Bunnahabhain Distillery and Caol Ila Distillery

If you venture up to Caol Ila, you better also go to Bunnahabhain as they are right next to each other. Bunnahabhain is actually in the process of getting an 11 million pound facelift. You can probably tell that I like Bunnahabhain much more than Caol Ila already, just by looking at the featured image.

This was the distillery that most took us by surprise. Though Bruichladdich was my favorite, Bunnahabhain was the best in the category of most unexpected surprise and it featured my favorite whisky on the entire trip besides the 27-year-old Macallan I had in Leith SMWS Vaults, which was the oldest whiskey they have at 46 years old. I will post numerous photos of that soon.

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First stop, Caol Ila. This is a fairly mainstream large producer that you can find at most whisky stores in the US. They were good but not as great as some of the others already mentioned. But the 25-year-old was my favorite.

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Look at that really pretty scene, right on the water. I do have to give it to them that their distillery was on a stunning piece of land.

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It was quite a large factory. Very brutalist architecture.

2018-04-24 14.10.09Here is our lovely tour guide.

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Here are the casks with aforementioned tastings. We had the 18, 22, and 30 year Caol Ila.

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Here are the tasting notes on each from my refresher tasting I did just for the blog.

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18-year-old Caol Ila at 59% cask strength. Immediately I get cinnamon and clove on the nose, followed by burnt marshmallows. Then, I get this Old Spice cologne smell. I got flashbacks of my grandfather right now.

old

On the palate, I get super piney notes, lots of oak wood aftertaste. Not immediately spicy, but gradually evolves into a burning sensation in the 1st 2/3 of my tongue. It was super dry, coated and gripped my teeth like a strong tannin feeling, the opposite of mouth-watering. Initial sweet notes but ending in bitterness. Bitter aftertaste stays with you, medium finish, not so much volatile alcohol vapors despite the 59% alcohol.

After a drop of water, it killed the bitterness, brought out more of the sweetness and spice. This would be the perfect whisky, after some dilution, for X-mas time. There is this Mexican traditional drink called ponche, which is like this stew of cooked fruits that they mix with cinnamon and nutmeg. This would be the perfect chaser for this dram.

https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-ponche-navideno-238372

22-year-old Caol Ila in Bodega Sherry cask. On the nose, I immediately got Juicy Fruit, or the stick-shaped powdered gum that you would find in a baseball card packet.

juice

In the background, there was a lot of earthy funk going on with some barnyard fertilizer notes. Stronger alcohol vapors on the nose initially impeded detection of secondary more subtle notes. It had that musky/badussy (booty/dick and pussy) after sex smell going on. Then definitely old leather sofa, or an old baseball glove smell.

On the palate, very oily. Erika took a quick sip and immediately got pistachio, which was fascinating, I got the brown toasted shell part of the pistachio, and I can see where she is getting that salty and nutty aspect as well. It was very sweet and salty, but with no bitter notes, nice medium intensity spicy burn on the middle 1/2 of my tongue, tingled and faded away slowly.

After 3 drops of water, I got roasted garlic and kimchee notes on the nose, old library books, that stale paper smell, like an old Bible, better yet an old Hustler or Playboy stained with who knows what. Fresh cardboard notes. Only 55% alcohol but the vapors still singing my nose hairs. Water brought out the brandy scents from Bodega Sherry. Then I started getting smoked and candied walnuts and pecans. Definitely light years ahead of the 18-year-old in complexity. Diluting it killed that nice spiciness, but at the same time dulled the alcohol fumes enough to let me appreciate the nutty and garlicky flavors that came.

On a final note, I left a drop or two in there to dry out and when I nosed it one last time, it smelled exactly like grilled artichokes. This was totally bizarre. I have never experienced this in whisky before. This whisky took the cake tonight with the tastings tonight. By far my favorite.

