Bunnahabhain’s fruity, unpeated and sherry-cask-led style has stood the test of time — we found out why

Bunnahabhain’s fruity, unpeated and sherry-cask-led style has stood the test of time — we found out why

The only Islay distillery to predominantly produce an unpeated style of spirit, Bunnahabhain's commitment to natural colour and significant focus on maturing in ex-sherry casks ensure its hearty drams deliver big flavours as well as nuance. Whether it’s for Christmas gift-giving or festive sipping, this single malt is the spirit of the season
This article was created by the team at Whisky Magazine as part of a paid partnership with Bunnahabhain

Partnered Promotion | 24 Oct 2022

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Located on the northern coast of Scotland’s most famous whisky-making island, Islay, Bunnahabhain clings to a steep shoreline and is perched next to some of the fastest-flowing water in the Hebrides. The dramatic view across the Sound of Islay from the distillery is met by the Isle of Jura’s dramatic paps: three distinctive mountains standing over 700m tall that can be seen for miles around.

The Bunnahabhain Distillery

Each side of the distillery, waves lick at the rugged, rocky shoreline. This is Bunnahabhain Distillery. When the weather’s set fair, the sunlight reflects from the water like diamonds. In a storm, the violent sea spray hits you with the rudest awakening. This enchanting spot lies three miles down a winding, single-track road that’s characteristic of Scotland’s Hebridean islands.

The view from Bunnahabhain across the Sound of Islay to the dramatic mountains on the Isle of Jura.

The intrepid traveller’s reward? So much more than nature at its most elemental. You’ll be met by the warmest welcome paired with whisky as remarkable as the surroundings that helped craft it.

A Bold Character

Bunnahabhain is an Islay single malt distillery like no other. Firstly, it boasts some of the biggest stills in Scotland. Tall and bulbous, they produce an oily, robust, characterful spirit that is rich and complex. Secondly, it’s almost entirely unpeated, cutting through the preconceptions that associate Islay with pungent aromas of peat smoke. It’s also a producer with top-quality sherry cask maturation at its heart.

Casks waiting on the waterside at Bunnahabhain.

In the Christmas run-in, Bunnahabhain’s nutty, dried fruit-led, unctuous character makes it perfect for festive sipping and gift-giving. It’s a whisky lover’s whisky, after all. The core range is bottled with only its natural, cask-derived colour; without the use of chill-filtration, to preserve its unctuous mouthfeel; and at a higher-than-usual ABV (typically 46.3%), which ensures that the signature distillery’s bold, fruity style and sherry cask opulence is always showcased at its best.

Award-winning Team

A huge part of the distillery’s charm and quality can be attributed to the remarkable team at the helm: master distiller Brendan McCarron and master blender Julieann Fernandez. Both have been recognised numerous times for their services to Scotch, and, recently, Julieann was named as Scotland’s Master Blender of the Year at Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky Awards in 2022.

Bunnahabhain"s master blender Julieann Fernandez.

McCarron spends his days working across Bunnahabhain and its sister sites Deanston, in Doune, on the borders of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, and Tobermory, on the Hebridean Isle of Mull, located beyond Jura to Islay’s north.

At Bunnahabhain, that means ensuring the relatively small number of large, 12.5-tonne batches that run through the distillery’s distinctive copper-topped, plough-and-rake mash tun, traditional wooden washbacks and bulbous copper pot stills truly capture the distillery’s distinctive unpeated character. It’s an intensive labour of love for the team. From milling and mashing, to fermentation, distillation and maturation, there are time-honoured processes to adhere to which create the characteristics that Brendan and Julieann look for in the distillery’s new-make spirit.

Bunnahabhain master distiller Brendan McCarron.

Top of McCarron’s agenda right now is preserving the traditional whisky-making methods while putting sustainability front and centre. Bearing in mind that Bunnahabhain dates back to 1881, it’s a significant challenge to blend the distillery’s time-old practices with cutting-edge technology.

“It’s a complete expectation that the team only uses the energy that we need to,” McCarron says. He’s excited about the possibilities of the future while being fully committed to retaining the unpeated signature character that’s made Bunnahabhain so popular with both serious whisky drinkers and those just discovering the spirit.

“There are big step changes needed, and biomass is one of those,” he adds, referring to the newly-commissioned Biomass Energy Centre that will immediately save 5,500 tonnes of carbon a year from the distillery’s production footprint. It’s pioneering work, and Bunnahabhain is on track to become Islay’s first distillery with a net-zero distillation process.

