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Classic whisky: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old

I don’t really have a ‘house whisky’ because, well, my house is mostly whisky. 

But if I were to have one ol’ reliable that would be my house pour, Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old would be on the list of candidates for that prestigious position.

Bunnahabhain (pronounced boo-na-ha-ven) has an outstanding core range – Toiteach a Dhà, Stiùireadair, 18 Year Old Whisky, 25 Year Old, 30 Year Old, and 40 Year Old – as well as its excellent cask strength series, top-notch experimental cask releases, peaty Mòine (pronounced Moi-gna) whiskies, and its Islay festival editions. 

And yet I always come back to Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old. So let’s talk about this lovely whisky, covering a little history of the Islay distillery, how it makes its whisky, the story of the 12 Year Old, and how it tastes.

Our classic whisky of focus is Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old!

History of Bunnahabhain Distillery

Let’s simplify the distillery history and do a quick timeline of owners, closures, and notable events:

1881 – Bunnahabhain distillery is founded by William Robertson (of Robertson & Baxter) in partnership with Greenlees Bro, who invest £30,000 (over £3m in today’s money). A village is founded to house the workers and a pier is built to allow the import of casks and barely. 

1883 – Production officially begins at the distillery, about 900,000 litres a year – making it one of the largest operating distilleries in Scotland.

1887 – Bunnahabhain merges with Glenrothes – forming Highland Distillers [now Edrington].

1930 – The distillery undergoes a short closure due to the Great Depression. It reopens in 1937.

1942-44 – Bunnahabhain closes due to World War Two.

1950s – Water source changes from Loch Staoinsha to Margdale Springs, a crystal clear water with no peat.

1960 – A road is built to the distillery to ensure supplies don’t only arrive by boat

1963 – The floor maltings are removed and the number of stills is doubled from two to four, expanding wash still capacity to 35,400 litres and 15,500 for the spirit still. Six new, larger washbacks are also introduced, each with a capacity of 100,000 litres. The seven-tonne cast iron mash tun is replaced by one capable of holding 15 tonnes of mash. Overall, production capacity increased to 2.5 million litres.

1964 – The Porteus Mill still used today is installed on 10 March.  

The Bunnahabhain Distillery

1970s – The first Bunna single malts start to be bottled by independent bottlers. Very rare to see any of these now… 

1979 – Bunnahabhain bottles whisky under its brand for the first time – with Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old.

1982 – The distillery is mothballed.

1984 – Production restarts at a smaller scale.

1993 – The last boat carrying supplies for whisky making docked at the distillery.

1999 – The mash tun is replaced with a 15-tonne stainless steel, copper top mashed tun.

2003 – Burn Stewart Distillers buys the distillery from Edrington.

2006 – A major rebrand sees the launch of Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old, as well as a redesign of the 12-Year-Old. 

2010 – Bunnahabhain whiskies return to being bottled with natural colour, non-chill-filtered, and at 46.3 ABV%.

2013 – Burns Stewart goes bust in 2009, four years later the receivers sell Bunnahabhain to South African distributor Distell.

2017 – Packaging is further modernised and the portfolio is extended as a £11 million investment is announced to transform the site into a ‘world-class whisky destination’. 

2021 – A new visitor centre is opened after shoreline warehouses were demolished in 2019 to make room.

Bunnahabhain Distillery is well worth a visit

How Bunnahabhain Distillery makes whisky

Lovely stuff. Let’s get on to the whisky-making then!

Water, peat, and barley

Bunnahabhain is the only distillery on Islay to use pure, spring water, drawn from the Margadale River via pipes that lead directly to the distillery. This water is untouched by peat, unlike much of the natural water sources on Islay. Previously the water used for mashing and cooling the condensers came from Loch Staoinsha which flowed over peat and so had a light brown colour. The impact of this peaty water on the character of the resulting whisky would have been negligible, however. The newer water source makes more sense because Bunnahabhain means “mouth of the river”, so it’s a neater fit all around. 

The distillery uses two types of barley for whisky production, both from Simpsons Berwick Maltings – an unpeated Concerto strain for the majority of its output (about 80%), and a smaller percentage of peated Concerto (to 35-40ppm by Port Ellen Maltings) for the Mòine whiskies. The peated whisky distillation runs for about 10 weeks a year. Before the 1960s, the whisky made here was peated. 

