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Sunday, 7 October 2018

SMWS 10.116 & 10.130 (Bunnahabhain) Whisky Reviews!

Review & compare two young, peated, cask strength, single cask Bunnahabhains? Don't mind if I do!

It's been quite some time since I reviewed a Bunnahabhain, about 18 months in fact, so before we get down to it, we're long overdue for some revision! Bunnahabhain is a bit of an outlier on Islay. The majority (currently around 80%) of their 2.75-million litre production capacity is essentially un-peated, since their standard malt generally measures 1-2 ppm phenols, which of course is undetectable in the whisky. But there is also an increasing amount of good quality peated Bunnahabhain around, with the official bottlings mostly going under the sub-brand name "Moine" (Gaelic for "peat"), and many of the peated independent bottlings under the name "Margadale" (Bunnahabhain's water source is the Margadale spring). A large chunk of the distillery's production still goes into blended whiskies, particularly Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark, both of which are owned by Edrington who in turn owned Bunnahabhain from 1999-2003. It also features in the Black Bottle blended whisky, which is owned by Burn Stewart Distillers who owned the distillery from 2003-2013, but the current version of that blend contains much less Islay whisky than earlier iterations did. And those earlier versions were actually quite good!

Bunnahabhain is currently undergoing substantial renovation & restoration work, and will be for a couple of years to come, including a new visitor's centre, improved car parking and even on-site holiday accommodation. It was looking a little shabby, so I can see why the distillery is getting a face-lift, although that shabby-ness is / was also part of its charm. Unlike their fellow Distell-owned distillery on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory, the distillery is still working during these renovations, and tours aren't expected to be affected. Bunnahabhain is the most remote of the Islay distilleries and isn't particularly easy to get to, so it's good to see that the owners are investing in the visitor experience and also the aesthetics of this softly-spoken but venerable distillery.

The two Bunnahabhain's that I'm looking at today are a little different from most. As you've probably noticed from the title of this review, they're independent bottlings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a.k.a the SMWS or "the society". The SMWS only bottle single cask, cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured spirits (they're bottling more than 'just' whisky these days), and they don't name the distilleries on the labels. Instead they use distillery codes, for example 29 is Laphroaig, 33 is Ardbeg, and 10 is Bunnahabhain, which is followed by a bottling or cask sequence number. So the first of their malts that we're looking at here, 10.116, is the 116th cask of Bunnahabhain that the society has released. I've only reviewed a couple of SMWS whiskies so far, namely a brilliant young sherry-matured Ardbeg and a very interesting and extremely rare & expensive Karuizawa, and I've also had the pleasure of attending a masterclass with their Australian cellar master, Andrew Derbidge with a few more tasty drams included (write-up here), but I'm generally not exposed to many of their bottlings. The samples for today's two reviews were kindly donated by the society's Queensland manager, Scott Mansfield. Cheers Scott!

What we have here are two 9-year old peated Bunnahabhains, one from a refill ex-bourbon barrel (200-litre cask), and one from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead (250-litre cask), so this should make for an interesting comparison. 10.116 "Flaming Orange Twist" was distilled in February 2008, and came from the aforementioned refill barrel, which yielded 187 bottles at a cask strength of 59.6% ABV. Whisky number two, 10.130 "Chimney Sweep on a Trawler", was distilled in October 2007, and the refill hogshead yielded 270 bottles at 61.9% ABV. So the larger cask was responsible for the slightly older whisky, but at a notably higher ABV and (it would seem) not as much attention from those thirsty angels. Time for a closer look!

SMWS 10.116 (Bunnahabhain) "Flaming Orange Twist", 59.6%. Islay, Scotland. 
Distilled 2/2008, matured in single refill ex-bourbon barrel, bottled 2017 (9 year old). 187 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Surprisingly subtle and refined, with grassy, oily, fresh vegetal peat, bitter orange peel, and semi-sweet vanilla paste. There's a lovely briny and sandy coastal note too. With more time in the glass it becomes more herbal and grassy, with some fennel seed coming through.

Texture: Medium to heavy weight, nice and oily, there's some heat but it's felt more in the chest than on the palate, which is different, but it's not a harsh or rough spirit-y heat.

Taste: Creamy vanilla and more dark, oily, vegetal peat, some old marine tar and hot bitumen or asphalt (which tastes better than it sounds). Some hot chilli spice and more bitter orange peel.

