March 9th, 2012 saw the Johannesburg media launch at the Punchinello’s Restaurant in the Montecasino Southern Sun of Bunnahabhain’s un-chillfiltered range of non-peated single malts from Islay. That’s right, I said non-peated whisky from Islay.
The most famous whisky island in the world is renowned for the amazing range of peated whiskies that come from it’s distilleries, but Bunnahabhain breaks that mould and is known as “the gentle taste of Islay”.
So what is the big deal about un-chillfiltered whisky and why should you be excited about it? Chillfiltration was introduced in the ’70s for cosmetic reasons. It’s purpose: to ensure that the consumer ended up with a crystal clear liquid in their bottle.
Whisky in it’s natural state turns cloudy, or hazy, when chilled or when water is added. The problem with this technique is that chillfiltering removes flavour compounds (known as esters) from the whisky. This in turn means that the whisky that is eventually bottled has lost some of it’s character/flavour/soul when compared to what the master distiller tasted when sampling the whisky from it’s cask.
As Bunnahabhain’s master distiller and blender Ian MacMillan puts it: “In the case of un-chillfiltered whisky, nothing is taken away or added. It retains all its flavour, allowing the gentle, subtle notes of the whisky to come through, thereby providing a purer taste, nose and appearance.”
Burn Stewart Distillers, producers of Bunnahabhain (as well as Tobermory, Ledaig and Deanston – not very well known in South Africa) made the bold decision to go back to the way whisky used to be produced and opted to use un-chillfiltration for their entire range – the 12, 18 and 25 year old Bunnahabhian Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
Brian Glass, Sales Director for Distell, opened proceedings at the media launch, sharing his obvious excitement that South Africa has now made the migration from Bunnahabhain’s chillfiltered to un-chillfiltered range. He then introduced us to South Africa’s very own “Mr Whisky”, Pierre Meintjes, who had the enviable task of guiding us through tasting the new range.
Pierre is a great story-teller and for the journalists new to whisky he weaved a tale of whisky’s origin, the whisky regions in Scotland and the production of whisky before shifting his focus to Bunnahabhain. Hearing him talk of walking through Bunnahabhain’s sea-battered warehouse complete with a couple of inches of seawater on the floor on the odd occasion transported me to the magical isle that I hope to visit in person someday.
Here are the whiskies we tasted along with the official tasting notes:
Once the tasting was complete we were spoilt with a truly delicious lunch. The mushroom haggis was inspired, the pan-roasted ostrich fillet cooked to perfection and accompanied with a most delicious black olive and tomato confit. Having preferred the 18 year old at the tasting with Pierre last year, I found myself gravitating to the 25 year old this time around, gently nursing a dram throughout the meal whilst chasing away the attentive waitress who seemed very keen on pouring me an un-chillfiltered Sauvignon Blanc. The 25 is beautifully balanced with a lovely creamy caramel nose that turns into delightful toffee on the palate with traces of nuts and spices. Really good!
I found myself sharing a table with Pierre and Brian and was regaled with many a fantastic story about their frequent trips over to Scotland and time spent with Ian MacMillan, as well as getting a glimpse into the long-term planning involved in whisky production and the challenges a distillery faces in getting it’s capacity planning right. Very enlightening!
Thank you to all involved at Bunnahabhain for producing an excellent range of whiskies, and to Distell for hosting us for the media launch as well as bringing the un-chillfiltered range into South Africa. With more and more distilleries turning towards un-chillfiltration one thing is obvious – whisky lovers the world over can look forward to enjoying whiskies with a fuller flavour and richer complexity.