Scotch Whisky Review: Bunnahabhain 18

16 May 2010

Original Blogger tags: Rated 9.0, Bunnahabhain 18, Scotch Whisky

My regular readers, both of them, will recall that I have a soft spot (on my skull) for the whisky of the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay. It does not seem to be one of the blockbuster big-name distilleries — most of its output seems to go into blends — but this distiller’s whiskies are among my personal favorites, in part because their distinctiveness seems to lie in their subtlety, rather than boldness.

The Bunnahabhain 12 is an Islay whisky, and very unlike the other Islay whisky that I’ve tasted — so different, in fact, that it seems to make quite a dent in the “terroir” theory. Oh, it does have some similarities — it has a very light peat and smoke, and a light saltiness, and a slight oiliness, but the flavors tend more towards sweet nuts, toffee, and apple. I wrote: “there’s a wonderful almond flavor, reminiscent of marzipan, and toasted coconut, and vanilla.” With water, the saltiness in the 12 comes forward; I described it as a “Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll,” a regional candy which, sadly, never seems to be on the shelves here in Michigan. About the finish, I commented that “the sip fades out on a little bit of oak, but the tart apple flavor stays with you. There’s just the slightest fresh pepperiness, like Nasturtium, or ground white peppercorns.”

So, Bunnahabhain also offers a standard 18-year-old, which offers an interesting opportunity to do a straight-up comparison. And of course it raises the question of whether those extra six years in the cask create a whisky that is worth about double the price of the 12 (at about $100, this is a fairly expensive whisky, at least on my price scale; I don’t buy $100 bottles on a whim, and have only purchased two or three at this price).

So — the color is a little darker gold, as one would expect. On the nose: apple again, but cider, not fresh green apple juice. A little pungent alcohol burn is still there on the nose, and a bit of smoke. There’s just a bit of that peaty, Listerine note — more than there is in the 12. There’s a distinct smell of Hall’s honey-flavored menthol throat lozenges along with a nice vanilla custard, stewed apples, banana, perhaps a little pear, and dried tobacco. This whisky benefits from breathing a little bit — let the poured dram sit for a few minutes, and warm the glass in your hand to bring out some of the more subtle flavors.

On the tongue this one has a syrupy texture that reminds me of Irish whisky, particularly The Tyrconnell again. It seems to have some velvety substance to it, almost like tannins in wine. It’s moderately warming, with a nice heat in the back of the throat. That extra aging has really brought up the vanilla notes, but the characteristic Bunnahabhain nutty notes are still there as well; they seem fainter than in the 12. The finish is actually peaty and smoky, more so than the 12 but still light, so that you feel like you’re sharing a drink with a smoker, not having a cigarette yourself. And there’s something else going on in the finish — while the Glenmorangies always seem to remind me, literally, of oranges, and the Ardbeg of lime, this one is definitely lemon — maybe a hint of lemon oil, or candied lemon peel. It reminds me a bit of the lemon oil I use to clean my guitar fretboards. The tail end is a little bit like dark-roasted coffee grounds, and a bit like burnt toast (it seems like there always have to be at least one slightly unpleasant note, doesn’t there?)

So how does this compare to the 12? Well, it’s interesting. The flavors are less assertive, and more subtle. The texture I like in the 12 is damped down a bit; it’s less oily, but more syrupy. The soft fruit notes are very nice. The spices and nuts are fainter. This whisky is very refined, extremely smooth, and somewhat subtle. It’s a dessert drink. After drinking a lot of big, explosive Islays, it’s partly a relief, and partly a disappointment — where did all that complexity go? So your reaction to it may depend, basically, on whether you want your whisky to talk back to you, or whether you want it to quietly do your bidding. The 12 will have a conversation with your taste buds; the 18 will serve them unobtrusively.

So — my rating. The 18 gets an extra half-point for that marvelous smoothness; I’ll call it a 9.0. That’s probably making just a bit too much of the relatively subtle difference between the two.

I’m happy to have had the chance to taste this one. I’m thinking of this one as a preview, to get me ready to taste the very special bottle I purchased for my upcoming wedding anniversary next year — a bottle of Bunnahabhain distilled in 1967, the year I was born. So, honestly, which one do I prefer? I could go either way, depending on my mood on any given evening. They’re both very good. If I felt a little short of money, I’d happily stick to the 12 and not feel deprived!

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