I have always thought that Islay whiskies are distinguished by peaty smokiness, so, with a preference for the lightness of Speyside and Highland malts, I have generally shied away from the bottles released by the distilleries in western Scotland. Over an afternoon spent with Bunnahabhain’s senior blender, Dr Kirstie McCallum, I came to realise that Islay whiskies offer so much more than the peat and smoke they are famous for, and I have developed a taste for the syrupy sweetness that is another signature of malts from this region.
McCallum, whose doctorate is in chemistry, is part of a growing community of science graduates who choose to lend their skills to the drinks industry — Glenmorangie’s head of maturing stocks, Brendan McCarron, and Rémy Martin’s cellar master, Baptiste Loiseau, come from science backgrounds as well. It is a trend that McCallum describes as “rather lovely”.
“When you think about it, whisky-making is all about chemistry, so when tradition and new technology can work hand in hand, you get a clearer, bigger picture. But chemistry will never take over the human nose — it just helps,” she says.
A petite redhead with an easy laugh, McCallum joined the drinks industry only because she could not find work in pharmaceuticals and, today, she is very grateful for that twist of fate. “This is such a fascinating industry. There is so much history and heritage and once I joined it, I knew I would never leave,” she smiles. Her first role was with Diageo, after which she spent considerable time with Chivas Brothers and Allied Domecq. In Burn Stewart — which is owned today by South African sprits giant Distell — McCallum was master blender and then global ambassador for Black Bottle, Bunnahabhain, Deanston, Scottish Leader and Tobermory.
“Bunnahabhain is the only Islay malt produced using spring water. We get our water from the Margadale spring, which comes to the surface in the hills above the distillery. Bunnahabhain is the unpeated Islay. All our core expressions for Bunnahabhain — the 12, 18 and 25 Year Old — are unpeated, although we do make a peated spirit for a very short period every year called Bunnahabhain Moine, which can be found in Bunnahabhain Toiteach and Ceobanach,” she begins, rattling off this information with a rehearsed ease.
I meet McCallum at single malt speciality store, Single & Available. Its founder, Shareen Yew, tells me that Bunnahabhain’s whiskies won a slew of awards in last year’s World Whisky Awards, scooping several top prizes in the Scotch Single Malt Category — including Best Scotch Islay Single Malt. Interesting, considering that Bunnahabhain — an unpeated whisky — won the top award from a peated whisky region.
McCallum has arranged for a tasting of some wee drams, beginning with the 12 Year Old. “All Bunnahabhains have a taste of nuts, which is a key characteristic, and there is dried fruit from the sherry casks. They are all really nice sipping drams,” she says. “The 12 Year Old is our flagship, our main expression. We hand-select the casks for this, which are both bourbon and sherry casks, to make sure that the taste is consistent.”
We end up trying out four Bunnahabhain whiskies, and I enjoy them all for their dried fruit flavours and a slightly salty tinge that comes naturally due to the distillery’s location by the coast. “When people think of Islay, they tend to only think of Ardbeg, Lagavulin or Laphroaig. But when you get behind the smoke in those whiskies, they are actually quite sweet. Bunnahabhain shows that there is more than just smoke with Islay whiskies — it shows off those gorgeous sweet flavours in all their glory,” McCallum says.
If Islay whiskies are peaty and smoky, how does Bunnahabhain fit into the bigger picture? “We get the best of both worlds, I reckon,” she muses. “We have Islay drinkers who like Bunnahabhain, and you have people who generally don’t like smoky whiskies drinking our whiskies too. The geographical separations are a handy tool or guide, but really, I think whisky is a journey and you should try everything and learn about your own palate in that way. Bunnahabhain is an explorer’s whisky, for someone who is agreeable to trying something different that is unlike others of its kind.”
Pronounced “stew-rahdur” and meaning helmsman in Scottish Gaelic, Stiùireadair is the newest member of the Bunnahabhain crew. For this blend, McCallum selected first and second-fill sherry casks with the spirit of varying ages and warehouse locations to construct a dram that truly exposes the coastal nature of the Bunnahabhain single malt whisky, while not losing the sherry influence everyone knows and loves in the famous 12 Year Old. With a brackish, coastal tinge, this amber-coloured malt boasts a nose of creamy caramel with hints of brine and vanilla, ending on the palate with delicious hints of dried fruit.
12 Year Old
As the original member of the brand’s current Core Range, the Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old was launched in 1979. It sets the tone and is the benchmark for the rest of the range. A combination of sherry, bourbon and whisky re-fill casks are chosen to achieve the perfect balance of the characteristic nutty and sherry flavours of Bunnahabhain, and the resulting whisky is glorious — a fresh and aromatic nose settles into nutty flavours laced with vanilla on the palate and lingers with a beautifully rich finish.
18 Year Old
Aged purely in former Olo Roso casks, this is a Bunnahabhain family favourite and demand frequently outstrips supply. It is intensely warming — with dried fruit, sherry, toffee and spices leading to a delicious honeyed nuttiness and the slightest hint of sea salt. Indeed, this frequently awarded whisky bears a rich mahogany colour that reflects its exclusive sherry cask maturation, while the tender salty tang it leaves on your palate is a reminder of its coastal location in Islay.
Finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks since 2014, following 11 years in second-fill sherry barrels, this limited-edition release owes its distinctive flavour to a perfect marriage of Bunnahabhain’s malts and the sweet, syrupy notes drawn from the wood of the casks themselves. After a rich bouquet of toffee, sweet dried fruit and chocolate, this syrupy and smooth whisky boasts notes of raisins and sultanas, rich toffee and even more chocolate.