Friday, March 11, 2016

Whisky Review: Chieftain's Bunnahabhain 16 Year 1997/2014 for K&L Wines

Since the distillery switched to using almost exclusively unpeated malt in 1963, Bunnahabhain has been known for being the lighter side of Islay.

That changed in 1997 when the distillery produced an experimental run with heavily peated (38 PPM) malt. As with Caol Ila's opposite experiments with unpeated malt, it was carried out during the depths of the whisky rut, so it seemed like a one-off until the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart in 2003. The new owners directed the distillery to start producing whisky from peated malt more regularly and it now constitutes about 1/12th of their annual output.

Many of the casks from the 1997 run found their way into the hands of blenders and independent bottlers, who have been sporadically releasing it over the last decade or so.

This whisky was distilled in August 1997, aged in an ex-bourbon hogshead #3181, then bottled in May 2014 at 56.1% without coloring or chill filtration for K&L Wines.

While initially priced at $130, few seemed to be biting at that point. So it was finally discounted to below $100, which seems to have been enough to get it to sell out. Thankfully I was able to split a bottle with Michael Kravitz, whose review you can read here.

Chieftain's Peated Bunnahabhain 16 Year 1997/2014

Nose: sweet Iberico ham rides over thick oak, an undercurrent of berries, seashore, and dry malt, pine resin and cedar, mossy peat smoke, motor oil

Taste: sweet oak up front, shifting towards bittersweet oak and chocolate across the palate, malt underneath, fennel and dried herbs around the middle, mossy peat shows up around the back augmented by barrel char, fruit and berry overtones throughout shading towards raisins and sherry near the back,

Finish: sweet malt, fresh mossy peat, barrel char, polished oak tannins, raisins, chocolate, sherry

This is one of the whiskies that proves Bunnahabhain can make peated whisky with the best on Islay. Despite their tall stills designed for light, delicate spirit, this is still a full-bore peat blast after a decade and a half in the cask. This is, however, one where you really need to enjoy some serious oak impact. While it's not stated, I'm guessing this was a first-fill hogshead, since there is plenty of tannins and other wood goodies to go around. In some respects this reminds me of recent releases of Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, which were also dominated by oak. But for some reason, the Bunnahabhain works better.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: relatively closed, muted oak, lumber, and cedar, dry peat and wood smoke, a little industrial, hints of berries, fresh greens, a little salty, a touch of incense

Taste: fairly big malt sweetness up front, with an overlay of fruit and berry esters that carries through, fading into fresh oak with light but well-integrated peat, then leaving with a touch of bitterness and incense smoke

Finish: oak dominated, dry soil, a touch of peat and incense

It's hard to say what I feel about this strength. It seems a little too tightly wound, without the intensity of the whisky at full strength but also not revealing much of anything new. With that said, if this had been bottled Old Malt Cask style, I don't think that would have significantly detracted from the experience, though it might have missed the intensity of the peat found at full strength.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: fresh cedar, inky peat smoke, malt, dried herbs (fennel), hollow vanilla, fresh vegetation

Taste: some initial sweetness flowing into muddy oak and malt, becoming more tannic towards the back with hints of fruit and berry esters plus moderate peat and fresh soil, hints of low tide riding over everything

Finish: earthy, oak tannins, integrated peat, decaying vegetation

While there's nothing precisely off at this strength and it's relatively easy drinking, there's also nothing particularly compelling about it. The smells and flavors are too muddy and ill-defined, with nothing really standing out. It's possible the fact that it louched at room temperature may have something to do with it, with flavorful esters dropping out of solution.

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