30-year-old Caol Ila in Oloroso Sherry at 56.5%. On the nose, stronger sherry and alcohol vapors, making it too overpowering to detect interlopers in the background. It was slightly more opaque in the color than the 25-year-old, but it still had that amber/copper hue. I was getting a lot of white wine grape, acid, and citrus notes. Just when I was getting some yeasty bread notes, the alcohol vapors made me recoil. It was very hot at 56.5%. Lots of apple pie, actually more like strudel due to the egg and oil influence from the puff pastry along with the crushed and baked nuts. But then it goes to this green apple, almost like those baby apples that are intensely sour and chalky when they are not ripe.

On the palate, no spice at first, but again very tannic and dry, sucks all the moisture out of your mouth. Very nice taste of OLD charred wood, amazing mouth coating, long finish, with an intense burn on the top and bottom of my tongue. Like a cinnamon burnfrom red hots or fire ball candy.

red-hots-box

This NEEDS WATER. After 3 drops. it’s much easier to nose. It went from acidic green and sour apple to red and sweet candied apple. Sulfur/fart smell started coming out, like when you are eating a girl out and she lets out a little fart that escapes into your mouth by accident. This was totally hiding from me before, but now I am getting the whiffs, like when a fart starts from barely perceivable to full-blown elevator hot-boxing. Starting to smell more like the 18 now than the 25 now. Marshmallow coming through again. The Oloroso is just too dry and violent to handle.

Even after the first dilution, needed another 3 drops of water to tame this bad boy. Here’s what I get after 2nd dilution. More cereal and mash notes. The sulfur bomb is now covered by cinnamon air freshener. Check this scenario out, I am imagining walking into a bathroom where someone took a nasty shit, but they were nice about it and tried to light a match to hide the smell, and then they sprayed cinnamon air freshener, but you still smell the nasty shit smell underneath, just masked. NOW I am digging this dram. This is the weird, vulgar complexity I was looking for. No more harsh alcohol vapors, the funky notes are front and center with the spice and fruit hanging out in the background passed out from the fart vapors.

I always volunteer to suck the whisky out of the cask as I can get an extra gulp or two in addition to what I am allowed in my glass. Too bad it was only on the 12-year-old. I did not even waste a mini-bottle on this, they sell this at Trader Joes.

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I guess I got a little too excited and had some pre-mature whis-jaculation here. While I was holding my long hard whisky snake, I should have moaned loudly as that blasted into the glass for some comic relief.

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Johnny Walker is way ahead of his time. He looks like he is having a conversation on a smartphone. Actually, one whisky critic labelled Caol Ila as “Mr. Consistency” as they use their single malts in Johnny Walker blends.

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Here is Jerry with his “got a little Captain in you” pose.

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Very pretty seascapes here.

But let’s not waste any more time and get to Bunnahabhain.

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Talk about super rustic.

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I love this scene. Looks like a pirate’s bounty with the Maritime theme and barrels stacked to the high heavens.

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Right on the water at the opening to the ocean. This is appropriate as Bunnahabhain in Gaelic means “Mouth of the River”. Apparently, this was the only Distillery open during the War as they had direct sea access. This allowed them to get a jump start after the War ended and sell their whisky all over Scotland. They used this opportunity to grow and their 1979 cask was acclaimed and catapulted them into the big leagues. Just another example of being in the right place at the right time and striking while the iron is hot.

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Here is the tasting room. We spent a lot of time here. Cheap ass Jerry didn’t want to pay for this VIP tasting with Dr. Billy Sinclair which had the 18, 25, and 30-year varieties for tasting. Interestingly enough, Dr. Billy came up to me and apologized that he did not have enough of the 30-year-old to include in my tasting, and he had a secret special treat to share with me instead, but I had to choose the 46-year-old that costs $8000/bottle or the 40-year-old that costs $3000/bottle. I looked at Jerry and asked him, “Is this a fucking trick question? Or is he very reluctant to share this 46 year with me and hoping to trick me out of saying yes?” This is the oldest cask they have here. I was super lucky, as we were the last customers of the day and Dr. Sinclair was feeling generous. He even threw in the Feis Ile 2017 American Oak for a taste as well. God Bless your heart, Dr. Billy Sinclair! He wanted to wait until people from the final tour left so that no one else would ask for more favors. “Tell your friend there’ll be no more favors!!!”

