Nestled on the northernmost coast of Islay, known as Queen of the Hebrides and Scotland’s foremost whisky isle, Bunnahabhain Distillery has been producing rich and robust whiskies for over 140 years. A site of pilgrimage for many whisky fans, the final leg of any visit to the distillery involves slowly journeying along a winding, single-track road before turning coastward to a rocky beach at Bunnahabahin Bay. Those willing to make the journey are rewarded with exquisite views across the deep and fast-flowing waters of the Sound of Islay to the dramatic Paps of Jura beyond and a choice of world-renowned single malt whiskies in a variety of styles.
Despite being located on an island known for its abundant supply of peat, Bunnahabhain stands out from the crowd by predominately specialising in unpeated whisky. What’s more, the installation of a Biomass Energy Centre in 2022 put Bunnahabhain on course to have the first net-zero distillation process on Islay. The Centre, which is fuelled with a mix of spent process malt called draff and locally sourced forest wood, saves 5,500 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, representing a reduction of 95 per cent over oil. Nevertheless, while embracing the latest in green technology, the other elements of Bunnahabhain’s production process have remained resolutely traditional, with two large onion-shaped stills producing a bold and fruity spirit with plenty of character.
Utilising a higher-then-usual proportion of sherry-seasoned casks for the maturation of its new make, Bunnahabhain has developed a reputation for oily, fruity whiskies with a sweet richness. It is this that draws visitors down the single-track road all year round, but particularly during the annual ‘Bunnahabhain Day’ of Fèis Ìle, the Islay whisky festival, which also heralds the launch of a special limited-release whisky specifically chosen to celebrate the occasion.
However, with the core range – consisting of Stiùireadair, the peated Toiteach A Dhà, and the 12-, 18-, 25-, 30- and 40-year-old bottlings – there are a variety of expressions to explore all year round.
The Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old offers a delicately sherried starting point, balancing notes of dried fruit and nuts with the distillery’s classic orchard fruit-led style. Meanwhile, Stiùireadair (Gaelic for ‘helmsman’) offers the same distillery provenance and sherry-cask profile for a great value, ‘everyday’ pour. It opens with a delicately herbal, fruity nose before creamy sponge cake takes over on the palate. The finish brings caramelised pear and pastry.
The predominance of ex-sherry casks sets this distillery apart from its neighbours, with Julieann Fernandez, master blender, explaining that Bunnahabhain and sherry-cask maturation are a ‘match made in heaven’ thanks to the cooked cereal and fresh pear notes of the new-make spirit working in harmony with Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks.
The opportunity to learn directly from Fernandez and distillery manager Andrew Brown will be one of the highlights of Bunnahabhain Day this year on 2 June. With exclusive tasting experiences part of a schedule including tours, boat trips on the Sound of Islay, local food and live music, visitors will also have the chance to explore the distillery’s famous Warehouse 9 to sample its most prized casks.
This year’s open day will also allow visitors to purchase Bunnahabhain Fèis Ìle Canasta Cask Matured, a new expression aged in a rare choice of cask. While oloroso and Pedro Ximénez are familiar styles of sherry to single malt fans, Bunnahabhain has worked with Williams and Humbert in Jerez to acquire special casks that previously held the family-owned bodega’s famous Canasta Cream sherry.
Made from both Palomino and Pedro Ximénez grapes, Canasta Cream is fully matured and fractionally blended in a solera system. The result is a sweetened oloroso or ‘cream’ sherry that offers indulgent aromas of dried fruits, raisins and quince. Cream is a style of sherry that has been popular in Britain for over two hundred years and closely resembles the sherry commonly shipped to Scotland in casks throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until the practice ended in the 1980s. Thus, this release gives whisky lovers the chance to taste a contemporary Bunnahabhain matured in sherry casks that would’ve seemed very familiar to its founders.
Priced at £95 for a 70cl bottle, the Bunnahabhain Fèis Ìle Canasta Cask Matured is a non-chill filtered, small-batch limited release bottled at 51.2% ABV, a strength chosen by Fernandez as the ‘sweet spot’ that presents this whisky’s aroma, flavour and mouthfeel at its best. Like all Bunnahabhain products, this year’s Fèis Ìle release has only its natural colour – in this case, a dark hue like polished mahogany.
The whisky’s nose is that of a classically sherried single malt with sweet, caramelised fruits, honey-roasted nuts, cinnamon, cloves and a hint of rancio. On the palate, it opens with maple syrup, creamy vanilla, dried figs, poached pears, and cocoa. A touch of orange lingers in the background before a long, sweet finish delivers brown sugar, red apples and vanilla custard.
A nod to the distillery’s long history of sherry-cask maturation, Bunnahabhain Fèis Ìle Canasta Cask Matured launched on 26 April 2023. It is undeniably exciting to see the team breaking new boundaries in flavour experimentation while exploring Scotch whisky’s historic relationship with Spain. With the steady hands of Fernandez at the helm, Bunnahabhain looks set for clear sailing as they set the course for brave new worlds of discovery while remaining true to the style that has made this special Islay single malt popular for generations.
Bunnahabhain Fèis Ìle Canasta Cask Matured and its core range, including Stiùireadair and 12 Years Old, are available from Amazon, good specialist drinks retailers and online at www.bunnahabhain.com.