Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Bunnahabhain 12 years old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

"I am taking the kids to the cottage for the weekend."

I am standing in the kitchen.  Hands in my pockets.  Still listening.

"You don't have to come, if you don't want to.  I know you have some chores to do."

And then she added with a wry smile, "please try to contain your excitement."

I sputter, trying to hold back the biggest smile spreading across my face with all the subtlety of a Howard Stern interview of  a porn starlet that reportedly slept with Charlie Sheen.

You see, two of my kids, ages 5 and 7, were in the habit of hanging on the French door, separating the dining room from the kitchen, by the door knob, and swinging back and forth like shutters in a Kansas tornado.  My other daughter is 15 years old, and far too cool for such nonsense.

Anyway, the door was in need of repair, as it was partially pulled off the hinges.  A carpenter was coming in to replace with a new one that would also have to be painted.  Plus, he was going to nail some flashing that was loose on the roof.  It would be really great if the kids weren't around to interfere with all that, I suggested in a low and hopefully hynotic voice over morning coffee to the wife (she hates being called "the wife").  I let my highly persuasive argument percolate in her mind, employed Jedi knight mind tricks, tried to put her in a superconscious state of mind that Reveen would be proud of, and other mental slight of hand, before gradually giving serious thought to bribery, as I stirred my coffee.

Fortunately, I didn't have to open my wallet (her's is fatter than mine anyway).  By Friday night, she had come around to my way of thinking.  So, while she would spend weekend evenings gazing at a seaside sunset (see above), I had my work cut out for me.  I had to do what I like best.  Organize a whisky tasting, but on very short notice.

 Islay Whisky Tasting & Suggested Hors d'oeuvres
A couple of late night emails, frantic phone calls, and madly typed texts, and I had my fellow whisky dogs trotting over for Saturday night.

I always try to have a theme for a whisky tasting, which is generally determined by what I have on hand or members of the whisky club can bring.   I settled on an Islay theme.  I had Caol Ila 12, Bunnahabhain 12 and whisky dog Ken would bring Laphroaig 18.  But, it takes more than a few good single malts to make a successful whisky tasting.  You need suitable food  or hors d'oeuvre pairings.

Since the whisky tasting was taking place at 8pm, there was no need for serious food pairings.  What was a prerequisite for a successful evening were light appetizers that compliment the featured whiskies. Crusty French bread  and water might be appreciated by prisoners on Devil's Island, but not by I and the whisky hounds.

So, I have an easy- to-make hors d'oeuvre for you to consider.  Simply take a plain cracker.  I use Carr's Table Water Crackers.  Spread some plain cream cheese on it, place a slice of smoked salmon on top and finish with a single caper, as pictured above.  Take a sip of a nice Islay malt, and then a bite of that properly dressed cracker and you have a nice melding of marine flavors.

What I like about this appetizer is that it does not overpower the taste of the whisky.  It would be a mistake to take a bite of Danish blue cheese, and then knock back some Caol Ila or the even more sublime Bunnahabhain.  The strong cheese taste would overpower the malt and muddy its subtleties.

Bunnahabhain 12 years Islay Single Malt


Natural.  No caramel E150a here.  Surprisingly light gold, hay.  Why surprising?  I guess so many 12 yr single malts are colored darker.

Nose (undiluted)
Light peat, garden fresh mint, piping hot brewed black tea, and a touch of loam.  Sherry lurking in the background.  Sherry?  Yeah, in an Islay malt?  I know.  Bewildering, but more about that later.

Palate (undiluted)
Spicy dark red fruits of plum, Moroccan dates, figs delivered courtesy of aging in fine sherry casks.  But, this is not simply a sherried dram!  The sherry notes are lightly peated.  The peat action is not your usual over-the-top Islay blast but rather evoking pleasing dry, flint-like, weathered beach stone, graphite taste.

Finish (undiluted)
Sweet malt lingers with oak, tarragon and rosemary.  Wet wood beach bonfire smoke too.  A faint echo of peat.

General Impressions
Whisky dog Ken astutely pointed out that in a blind tasting this would not easily be recognized as an Islay malt.  A lot of sherry that melds perfectly with peat and sea salt.  That alone does not suggest the stereotypical Islay that is enormously dominated by notes of phenols, hospital bandages, ointment, iodine and powerful, in-your-face beach bonfire smoke.

Bunnahabhain takes the Islay malt classic and mixes things up with sherry accented by sweet malty action before a peculiar, what I can only describe as flint-like or stone taste, but all in a good way as far as I am concerned.  I think this stone/flint action is probably contributed to by the sherry and oak casks.  I like it because it is really different, but I am sure some readers may find it a bit odd.  Kinda like the humor of Andy Kaufman.  You are a fan of non-linear comedy or you aren't.

High ABV
At 46.3% I was expecting this to pack a serious wallop and be maybe a little too strong.  Not the case at all.  No raw alcohol or unrefined spirit taste to be found.  Bunnahabhain is remarkably smooth with a medium body, not heavy, but not light either.  You could add water if you want, but not necessary.

Not Well Known
Bunnahabhain is not a well known Islay malt.  Probably because it is one of the least peated Islays out there, and I suspect in the past much of the distillery production was for blends, most notably Black Bottle.  Nevertheless, you should seek this malt out and give it a go.  It does taste of the sea and other maritime flavors with the addition of sherry.  If you can get it for around $55-$60 a bottle, you are doing well.

Well, it's Sunday morning now.  I better head to the cottage and take in the Sunday evening sunset with my very significant other, otherwise I will be meditating on a view from the dog house come Monday morning.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Reveen poster image is widely available on the web without attribution as to its creator.  Used in this post  for artistic and literary purposes only.  All other photos taken by yours truly. 