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As we were waiting for my personal connoisseur’s tasting for approximately 150 pounds, which was well worth it btw given the super rare stuff we had, we walked around to explore the grounds.

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The pier was nicely accented with it’s black and red theme.

 

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Nice shoreline, but the place looked a little run down. I guess they have not been keeping up with painting the place as they are going to tear down some buildings and totally remodel the place, which had already started by the time we were there.

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Dare I say prison/concentration camp-esque?

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The only thing missing is a guard tower with barbed wire.

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Looks like the tank scene in Life is Beautiful…This is still my favorite movie of all time until this day.

According to the article below, they are going to demolish Dachau over here and turn it into beach bungalows, with a huge visitor center with floor to ceiling windows to gaze out into the ocean as you are drinking a salty dram.

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https://www.islay.blog/article.php/major-plans-unveiled-bunnahabhain-distillery-islay

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What a VIP tasting this was, in this private back room with a picture box window view of the pier with the flags flying. We had the 18, the 25, the 46, and the 2017 Feis Ile release distilled in 1997 of American Oak at cask strength. This is what a whisky tasting should be like. It’s the liquid gold standard, pardon the pun.

25-year-old Bunnahabhain. On the nose, no crazy volatile alcohol vapors here. Immediate peat smoke, but creamy. Something sweet is balancing out the sootiness of the peat. The peat is more like cigar ash vs BBQ, like a cigar that has a nice easy draw that pulls thick creamy smoke with a light puff. Then, caramel, but like salted caramel, those caramel candies wrapped in wax paper.

caramel

Then in between the cigar ash and the caramel, this bizarre Sorrento lemon coming through. When I say in between, I literally mean that spacially. It’s like a gobstopper candy with peat on the outside, Sorrento lemon in between, and caramel on the other side like a layered cake. Imagine, taking a puff of a cigar, and taking a bite of a caramel coated lemon bundt cake while the smoke is still in your mouth. Reminded me of the Netflix pastry Chef’s Table episode where Joan Roca makes a cigar smoke ice cream. They should totally pair this with an Islay whisky.

cigar.jpg

As I warmed the glass with my hands and shook it up the vapors started getting volatile and burning my nostrils. That cigar ash scent was never too far away. There was this unidentifiable sweet fruit scent hiding behind the peat smell. Almost like a shy child hiding behind its mother’s skirt but curiously peeking out at you to see if you are looking at them. I love how this tasting evolved into a game of hide and go seek.

On the palate, nice oily mouthfeel with a residual burn that just numbs the tongue, but as you push your tongue into the roof of your mouth, you get this quick cactus hair stinging on the entire top of the tongue. Slightly bitter, like espresso aftertaste, but nice and savory smoked meat taste on the palate, whereas it had more of a cigar ash smell on the nose.

After 3 drops of water, it turns out that the little shy toddler hiding behind mommies skirt that would not let me see them or examine them was a goddamn PEAR! Poire William to be exact, this is a pear liqueur from France that totally tastes like the diluted version of this whisky. The dilution killed the peat, but it still had a nice tingling on the tongue, definitely more sweet now as the bitterness is gone, and just some traces of banana and pineapple.

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This truly felt like a 3-star luxury tasting compared to being in a warehouse with a bunch of monopolizing fanatics taking up all the time with irrelevant questions bombarding the host. One on one with the master distiller, who told us that there was one additional unopened bottle left of the 46-year-old selling for $8000.00.

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There it is, the whisky of the year that rocked our socks. Even Erika was blown away by this, as it was the best whisky she had ever tasted.

