Why does the Islay distillery of Bunnahabhain make its names so hard to pronounce? Among its expressions include names like Stiuireadair (pronounced stew-rahdur) and Toiteach (pronounced toch-ach), and even the name of the distillery isn’t pronounced the way you may think it is (it’s bu-na-ha-venn).
“Why not a simpler name? Well, we’re stuck in our heritage!” said Kristie McCallum, master blender for Distell International, which owns the distillery. “Islay is still very much a Gaelic island. Even the street signs are still in Gaelic.”
Located on the north-eastern coast of Islay and built in 1881, the Bunnahabhain distillery’s name is Gaelic for “mouth of the river”, a reference to the Margadale, the river which is the primary water source for the distillery.
Now, the general perception among whisky drinkers is that Islay whiskies are almost always peated, but Bunnahabhain bucks that trend by producing a core range that is completely unpeated.
“For me, the DNA of Bunnahabhain is unpeated, nutty, berries, a touch of cream, and a lovely dried fruit at the end. It’s still a typical Islay, it just doesn’t have the smoke,” McCallum explained.
“Bunnahabhain uses really big stills and we end up with a light fruity spirit with a very nutty note, which carries very well from the spirit itself. Other whiskies like Laphroaig and Lagavulin have that very fruity background as well. We just bring that to the fore rather than cover it with smoke.”
According to McCallum , it wasn’t always like that. “Bunnahabhain WAS traditionally peated. Up until the ’60s, the malts on Islay were all made using the same fuel source, which was peat. In the ’60s, we decided to remove our malt floors and that’s when Bunnahabhain came to be unpeated.”
Bunnahabhain does come out with peated whiskies occasionally, but they are usually limited edition expressions like the Toiteach (meaning “smoky” in Scots Gaelic) and its “sequel”, Toiteach A Dha (toch-ach ah-ghaa, meaning “smoky two”).
But its core range mainly comprises unpeated whiskies, including the Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old, 18 Year Old, 25 Year Old, and the Stiuireadair, which is its most recent addition.
Stiuireadair, which means “helmsman” in Scots Gaelic, is a non-age statement (NAS) whisky comprising whiskies matured in a combination of first-filled and second-filled Oloroso sherry casks. This is the result of McCallum wanting to add something different to Bunna-habhain’s core range.
“When we make something with an aged statement, all I as a master blender can work with is casks with that age on it or older. But whiskies are a bit like people, they get different characters with different ages. So with Stiuireadair, I can blend all those characters together to get something different,” she said.
This is quite a fruity floral whisky – on the nose, you get a lovely touch of fruit from the sherry influence, while on the palate, you get the nuttiness from Bunnahabhain’s new make spirit that McCallum mentioned. On the finish, there is some brininess coming from the distillery’s maritime influences.
It’s quite unlike the other bottles in the core range. “For the 12YO, you’ll be getting berries, a touch of cream, walnuts and hazelnuts … a touch of fruitcake flavours as well. There’ll also be a subtle taste of salt at the back, because all our whiskies are matured at the warehouse at Bunnahabhain,” she said.
“The 18YO is 100% ex-Oloroso sherry casks. So a lot of that dried fruit coming through, a touch of leather as well, maybe? It’s a more complex whisky, and sweeter on the palate than the 12YO.”
McCallum says that Bunnahabhain’s unpeated style proves that there is more to Islay than smoke. “I’ve met people who have told me that they would never touch an Islay because they just don’t like smoke! But then they tried Bunnahabhain and they go wow!” she said.