A couple of days ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to an exclusive Bunnahabhain whisky tasting at Bentley Johannesburg. What a combination! Sleek automotive sophistication paired with Islay’s unpeated malt whisky. I love my peated Islay’s and was looking forward to the opportunity of trying “the gentle taste of Islay” as they brand themselves.
Visiting the Bentley dealership is an experience in itself. Even before you enter the glass-decked building you’re greeted by the sight of these fine cars. As you walk through the doors, the showroom lighting gleams off the polished bonnets of the Continental GT and Mulsanne Bentleys on the floor and I found myself thinking “One day…”.
As we waited for all 20-odd guests to arrive, we were offered a dram of Black Bottle to kick off the evening. I’m sure that most of you know that Black Bottle is a blend – where malts from seven of the eight distilleries on Islay are married together and blended with grain whisky. The result is a really decent blend that delivers a good amount of pepper and smoke – perfect for those looking to get into their peat-infused whiskies. But we weren’t here tonight for peat, we were here to taste the Bunnahabhain range – the 12, 18 and 25 year old whiskies produced by Burn Stewart Distillers.
And who better to present them to us than Mr Pierre Meintjes, whisky connoisseur and Master of the Quaich? I felt a bit under-dressed, seeing him resplendent in his kilt, sporting Bunnahabhain corporate tartan.
We took our seats and the evening got into full swing. Pierre introduced himself and then took all the guests on a journey around Scotland, describing the whisky regions as we passed around and smelled samples of whisky from the various whisky-producing regions of Scotland.
That led into the production of whisky, and Pierre informed those that were new to whisky as to how whisky is made with three natural ingredients only – barley, water and yeast – and how this combination, coupled with the wooden casks the whisky matures in and the environment surrounding the distillery determines what the whisky will eventually taste like. Samples of the different types of malted barley one can use were passed around too.
And finally, the moment had arrived. It was time to taste the whiskies. We learnt that we were going to be the first people in South Africa to experience the un-chillfiltered Bunnahabhains – what a treat!
A quick explanation of chillfiltered versus un-chillfiltered
Whiskies that are chillfiltered have, as the name implies, been chilled before being filtered. By chilling the whisky, fatty acid esters (congeners) can be filtered out of the whisky. This results in a whisky that doesn’t develop a “haze” or go cloudy when you add cool water or ice. The problem is, these “impurities” give whiskies it’s flavour. By chillfiltering you are essentially changing the character (and flavour) of the whisky that the master distiller hand-selected from the maturation store. And that can’t be a good thing. Un-chillfiltered, or non-chillfiltered, means you’re essentially getting to taste the whisky that the master distiller picked for you. The ABV (Alcohol by Volume) percentage of the Bunnahabhain un-chillfiltered whisky sits at 46.3% At this level there is enough alcohol present to keep the congeners “in solution” and keep the whisky looking clear. You will most likely see the haze when you add a dash of water, but remember, that’s not a bad thing! (If I’ve got any of this wrong, will the whisky anoraks let me know?)
Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old
The youngster in the range doesn’t disappoint, delivering plenty fruity, nutty flavour with a hint of vanilla. Very pleasant on the nose too. The casks used for maturation of the 12yo were bourbon (75%) and sherry (25%).
Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
The 18yo was my favourite of the three. The 40% sherry cask / 60% bourbon cask split showed. As Pierre, described it, this was the voluptuous, sweet sister in the range. A sweet toffee taste interplays with sherried nuts and has a lovely finish. Definitely one for the whisky collection.
Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old
Here we have a 10% sherry / 90% bourbon cask ratio, and we have a gentler dram which follows similar lines as the 12. I found it to have a sweet syrupy taste and could definitely pick up on a woody oak flavour – as you would expect after spending 25 years maturing in casks! A good dram, but I’ll stick with the 18yo thanks.
And there you have it. A very nice tasting led by Pierre, and once again, some really good conversation afterwards. Sitting around a table, dram in hand sharing whisky tales is exactly what I allude to with the name of this blog – a whisky tasting fellowship.
For the whisky collectors out there, keep your eyes open for the few remaining bottles of the old, un-chillfiltered range of Bunnahabhains out there (there are a few). The guys are in the process of repatriating all these bottles back to Scotland, so if you can grab one or two for yourself now you’ll have a piece of whisky history in your cabinet at home.
I would like to extend my thanks to Bunnahabhain and Bentley for the opportunity to experience and enjoy the Bunnahabhain range and to Mr Pierre Mentjies for sharing his vast whisky knowledge with us.