gentler souls who prefer a whisky that’s milder than my usual suspects—all Island malts. I’ve always been a guy who liked BBQ, spicy Thai and Szechuan, hoppy beers–you get the idea. I go for big taste. So when I started engaging with whisky, I blew quickly through the Glenlivet and Glenfiddich 12-year offerings. They did not exactly turn on my taste buds, and for the cost ($50-ish a bottle where I live), that just was not going to cut it. My buds gravitated to the bigger, smokier and peatier tastes of the Island malts.
However, I recognize quality and consider The Macallan 12 a benchmark for well-made whisky. That’s a Speysider I keep around for guests who recoil at my Laphroaig and Ardbeg. When I’m in a calm mood I like a dram of the Mac and when I received a bottle of the Cardhu as a birthday gift this year, I was well impressed. This is crass of me to admit, but being a bit obsessed with cataloging my experiences, I checked out the price. About $42 locally, vs. mid $50 range for Macallan. A nice surprise.
When you see Aberlour’s A’Bunadh, it is quite obvious this is not your run-of-the-mill whisky: the deep tawny-red color is highlighted by a clear glass bottle, short with a high shoulder. The spirit is clear, and when backlighted has tones of polished oak, but when in shadow, the whisky looks like an alchemist’s reagent for making dragon blood. Or maybe it is dragon’s blood—it’s strong enough! Bottled typically around 60% (my bottling, #46, is at 60.4%), A’bunadh has enough kick to get anyone’s attention. This is a spirit to be approached with respect.
Tobermory is one of those was-mothballed, now-resuscitated distilleries which is now producing a high quality product. It’s considered an island distillery, being on the isle of Mull (north of Islay and Jura, south of Skye), but the style isn’t like what we think of as an island malt. It does not have the medicinal quality of a Talisker or Caol Ila, nor the peat of an Ardbeg, nor the smoke of a Laphroaig or Lagavulin. In fact, Tobermory reminds me of a Speyside or lowland malt (as we’ll see, this is no great surprise).
I first heard about Bunnahabhain while walking around Edinburgh back in 1992. I had been making my way down to high street from Nelson’s column on a Sunday. Not much was open, the skies were leaden, the city quiet. It wasn’t late but the light dim — it was November in Scotland, and that means short days. I was making the most of a day off after having done some business with Heriot-Watt University. Heriot-Watt is notable for being the college where James Bond went to school. I heard that from another Bond fan, I’m not entirely sure this is so, but we’ll let it go for now. What is certain is that they are involved in the country’s business education and especially the whisky business. They even had their own bottling of whisky, and I brought back a sample. I have the bottle still, but the spirit is long gone, so no solid review of that, though I remember not being too taken by it at the time.