In his famous 1887 book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, Alfred Barnard observed that “nothing but peat is used in the kilns, which is dug in the district, and is of exceptionally fine quality.” He added the peat was well seasoned so it was “free from the sulphurous matter which it contains when newly dug.” The decision to move away from peated whisky – presumably to meet market demands when the distillery was selling almost all its stock to blends – has paid off long-term. Today the distillery stands out, alongside Bruichladdich, as an Islay whisky that isn’t peated.  

Mash, wort, wash

All barley is ground into grist in a 1964 Porteus Mill (machine No. MM-RB-25) and then transported into the mash tun. The mash tun that replaced the old 7 or 8-tonne mash tun in 1963 was designed to take 15 tonnes, but when distillery manager Andrew Brown started working there in 1988, the mash size was 12.52 tonnes and the distillery was using 50,000 litres of water for its first water. During the summer of 1999, the cast iron 15-tonne mash tun was inspected and it was noticed that cracks were developing in the cast iron. There were two options: 1) lower the mash size and 2) brace around where the cracks were. The bracing took place, but after some time Highland Distillers decided to stop using the mash tun and replace the cast iron. The cast iron was removed, and a new stainless-steel shell was installed with a sloping floor. The old rake, copper dome, floor plates, mashing machine and sparge balls all stayed in place, meaning it was essentially the bottom shell that was replaced.

The sides then needed to be insulated as the stainless steel was cooling down the mash too quickly and causing it to set, affecting draining. Another design issue that arose was the old plates did not fit the new mash tun properly and solids were getting under the false floor, causing issues with clarity of wort and with the heat exchanger blowing the rubbers out the sides. That meant having to stop, open up, clean and put it back together once a mash or half a dozen times in one water. “The floor plates would open up inside the mash tun and leave a 1 to 2-inch gap allowing solids through under the floor and as the floor sloped to outside and the wort was drawn off at the lowest point all these solids would get to the underback. The mash tun also had a tumbler-style arm a bit like arms with a plough except we had no plough each arm had a plate that skimmed the floor and pushed the draff out the mash tun,” explains Brown. “Eventually, there was an unlucky event which caused the floor to open and the rake arm to get into this opening and lifting all the plates the rake managed to turn about 200° of the mash tun before it was stopped. This event shut the distillery for 16 weeks and at a significant cost as some of the plates were damaged beyond repair, they all got replaced with new stainless steel narrow gap plates that eradicated the gap and stopped the solids from getting to the underback for some lucky event for others not so lucky but the operators had an easier job after the replacement of the floor”.

The mash bill stayed the same until 2022 when it was increased slowly up to 15 tonnes again. This larger mash caused the raking mechanism to fail due to age and several worn parts failing. This resulted in the rake being replaced with a plough design which also could not handle the mash size of 15 tonnes. “We continually broke this system and it resulted in our mash size dropping to between 8 and 9 tonnes. For 12.52 tonnes we filled the washback to a level of 66,500 litres. With the change to a lower size mash we now put two mashes into one washback and have a fill volume of 60-70,000 litres,” Brown says. “With the 12.52 tonnes mash bill size, we had an estimated output of 2.7 million litres a year. This year we are looking at 3.5 million. We can mash slightly faster. have higher gravities. and roughly run mash 207 tonnes per week against 162.76 with 12.52-tonne mashes”.

The grist receives four waters in this huge tun, the first two at temperatures of 64º C and 80º C and the last two at (90º C). The first two waters go to the washback, while the last two get recycled into the first water of the next mash cycle. The mash cycle lasts about 12 hours and creates a clear wort, helped by the wash passing through an underback, where suspended particles settle out. Clearer wort = a lighter cleaner style of whisky. The wort is then drained through the perforated floor of the mash tun into the six Oregon Pine washbacks with a capacity of 66,500 litres. There are two fermentation cycles here, designed to optimize the efficiency of the wash stills. The first ferment on Monday and Tuesday is around 48 hours to allow the wash to be distilled that same week. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, fermentation lasts 110 hours to be ready for distillation the following week. The two are blended before casking.

Whisky casks at Bunnahabhain Distillery

Big stills, light whisky

After fermentation, the wash at Bunnahabhain Distillery is moved to its enormous stills, some of the largest in the Scotch whisky industry and the tallest on Islay, standing at 20 feet 10 inches. The distillery houses two large wash stills, each with a capacity of 35,356 litres, and two onion-shaped spirit stills, each capable of holding 15,546 litres. Together, these stills produce approximately 2.5 million litres of spirit annually.