Bunnahabhain"s Biomass Energy Centre.

“Consistency is everything,” adds Fernandez. Her role sees her select casks for all three distilleries’ core expressions, as well as their more experimental releases. At Bunnahabhain, this includes the Fèis Ìle bottlings released for the island’s annual festival of music and malt whisky. More esoteric casks released for this year’s festival included those that previously held Calvados and Bordeaux wine.

But it’s an exacting blend of American ex-bourbon barrels paired with a high proportion of ex-sherry casks that makes up the distillery’s signature style. “Bunnahabhain has made a name for itself as being unpeated and sherried,” she outlines. “It is an absolute match made in heaven.”

Tasting Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old: A Harmonious Dram

One of the best examples of this harmonious match is Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old. As an unpeated whisky, it bucks the trend of smoke-led flavours common to those made by Bunnahabhain’s Islay neighbours, and its higher-than-usual ABV, opulent mouthfeel and glowing reputation make the 12 Years Old a dram of extraordinary value. First released in 1979, this widely acclaimed expression has stood the test of time as a renowned single malt for sipping and savouring.

Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old

Brand Bunnahabhain and its heritage have played a huge part in the success of the 12 Years Old, but it’s the drinking experience that has secured it as a whisky-lover’s staple dram. Aromatic and fruity-floral on the nose, the strong sherry influence gives a rich dried fruit impression. On the palate, the expression turns nuttier, with vanilla and caramel coming to the fore as the fruit turns fresher. Sherry once again takes centre stage on the finish. Lingering and sumptuous, there’s marzipan in there with the raisins and toffee.

Glorious Gifting

While Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old is set to delight gift recipients all year round, there’s something charming about matching the decadence of the dram with autumn and winter. There’s something undeniably Christmassy about an unpeated, sherry-influenced dram at this time of year.

Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair

If that doesn’t tick the box for a loved one on the list, consider the broader Bunnahabhain core collection. Stiùireadair (pronounced ‘stew-rah-dur’ and translating to ‘helmsman’ in Scots Gaelic) weaves in an additional maritime note on the nose and palate. Toiteach A Dhà, a peated expression, brings smoky flavours to the fore.

At a more elevated end of the spectrum, Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old, Bunnahabhain 30 Years Old and Bunnahabhain 40 Years Old all offer increasing levels of maturation-based complexity. Flavours here become immensely complex, with well-toasted nuts, rich nutmeg and even old, polished furniture notes emerging. These are extraordinary whiskies indeed.

Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old.

And then there’s Bunnahabhain 18 Years Old, which sits alongside the 12 Years Old as a modern classic. It’s an older sibling, and its extra maturity shows. The notes of dried fruit and toffee are a little richer, and there’s a greater sense of honeyed sea salt. If a gift needs to impress, this bottling certainly fits the bill.

A Voyage To Islay – Through A Tasting Glass

Whether bought for sipping or given as a gift, a taste of Bunnahabhain has the power to transport you through time and space to the distillery’s coastal home. Suddenly, you’re meandering down the three-mile road to the distillery, drinking in the mountain views and the dramatic seascape. You’re in a warehouse experiencing the atmosphere redolent with the rich, whisky and sherry-infused angels’ share. And you’re there with your friends, enjoying a dram or a cocktail, breathing in that bracing sea air that whips across the water to welcome you. It’s an experience that, much like the distillery itself, will stand the test of time.

Inside Bunnahabhain"s traditional dunnage warehousing.

Bunnahabhain’s core range, including the 12 Years Old, is available from all good specialist drinks retailers and online at www.bunnahabhain.com for RRP£40 (70cl)..


12 Years OldSingle Malt Scotch Whisky
Bunnahabhain Distillery
ABV: 46.3%
BOTTLING: Distillery
STYLE: Please select
PRICE: £40

Nose: Poached pears, baked green apples and rich heather honey. Juicy raisins and sultanas with prunes in syrup and liquorice. Dark chocolate with candied ginger, cinnamon stick, grated nutmeg and aromatic cedar wood. Zesty orange and lemon peels, with sticky toffee, too.

Palate: Mouthcoating and full-bodied, with more baked pear and apple notes, with a dusting of muscovado sugar. Sweet vanilla and chewy caramels are balanced by distinctive citrus, especially Jaffa orange, and fat Medjool dates stuffed with almond butter.

Finish: Milk chocolate and almond play out with toffee and orchard fruits for a long finish.

Comments: Big flavours will keep whisky lovers coming back for more.

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