Finish: Short length, becomes surprisingly soft quite quickly, with that herbal grassy note from the nose coming back through, and the fennel seed as well, but it's been toasted this time.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: It's always hard to combat the power of suggestion with these SMWS bottlings. As soon as you've sighted the label or just the name of the bottling your brain is pre-programmed into looking for, and often finding, certain aromas and flavours. But this one definitely does seem to do what it says on the tin, with the bitter orange, chilli spice and peat notes coming through nicely. I can't say that I find it particularly smoky, it's definitely more peaty and herbal for my palate, but it's nicely balanced as well. Admittedly there's not a huge amount of complexity here, and the finish is surprisingly short and light, but it's a nice young, fresh peated Bunnahabhain with a great weighty texture.

SMWS 10.130 (Bunnahabhain) "Chimney Sweep on a Trawler", 61.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 10/2007, matured in single refill ex-bourbon hogshead, bottled 2017 (9-year old). 270 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Immediately very different to the .116. Much lighter, softer and cleaner on the nose, despite the higher ABV. There's some charcoal BBQ briquettes, floral honey and dried leafy herbs, some wallpaper paste (flour-y glue) and putty, and a nice sweet lemon citrus note.

Texture: Medium weight, soft on entry with a quick crescendo. There's slightly less heat than the .116 as well, again despite the higher ABV, and it doesn't hang around as long either.

Taste: Cleaner and fresher, more floral honey, sweet citrus, a dry powdery peat and some coal dust. Is this Bunnahabhain's take on a Bowmore? And that's absolutely not a complaint! There's a dry spice as well that releases its heat gradually, like a cayenne powder or dried chilli flakes. Some sweet leafy herbs and a light wood smoke as well.

Finish: Medium length, more staying power here. A little astringent to start with, with more of that floral honey and some lemon oil, then more dry chilli powder and a touch of musty old oak coming through. Sweet citrus again, and maybe a hint of honeydew melon? Some coal dust again, and a good pinch of dark cocoa powder to finish.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Very interesting! It's less peaty and much less coastal than the .116, and it's dryer as well. There's also less heat, and the heat that is there is more on the front of the palate & tongue rather than the back like it was in the previous dram. I definitely get the "chimney sweep" part of the name of this bottling, but not so much the "trawler" part. And I don't think I'd pick this whisky as a Bunnahabhain if it was served blind, it's much less obvious here with the distillery style more hidden, which makes for a very interesting dramming experience. I really think I could be convinced that this was a Bowmore. But after all, that is the beauty, and also the fun, of tasting single cask whiskies. No two are exactly alike, even when they look similar on paper, and some are vastly different!

Overall notes: They may not be astronomical scores, but these are both very enjoyable whiskies, and they made for a great comparison! In fact the scores wouldn't be this close if I'd gone with a 10-point system way back when. Good old hindsight is always so accurate! The .130 is the winner for me, partly because it's so unexpectedly different, and also because of the longer and more assertive finish. But both are interesting whiskies, and both are different (to different degrees) from the typical distillery style, which is all as we should expect from the SMWS. That's pretty much what they do! Both are also quite mature for the age and strength, and without the helping hand of fresh casks, which is a good sign of careful production from the distillery, and discerning cask selection from the society. Thanks to Scott Mansfield from the SMWS for the samples, and for the opportunity to taste these bottles!

Unfortunately there'll be a short break between reviews over the next five weeks or so, since I'm off on holidays! England, Italy and then of course Scotland - almost exactly 13 months after the last visit! See you on the flip side folks!


Monday, 1 October 2018

Springbank 14 Bourbon Wood Whisky Review!

An ex-bourbon only matured Springbank isn't a very common thing, since there are usually some sherry or wine casks involved in their whiskies, so this'll be interesting!

For quite some time, Campbeltown's Springbank Distillery has had a wide and eclectic range of whiskies that were either fully matured or finished in unusual or uncommon cask types. Known as the wood finish bottlings, they ranged from Rum and Calvados casks, to Gaja Barolo and Tokaji wine casks, with many more in between. They were very simply packaged with largely hand written-style brown labels, and a stamp-style descripton of the cask type stamped across the front label. Those varied and often much-loved bottlings are still being released, although seemingly not as often, but the presentation is now more in-line with Springbank's current packaging. So the off-white labels are gone, the hand written-fonts are gone, and the generic plain outer boxes are gone, replaced by more modern and more appealing designs, as you can see below. It's also worth noting that this new design is also now used for Springbank's single cask bottlings, albeit with a darker shade of blue.