Bunnahabhain Distillery is distinguished by its relatively low fill charge in the distillation process. The wash stills are filled to 16,625 litres, just 47% of its full capacity, and the spirit stills are filled to about 60% capacity. This method, aided by the sills’ extended swan neck, enhances copper contact and in turn increases reflux, resulting in a lighter spirit. This technique also influences the peated whiskies, making them drier and less heavy than the typical oily, pungent varieties.

The heart cut of the distillation, which will become the new make, ranges from 72% to 64% ABV, with an average ABV of 68.5%. This process takes approximately two to three hours and follows a foreshot run, which lasts about 10 minutes. For the peated whiskies, the heart cut is slightly broader, ranging from 72% to 61.5% ABV. Both peated and unpeated whiskies are then casked at an average ABV of 63.5%. After the heart cut is collected, the remaining heads and tails are returned for redistribution.

Casks and clean energy

The new make is transferred from the spirit receiver to the spirit vat where the Margadale River spring water is added. The spirit is then added to casks, predominately American oak bourbon barrels and sherry casks, as well as some occasional more exotic casks (Amontillado, Canasta, Calvados, Madeira, Manzanilla, Marsala, Port, Sauternes, Spanish Oak…). The warehouses, some of which date back to 1881, can hold 20,700 butts and every drop of single malt is matured here. The warehouses face the coastline and there is a notable salinity in Bunna whisky, noted particularly in casks from warehouse no.7. 

The distillery now has a biomass power plant behind it, built by owners Distell International in partnership with AMP Clean Energy and Dallol Energy. It burns wood chips and draff to generate steam energy and save 5500 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, representing a reduction of 95% and making Bunnahabhain the first distillery on Islay with a net-zero distillation process. The distillery won the Sustainable Development of the Year Award at the Scottish Green Energy Award 2022.

The person behind the creation of Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old: master blender Julieann Fernandez-Thomson

The story of Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old

It’s this process that creates the flagship Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old. It was first released in 1979 in a 750ml emerald green bottle with the famous seafaring Scot label, depicting ‘The helmsman’, wearing a tartan bonnet, searching for home. Until this point, almost all the distillate made at Bunnahabhain went into blends such as Black Bottle, Cutty Sark, and Famous Grouse. Save for a small number of independent bottlings in the 1970s. Good luck finding those now. 

It was the only age statement single malt release available from Bunnahabhain and for several years remained largely unchanged it seems, aside from a couple of minor cosmetic changes on the label. In 1991, the ABV dropped to 40% and the volume moved in line with the standard European spirit bottle size, 700ml. In the outstanding A History of Bunnahabhain 12, it’s suggested that artificial colouring and chill filtering were also implemented at this time. In 2006, a major rebrand altered the label and bottle shape, while also adding 18-year-old and 25-year-old age statements to the core range.

A much bigger relaunch followed in the summer of 2010 and saw smoked glass replace the old emerald green bottle, the ABV increase to 46.3% ABV, and the bottling without chill-filtration or added colouring. Further modernisation came in 2016, giving us the bottle we see today. I’d guess that the whisky’s standards would be as high now as it has ever been, with its highest bottling strength aided by modern production techniques and considerable investment into quality casks. But I’ve never tried a Bunna 12 from prior to 2016, so you’d have to tell me. 

We have the whisky priced at £42.99 (at the time of writing) which is about the market going rate for a 12-year-old single malt Scotch whisky when you do a few comparisons. This means people can afford the whisky. It’s a simple point, but cost is a big barrier for entry newcomers. The profile of the spirit too is welcoming, with an alluring balance of fruit, nut, vanilla sweetness, and maritime qualities. This is a good whisky to recommend to somebody unconvinced about whisky. Having said that, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate this single malt. A trio of factors make this whisky what it is: 1) it’s unpeated. 2) the well-balanced maturation in both bourbon and sherry casks. 3) the bottling at 46.3% with no chill-filtration or added colouring. It’s a super flagship for a super distillery and a whisky I come back to time and time again for good reason.

Right, enough of all that. Let’s have a taste!

Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old tasting note:

Nose: Fresh, sweet, and a little floral. There’s seaweed, rich malt, dried fruit, camphor, caramel, chocolate orange, and apple poached in cinnamon.

Palate: Soft and supple with a nutty, sherried quality leading among vanilla, marmalade, sultanas, and a bright coastal element.

Finish: Mochaccino, dried herbs, Christmas cake spice, and a balanced salty tang.

The post Classic whisky: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old appeared first on Master of Malt Blog.

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