I'm almost a little sheepish in saying so, but I'm not really a whisky man.
Or rather, I was not but now I am. Heading into this tasting trip, I was the lone man out in our group of 4. I was the one who was 'not really a whisky drinker, just intellectually interested'. What a crock. MBA's can be so full of shit sometimes. It took half a day of visiting distilleries for me to drop that line. I was in whisky heaven.
So, as way of introduction, we began the whisky trail at Bunnahabhain. As you may know, this distillery produces more rounder, tamer, and less peat-forward whiskys, and is more well known for its blends. We were taken around the distillery, and saw, smelled, and even tasted every single step along the way. A great education in whisky-making and the distilling process, but what struck me was this notion of ownership in Islay. You see, each of these distilleries here has been acquired by a multinational beverages company, including the giants Diageo and Suntory. The company that owned Bunnahabhain, Burn Stewart Distillers, was itself bought by Distell Group Ltd. in 2013. So, no local owners. Certainly no 'original family' per se. Being owned by these conglomerates gives these distilleries access to virtually any market on the planet, as well as the keys to heavy marketing resources, distribution infrastructure, and some very deep-pocketed customers. That changes some things, doesn't it? When demand is off the charts and all the distilleries on Islay are compelled to run 24/7 (no joke), it's time to emphasize less on age expression and more on the brand, no?
What an eye-opener to see that no, that's not what they're doing. That, despite the horrors told about those profit-hungry, moral-less multinational bootleggers, these companies are actually really responsible, protective stewards of these brands. It's what we found inside that proves it. The workers are still all locals, and amazingly enough, many are from the same family. Who knew that working in whisky factories was a generational vocation, like Michigan Ford plants. At most there are only a handful of people in the distillery at one time - workers are divided into 3 around-the-clock shifts, and the factories are designed in a way that there really isn't that much heavy lifting to do. I asked about the age expressions - if demand was so high, at some point the distilleries are going to run out of old whiskys for the blend, no? That's why we have to be careful, was the answer. We have to limit how much we produce, both to ensure our age expressions remain, and our brand doesn't fizzle out.
12 Year Old: This is their first singe-malt bottling, and is unpeated. Aged in bourbon and sherry casks. No chill-filtering, and bottled at 46.3% abv. I get more bourbon influence, more sweet char and caramel. Good malt aromas, but a bit shy. Lean texture. A whisky that really benefits from a drop of water to fill out.
18 Year Old: Almost aged entirely in sherry cask, unpeated, and also bottled at 46.3% abv. Immediately sweet on the nose, lots of fruit. Big palate, intense and concentrated.
Toiteach: Peated at 15-17 ppm, bottled at 46% abv. Very light in colour, but showing lots of smoke. Very powerful alcohol, smokiness continues on the palate. More elegant with water.
Cruach-Mhòna: Purely peated malt at 35-40 ppm, 50% abv. You get a lot of smoke again, but with great depth and earthy, peaty qualities. Great palate, very balanced and viscous. Peatiness follows on the palate. An extraordinary whisky.