But the contents are the main thing, which were always cask strength, with the month and year of both distillation and bottling printed on the bottle label, and hailing from Springbank Distillery of course means they were -and obviously still are- always non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. None of the above has changed with the move to the new packaging, which is great to see. Some of these releases were more limited than others, and some were more lusted after than others, but all offered something different. There were also releases of Longrow, Springbank's heavily-peated and double-distilled whisky, and Hazelburn, Springbank's un-peated and triple-distilled whisky, in this range, alongside the lightly-peated and 2.5-times distilled Springbank namesake whisky. I really can't wait to finally visit this very "old school" distillery later this year. To stand in those musty warehouses in Campbeltown and breathe it all in will be an almost... spiritual experience!

The bottling we're looking at today is Springbank 14-year old Bourbon Wood, which was fully matured in both first-fill and refill ex-bourbon casks. It was distilled in November 2002, and bottled in August 2017 at a cask strength of 55.8% ABV, with a yield of 9000 bottles. 14-year old Bourbon Wood retails for around $190 AUD and is still around at the time of writing (probably because there aren't any sherry casks involved), and while that's a bit of a step up from the more regular 12-year old Cask Strength bottlings, that's quite reasonable for a slightly older limited cask strength release in Australia. Since an ex-bourbon cask-matured Springbank is quite unusual, in fact the last time one was released was over 15 years ago, it'll be interesting to see how well Springbank's briny, musty "dirty" funky-ness gets along with the lighter and sweeter cask influences from the ex-bourbon casks. And since there are also some refill ex-bourbon casks involved, we may also get to see more of the actual spirit presence in this one. Let's find out...

Springbank 14-year old Bourbon Wood, 55.8%. Campbeltown, Scotland.
Distilled 11/2002, matured in first- and re-fill ex-bourbon casks, bottled 08/2017 at cask strength. 9000 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Sweet & fresh with a light funk & minerality. There's loads of vanilla custard & marshmallows, and bright tropical fruit - banana, green papaya & melon, plus some lemon & a little apple. Lightly malty & dusty, and some muddy river rocks & icing sugar. With more time, a dry, herbal & floral honey and mixed peppercorns come out.

Texture: Medium weight, silky. Rich & sweet, then dry and funky. Plenty of character here, and no alcohol heat or roughness.

Taste: Sweet entry with more vanilla custard & marshmallow, then a lovely dry minerality with damp stone, dank dunnage warehouses and muddy hay. Crystallised ginger chunks, white pepper and more dry honey. A light hint of bitter & vegetal peat behind as well.

Finish: Medium length. The white pepper, ginger & dry honey carry through, then becomes a little sweeter again and the tropical fruit from the nose resurfaces. No banana this time though, and there's lemon juice alongside. Then vanilla butter icing / frosting and light brine, and a lightly bitter ginger to round things out.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Great stuff! As expected, it's a sweeter take on the typical Springbank single malt, the 12 year old cask strength for example, and perhaps there's more of the actual spirit character showing through thanks to there being less overt cask influence. It's definitely less "funky" than some Springbank bottlings, and there's a touch more minerality here, but it's still very much a characterful and complex whisky. I really enjoyed having that sweetness switching places with the dryness and minerality, and that trademark farmyard-style musty dirty-ness that Campbeltown is known (and loved) for. That kept things more interesting, and of course is a sign of a very well-made whisky. Having said that, this dram has definitely become more complex and less sweet as it oxidised, on initial opening it was considerably sweeter, and perhaps less interesting. But with the magic of time and a little air it's opened up beautifully, and the Springbank DNA is now much more evident. It was still tasty on first contact of course, but this is a seriously delicious dram as it sits now.

Surprisingly this 14-year old Springbank is still available from a few Australian retailers, and it's still very reasonably priced for what's on offer. I would've put that down to the bourbon cask-maturation not having the immediate "sexy-ness" of a sherry cask, but then the 17-year old Sherry Wood Springbank can also still be found within our shores, and that's a considerably earlier release (but is considerably more expensive). So I'm not sure what's going on there, but I can say that if you're a Campbeltown fan and you haven't tried this one, you're going to want to. Personally, I think I'll be needing a second bottle before this one is gone.