A Few Observations on the Launch of Bunnahabhain 40-Year-Old Scotch

Last night, in a private room accessible through a secret door at The Lion on 9th Street in Manhattan, a bunch of whisky experts, cocktail enthusiasts, and one acoustic guitarist got together to celebrate the launch a very special new malt, the Bunnahabhain 40-Year-Old. This whisky is unique for several reasons, including but not limited to the fact that it sat in wooden casks for four decades in a warehouse on the northern shore of Islay, mellowing to perfection as it soaked up the essence of the air and sea.

This delicious whisky stands out from other very expensive Scotches–it will cost you $3,170 to get your hands on one of the 212 bottles released in the U.S.–because it’s from the only Islay distillery that doesn’t burn peat to dry its malted barley. That means that Bunnahabhain doesn’t have that peaty taste–more accurately described as a smokey taste–associated with other Islay malts like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.

It also has an interesting story behind it. It might not have made it the full four decades had it not been forgotten about for a very long time. Master blender Ian MacMillan, who was at last night’s event, found the casks listed on the distillery ledger and set out to find them in the warehouse. When he did, he sampled them and determined which ones had the flavor and strength to be bottled as a "prestige" release. There are a total of 750 bottles available around the world, and you can pick up yours at a retailer like Astor Wines, or enjoy a pour at an upscale whisky bar like the Flatiron Room.

Over the course of the evening I had a chance to chat with MacMillan, who was a font of whisky wisdom. Here are just a few pearls:

  • When he started working in distilleries 40 years ago, it was common for distillery workers to get a very generous dram of whisky at several intervals during the day, beginning at 8am. The first time MacMillan partook of his morning dram he fell asleep for several hours. (The distillery no longer provides a whisky ration to its employees during their shifts.)
  • Back in the ’70s, they siphoned whisky out of the barrels with a hose, and you had to start the process by sucking on the hose, inevitably getting a healthy drink of whisky in the process. There was one guy who would take massive gulps of whisky from the hose, acting like it just took a long time to get the flow going. His cheeks would get huge and his eyes would water. Sometimes he would deliberately mess up the flow just so he had to re-start the siphoning process. (They don’t use this method of siphoning anymore.)
  • Whisky ages differently depending on where the warehouse is located, and the brisk ocean air of Islay can impart a hint of saltiness to the spirit.
  • It’s possible for whisky barrels to "die" in the middle of the aging process, imparting no more flavor into the spirit and instead allowing it to oxidize, which damages the whisky. However, the whisky can be saved if it’s put in a fresh barrel. 
  • Bunnahabhain 40 was originally launched in Taiwan, where every single bottle on offer sold out immediately, making Bunnahabhain management wish they had charged more money for it.
  • Most people who buy the Bunnahabhain 40 buy it as an investment, with no plans to open the bottles. (I find this kind of sad. I drank the heck out of my glass, and somehow finagled a second pour.)
  • While Scotch whisky has a rich history going back hundreds of years, the whisky that people drank in the old days probably tasted pretty nasty, and had an oily consistency. Today’s production processes yield a superior spirit.
  • Whisky and beer are related because they’re both made with cereal grains like barley, but the barley used in beer is slightly different than the barley used in whisky. (I’d love to taste a beer made with whisky malt, and vice versa.)
  • The idea of deliberately aging whisky in wooden barrels happened by accident, and there are several competing stories for how it first came about. MacMillan’s favorite involves two whisky-making brothers who sampled a bit too much of their product before hiding the barrels in a cave. They forgot where they hid it, and it aged to perfection before they finally rediscovered it.
  • Single malts really weren’t a thing until the ’70s. Up until then, almost every malt was used to create blended whisky. But if you go way back more than a century, almost every whisky consumed was a single malt because of the trouble and expense of shipping whisky around for blending. So the recent fondness for single malt Scotch actually brings it back to its origins.
  • There are a bunch of Islay distilleries, but the Bunnahabhain distillery is located far away from them. There’s only one road that leads to it, and it stops at the distillery. In the beginning the distillery was accessible only by sea, and they built a dock long before the road was made.
  • At 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, Islay is very small. It’s also quite flat and has notoriously lousy weather, but after a nice glass of whisky you’ll forget about all that.

There were other observations, but the whisky was flowing and I gave up on taking notes. As for the Bunnahabhain 40, it’s one of the finest single malts I’ve ever had the pleasure to imbibe, with an aroma of grass and heather, flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch, and subtle notes of mango and banana. It also has a finish that goes on forever.

If you’re not quite ready to part with the $3k required for a bottle, you can enjoy some of Bunnahabhain’s other expressions for much less. The 12-year-old, for example, is excellent: malty sweet with just a whiff of smoke, and it goes for less than fifty bucks a bottle. If you’re looking to splurge on something really great, but not quite at the 40-year level, the Bunnahabhain 25-year-old goes for around $325 and has an amazing melange of flavors, from berry and cream to caramel and spice. Buy a bottle and pour me a dram. 

[Related: BlackBook New York Guide; Listings for The Lion, Flatiron Room; Keep up on all the new openings and events by subscribing to the free BlackBook Happenings newsletter; Download the BlackBook app for iPhone and Android; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter.]

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