July 24, 2014

Chocolates, Michelin cuisine, World's best oysters, Stunning Scotch - this is Bunnahabhain Day at Feis Ile 2014

Whisky galore at Bunnahabhain.
Whisky tasting takes stamina! By 9:30am on Friday 30th May, I had taken a morning run along the coast from Port Charlotte, wolfed down some porridge, and was on my way to Bunnahabhain Distillery, where our first tasting of the day was with Brand Ambassador, Dr Kirstie McCallum. Sweet Taste of Home was a whisky and chocolate pairing - just the thing for 10:30am. The chocolates were provided by Iain  Burnett, The Highland Chocolatier, who concocts his creations in Grandtully, an absolutely tiny village on the River Tay where, as it happens, my sister and brother-in-law live. So, I already knew about the quality of Iain's chocolates.
Bunnahabhain whisky with Iain Burnett chocolates.
Kirstie had assembled a fabulous collection that paired beautifully with the selected whiskies. Clearly, a PhD in Chemistry, and previous work as a blender, provides awesome training for such culinary exactitude. The Doc told us that she had tasted dozens of chocolates to find the best matches!
It's a bit cruel to dwell on the tasting, but here's a rundown in any event.

Bunnahabhain 12 year old 

With a drop of water, this was brilliant with a lemongrass praline. For me, the B12 displays lemon, hazelnuts, honey and a bit of perfume on the nose; with an oily mouthfeel, and gentle fruit and cloves on the palate. The alcohol dominated a wee bit with the chocolate, but a droplet of water did the trick.

Bunnahabhain 18 year old

I'm a big fan, even without chocolates, but this was pretty divine with a dark chocolate, orange and clove truffle. The B18 is rich and smooth, with orange, dried fruits and toffee from nose to tail. All of our tasting companions were equally impressed.
Everyone's a new friend at a tasting.

 Bunnahabhain 25 year old

When my dessert island stranded time arrives, (misspelling intended) let this one be in the box! Beautiful, elegant, plump dried fruits, the best vanilla pods, soft and smooth, so balanced and perfect that tasting notes can only underestimate the delight of this dram. Kirstie had paired this with  pistachios and almonds on dark chocolate. My handwritten notes show a smiley face. I guess I liked this.

Dram an Stiureadair

In keeping with the nautical theme of the day, the name means The Helmsman's Dram. (See below for the full name with accents). Many of Bunnahabhain's bottlings are at a generous 46.3% alcohol by volume, but this one is a robust 56.7%ABV. It's a peated dram, with no age expression, although it appears about 10 years old, with most of that time in Bourbon casks, and some final time in Marsala casks. Unlike other Islay distilleries, many of Bunnahabhain's whiskies are unpeated, and seem to do very well in that configuration. The process of changing production from  unpeated to peated whiskies, or vice versa,  is a big task for a distillery, but well worthwhile in the quest for a wide range of products. Bunnahabhain makes peated whiskies about 4 weeks of the year, some of which finds its way to Duty Free stores.
I did not win this
Dram an Stiureadair was, of course, vastly different from the 25 year old we had just tasted, but a nice dram nevertheless. Peat, vanilla, cream, nuts and spice mingled together well in this youthful whisky, which was nothing short of superb, with the raspberry and black pepper truffle. In a complete understatement, this was not a bad pre-lunch tasting!
Earlier in the day, Kirstie started off proceedings with a nosing test. Nine aromatic bottles had to be matched up with their corresponding descriptions - peat smoke, nuts, vanilla, oak, malt, sherry, spice, fruit and Bunnahabhain. This was a lot of fun, a good way to meet other table guests, but not a walk in the park by any means. Isn't the nose a marvelous thing!
Nosing test
By now, the sun was shining, the awesome folk/rock band Skerryvore was belting out great songs in the courtyard, people were milling around enjoying fabulous views across the Sound of Islay, having a dram, waiting for the famous Helmsman's boat to arrive, or chomping down on all the great street food. It was lunch time and there, before me, was a cart filled with freshly shucked Islay Oysters, from Loch Gruinart, a tidal estuary on the north coast, with a mild marine climate. The waters around Islay are warmed by the Gulf stream, and two daily tides bring in fresh food for the oysters.
I'll go out on a limb here and say that these are the best oysters in the world.
Granted I had just had four fine drams and some pretty decent chocolates, but these were the best, sweetest oysters I have ever tasted - bar none.
View across the Sound of Islay
But the day was far from over. In the afternoon, we toddled over to a big marquee to enjoy another tasting - this time paired with tasty food prepared by Michelin star Chef, Geoffrey Smeddle, from The Peat Inn near St Andrews.
It mattered not a whit that the first three Scotches were repeats from the morning - 12, 18 and 25. Let me attempt to describe the food!
The 12 year old was served with Pork Cheek and Onions. The pork was infused with caramelized, sweet onions, topped with a ring of pickled shallot with sugar and served on a  brown malted flour biscuit. Yum!

The 18 year old was served with a duck pastilla. This might look like one of those frozen appetizers which one buys in a  box around the holidays to cook, and delight guests. It was, in fact, a mixture of nuts, dried apricots and figs, cooked in PX sherry and Bunnahabhain 18, and mixed with slow cooked shredded duck, then wrapped in a  delicately thin firm pastry. Oh my!
Not a frozen appetizer.
 The 25 year old was served with a cheeseburger. What?!? Well, this was a play on a cheeseburger in a  dessert form. The "bun" was a miniature malted milk and almond macaroon, the "burger" was 53% (very specific) dark chocolate and milk chocolate ganache, and the cheese was mango jelly. Very, very innovative - and tasty.
Not your average cheeseburger
The final piece de resistance was a taste of Bunnahabhain's very limited17 year old, single cask festival bottling - Westering Home. The beautiful bottle was designed by a young, Swedish artist, Mathilda Holmqvist, who won the design competition. She was there, beaming, with bottle in hand.
Westering Home
The whisky had spent about 10 years in a refill cask, then 6 years in a  Cognac cask, followed by a few months in a Sauternes cask. Sweet tree fruits, coconut, tropical spices, honey and toffee  all came into play through the nosing/tasting/enjoying journey. And - there was another delicious truffle to enjoy with this one. Even better, proceeds from the sale of this whisky were destined for the Fisherman's Mission.
What a speculator day! And we only grazed the surface of all the events on offer. Distillery Manager, Andrew Brown, is the best possible host and, no doubt helped by a small army of equally passionate folks, he put on a proper party! Here's another of my Bunnahabhain stories from a  previous visit.

GrapeScot Islay Whisky Tour August 2015

My next trip to Bunnahabhain will be in August 2015. You can join me, and a small tour group, on this whisky adventure to my favourite Scottish Hebridean Island. Drop me a line and I'll send you the itinerary and details.
My next post will be about Lagavulin. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates. You'll only receive an email when a new story is posted.

SlĂ inte!