  1. I am referred to as *the wife* and I take it as title of authority and respect. So there.


  2. Great review - I've read online (so may be true...may not be true) that the malted barley used in this isn't peated, rather the water runs through peat bogs and this is the only peat influence it has. True or not...I don't know. However, I agree with you - quite a good/interesting whisky. Bunna 12 is a staple in my house. I include it in tastings of sherried whiskies as a nice change of pace...yet one that still fits the profile. Usually $50 in Cleveland. Cheers.

    1. You may be correct, but I am not sure. I thought Bunnahabhain 12 was composed of lightly peated barley. I am not sure, but I do know a reader who does know. JK, if you are reading, please let us know.

    2. I just bought a bottle at Spec's in Dallas for $39. The salesman said exactly the same thing. It is not peated the subtle peat comes from the water used running through the peat bogs.

    3. $39 is excellent value! Great bargain!

      This is a very different malt. Unique and not comparable to any other malt. Hopefully you will enjoy it!

      Maybe other Dallas readers will give it a go at that great price.

    4. Yup, the barely is not peated at all and they use water that has no peat influence also. I've heard they went the extra mile to make this whisky taste as peat-free as possible. I like it regardless and I'm a Laphroaig 10 fan; my favorite Islay whisky thus far. The Bunnahabain 12 is the best I've tasted besides the Laphroaig 10.

  3. Jason, I've always enjoyed your blog, and not just because you liked the Bunny 12 either. This malt hits that balanced "center spot" on my persoanl malt whisky wheel. It has got a bit of everything, it has not got too much of any one thing, it's not particularly challenging, and yet it's not too simple for this experienced palate. Goldilocks's favorite perhaps ("just right") ? Almost always on hand here for offering. I have never figured out why it doesn't sell better. The malt is peated, lightly compared to most offerings from Islay and decently well-peated compared to most from the Highlands and Speyside. JK

  4. Where on earth do they come up with names like Bunnyhubby for a scotch. LOL!

    Try spicy Indian food at your next tasting, it pairs well with scotch.

  5. Once long ago as a young entrepreneur on my first business trip, I found myself one evening on Edinburgh's High street, standing outside a (unfortunately closed) whisky shop. As I looked at the impressive forest of unfamiliar bottles through the big plate glass window, a Scotsman happened along and stopped to stare longingly. We chatted a bit, and I took the opportunity to avail myself of his knowledge, him being a native son of the Nirvana of whisky. I asked what was his favorite, and he replied, wistfully, "Bunnahabhain." It was in those days before smartphones, so I had to remember this strange name; I rolled it back and forth in my mind until I reached my little room at the Dickey B&B, where I wrote down as best I could the strange collection of letters I'd seen through the darkening window. It was years before I found a bottle in the States, and by then I'd been exposed to other, smokier Islays (Laphroaig was my first I think) but Bunnahabhain was different - more sophisticated, subtly complex, a palate that beguiled rather than overpowered. I was pleasantly rewarded by that lone Scotsman's recommendation and indeed Bunnahabhain remains my favorite to this day.

    1. Bunnahabhain is very unique as you have so eloquently pointed out.

      Thanks for sharing your experience with this remarkable malt.

  6. Another great review and recommendation Jason. Thank you for pointing this one out! I picked up a bottle while in NH, on sale for $42. Now I wish I had bought several. What a lovely malt! I just love the fruity/sherry character with that little touch of rocky coast influence. I think this may become my favorite late evening dessert dram.

    By the way, I FINALLY have Black Bottle-got a friend visiting from MA to bring me some. Pretty good stuff for 22 bucks! Is it just me, or do I detect a genetic tie between these two? I know it's in there, but is Bunnahabhain the core of BB?


    1. $42 a bottle is a phenomenal price of this very unique malt.

      As for Black Bottle, yes, I do believe Bunnahabhain is a key malt in that great economy blend. Mind you there are many single malts in the mix and so I am unsure how big a presence it has in that blend. But, enough of one if you are picking it out.


  7. Nice to read some appreciation for the 'Bunna from all the comments. It is one of my favourite malts, the distillery has lacked investment in recent times and hopefully that'll change now with new the ownership who also bought the other 2 in the group including the improving Deanston.

    The 25 year old 'Bunna is excellent if you ever get a chance to sample it. This distillery is also well represented by independent bottlings as I cannot recall every having a bad Bunnahabhain.

  8. Bunny 12 - not your typical scotch, here you have what I would call the sherry-motor-oil. What I call motor oil is probably that sea'ness or island flavor that some refer to.
    A few other malts that I've tried and that I would put in this off-beat category are: Jura, and the Bowmore Dusk and Dawn (which i think are no longer available)
    This is a malt that I can see some people really liking and others not. Personally, I think it's great,
    I'd buy a lot more of it if it was down a notch or two on it's price point.
    I'm surprise the review didn't stress the point that this scotch is in a noticably different and smaller category than most other malts.

  9. Great review, and an interesting read as always. Bunn is one of my favorite islay, as I'm not a huge peat fan. Luckily, here in Mississippi I can get a bottle for as low as $39, well $35 with my employee discount ;)

  10. Seriously thinking of grabbing a bottle... You know my tastes Jason....What do you reckon....? I'm looking at $90+ down here in OZ.... worth shelling out that much ?

    AL (from OZ)

    1. $90 is too steep.

      Any Hart Brothers? Their 15yr old Port finish vatted malt is worth that price point.

  11. The Harts are around.... nothing like that... pity.
    The govt taxes the hell out of spirits down here.
    Aberlour 12yr....? just thinking.... That sits around the mid $60's..... Getting quite frustrated mate.


    1. What about The GlenDronach 12 or 15yrs. usually a reasonable price, even in high tax countries like Australia and Canada.