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Eich Bhana Lir is the Gaelic God of the Sea. I read that this place is closed in the winter months as it is rocked by waves crashing into the shore. A good metaphor for this kick-ass divine elixir of the Gods.

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What a display, look at that suede-lined box. This is like the Rolls Royce of whiskies. I did not bring a sample back of this as it tasted so good that I finished it, and Erika drank all of her portion. What was so unique was the taste and smell of green bananas in this super sweet, honey flavored complex and amazingly balanced whisky. It had more of an effervescent zest than a spicy feeling on the tongue. I also got smoked and salted almonds, old leather, super delicate, evaporative alcohol on the tongue, with an exceedingly long finish that makes you smack your lips together. Maybe since the percentage was so low at 41%, you could really taste a lot of the secondary notes. I was looking all over the internet and could not find one mention of almost ripe banana notes, which was so earth-shattering for me as I never knew whisky could have these tropical notes. I did find a video from ‘whisky for dummies’ where a guy said, “Am I getting banana, is it crazy to say that, banana?”

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I later found out that Erika snuck away to buy this as a surprise gift for my 40th Birthday, but they did not accept AMEX and the only other card we had was our checking account card, which would have decimated our reserves for paying bills upon returning from our 20 day UK trip, so needless to say, this is not sitting at home in my bar. Bottle 99 of 198 bottles. I know you might think I am crazy for nonchalantly talking about considering buying an $8000.00 bottle, but people spend $25k minimum for a decent Rolex, and if you were to buy this bottle as an investment, the price will keep going up astronomically, and it has already gone up by $700 from the time we could have bought it. If only I wasn’t going to the Fat Duck and 10 other high-end Michelin restaurants on this trip, I could have bought this bottle, walked away and called it a day.

https://www.acespirits.com/buy-bunnahabhain-46-year-old-single-malt-scotch.html

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I guess I will have to settle for a hand-filled bottle of 13-year-old Bunnahabhain in a PX sherry cask.

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Mad scientist here.

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Look at that ‘whiskey thief’. That’s what they call this contraption. It looks like a Medieval cock and ball torture device. It’s so sad watching this as this is the bottle that ended up exploding in Erika’s wrapped jacket in our luggage. In retrospect, we were so carried away with this tasting that we forgot to ask her to vacuum seal the cork, and I think the cabin pressure in the plane on the way to London popped the cork open in the luggage. This is the whisky that Erika famously told me in my first Scotland post, “what the fuck Paul, your fucking whisky got all over my jacket!” To top it all off, a peated sherry cask, so you know that smell is not coming out. Maybe it was an omen warning me not to spend $8000.00 on a bottle from this distillery that I would be still paying for today, had I been able to charge it to my AMEX.

Then we were off to more bucolic seascapes and country scenes in Islay.

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I love the run down look and underestimation of this place. Like finding an amazing hole in the wall place that doesn’t even know how good it is and Jonathan Gold hasn’t written an article about yet.

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Like we had the whole place to ourselves.

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I was so happy we came here. It was a breath of fresh air, less crowded than some of the other distilleries, scenic, with some seriously rare serendipitous tastings. Seriously folks, all these other distilleries need to get on board with these VIP tasting experiences like Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich. I liked seeing all the sheep, but I don’t like being treated like one.

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Look at the black sheep, almost camouflaged into the hillside…

“who’s the black sheep?…”

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Look how regal and fluffy they look.

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Felt like I was having a hallucination of a magic forest or like I just walked into Narnia. Seriously surreal looking mystical hillside with low lying fog rolling through. Happiest baby lamb I have ever seen. Sadly, it is back through the magic Narnia closet leading to my bedroom at the Ardbeg Cottage. Time to pack for the flight to London.

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Oh yes, this was a very good trip indeed. Look at all my pirate’s booty. Enough to drown my sorrows for years to come as I am destitute in debt paying for all of this. Let’s roll the dice and hope we get through customs. So, so sad, my final post on our first trip to Scotland and all of our whisky adventures.

 

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