An Islay whisky made from unpeated malt? In the context of single malt whisky this is a stroke of positioning genius. The whisky is Bunnahabhain of course, and it has been as intrinsically and intelligently set apart as could be imagined. I don’t know whether this orchestration was deliberate or a fluke of circumstance, but as a student of marketing I find it quite beautiful to behold. It would come as no surprise then if I were to reveal that I have always had a predisposed affinity for Bunna. I sought it out since I first became aware of it, and I quickly came to the conclusion that it was damned good. Now, much to the delight of all Bunna fans, it has ostensibly become even better. Last week, at an elegant lunch held at Five Flies restaurant, the brand officially launched its new range of unchillfiltered whiskies in South Africa.
A point of order quickly: Bunnahabhain is pronounced Bũnna-ha-venn. You might well have known that the gaelic bh is a phonetic v, but were you aware of the nasal u? I wasn’t. You live you learn, and if you can do the learning whilst eating good food and sipping great whisky…well that’s just a bonus.
It’s been my impression that whisky events have increasingly tended to be diluted by all sorts of distractions. It’s understandable – there’s a lot of competition for people’s short attention spans – but it can all become a bit tiresome at times. This particular function was a refreshing return to the basics, played out with gravitas. The focus was kept firmly where it should be – on the whiskies, no gimmickry required. We were hosted by Brian Glass and Pierre Meintjes: two of the most experienced whisky men in the country, boasting between them some 75 years in the business. Pierre is in fact known as “Mr. Whisky” in local circles so we could not have hoped for a more credible and authoritative presenter to conduct our tasting. If you’re South African and interested in whisky you’d do well to attend one of Pierre’s events and partake of of his abundant knowledge.
Despite my enthusiasm for this whisky, the realities of my personal budgetary environment meant that I had only been acquainted with the previous chillfiltered 12YO, so it was a real treat to get to taste both the new version, as well as the rest of the amplified core range. I found the 12 and 18 YO’s to be similar, with flavours typical of a sherry cask influence. Bunnahabhain has actually taken the unusual initiative of disclosing its cask profiles – the 12YO is made from 25% sherry cask whisky, and 75% bourbon cask whisky, the 18YO has a 40:60 split, and the 25YO sits at 10:90 – and I applaud them for it. Their transparency in this regard shows the respect that they have for their consumers. Would that this practice were more prevalent amongst other distilleries and bottlers. Anyhow, whilst the two variants are similar, the 12YO is a more restrained. The 18YO is sweeter and woodier with a little bit of salt evident, as one might expect given its specification, its age, and the location of the maturation warehouses (abutting the ocean). Interestingly Pierre mentioned that it was developed as an ideal whisky to accompany a cigar. I have a Partegas hibernating somewhere, so I’m dead keen to put their efforts the test (budget permitting). The 25YO was distinctly different: creamy, rich, caramelized, and exceptionally well balanced. I enjoyed it tremendously but at R2k odd a pop I don’t expect it to be crossing my lips again anytime soon (budget definitely won’t be permitting).
I’ve lingered about dispensing pleasantries, and sincerely so, but in the process I’ve been skirting around the meat of the matter. The launch was an uncomplicated affair – a judicious introduction to the reincarnation of a range of superb whiskies from an iconic distillery – so I felt it deserved an uncomplicated retelling. The elephant in the room is chillfiltration, and it’s a messy beast of a thing. Given the premise for this launch it can’t be avoided, but it can be postponed. I’ll leave you for the moment with my pleasant memories of an excellent lunch, enjoyed with some excellent people, accompanied by some excellent whiskies. If you have the appetite join me next time as I wade into some muddy, or should I say hazy, waters.
Photos courtesy of Bunnahabhain and Nico Gründlingh at Image Solutions.