A new day dawns in December which means that it’s time to open another door of your Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar. Behind door three you’ll find an Islay malt with a difference… no smoke! 

To help with our festive countdown, we’re delighted to have master distiller Stephen Woodcock who oversees operation at the three Scottish single malt distilleries in the Distell group Bunnahabhain, Deanston, and Tobermory. It’s the former distillery that we’re concentrating on today. 

Located on Islay, it’s something of an anomaly on the island in producing mainly unpeated for its single malt, though this wasn’t always the case. It used to produce a smoky new make but in 1963 production was doubled but the on-site maltings were closed meaning that malt now came from the mainland unpeated. This new Bunnahabhain was designed to go in the light Cutty Sark blend. Since then the classic single malt style, like the 12 Year Old we’re featuring today, has been unpeated though the distillery does produce some peated expressions. Since 2014, it’s been part of the South African Distell group.

Master distiller Stephen Woodcock

And now, we’ll hand over to the expert, Stephen Woodcock, to tell us more. 

Master of Malt: Can you tell us a bit about Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old and how it is matured?

Stephen Woodcock: Bunnahabhain 12 was the beginning of our range, so it holds a special place in our hearts. First launched in 1979, our 12 Year Old has endured almost 40 years, thanks to the passion and dedication of our distillery team, not to mention the love and support from our fans and friends around the world. It has set the tone and the benchmark for the rest of the range – only the best will do. It is double matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, this whisky is beautifully rich and full-bodied, achieving the perfect balance of the characteristic nutty and sherry flavours of Bunnahabhain.

MoM: What makes Bunnahabhain so special as a distillery?

SW: The sense of community, the remote location and the people all combine to produce our exceptional whisky. There has been change over time and although the village houses have gone, there is still a strong sense of a community and link to our past, which relied on the sea to deliver and take away the goods we depended on. This connection to the sea allowed the distillery to thrive for nearly 100 years before a road connected us to the rest of the island – all of which is encapsulated in the image of The Helmsman. A trip to Bunnahabhain provides visitors with a real sense of our history, community and of course great whisky.

Bunnahabhain looking beautiful on a clear day

MoM: How has the distillery adapted to the unusual events of this year?

SW: We had been planning for a busy year at Bunnahabhain and it certainly was that, just in a very different way than expected. As the team will attest, living on Islay has its challenges so we’re used to adapting – whether that be from stormy conditions or something more unexpected like the virus. This year has allowed us to connect more with the Bunnahabhain community online through shows, virtual tastings and of course re-thinking our Feis Ile plans. For now, we are busy working behind the scenes and look forward to a brighter 2021 where we will hopefully be able to welcome everyone back to our home on Islay.

MoM: What do you think the world of whisky is going to look like in 2021?

SW: 2020 has asked serious questions of a liquid which is synonymous with social situations and gatherings, whether they be festivals, tastings or simply drinks with friends. The industry and consumers have responded with online versions of these events, which now seem like our new normal – they have been tremendously successful given the global circumstances surrounding COVID and the challenges it has brought with it.

From the challenges of this year, a real opportunity has stemmed to enjoy international festivals and tastings. Traditionally these events would be localised affairs, however, they have opened up and we can now enjoy company from the four corners of the globe in a single sitting and join the mix of conversation, observation and chat in an online world without the extended carbon footprint.

2021 will hopefully see a transition from the new normal back to something more familiar, with the added benefit of applying our learnings from this year – allowing us to enjoy whisky in more traditional settings, as well as harnessing technology to build a larger online audience to share Scotland’s gift to the world.

MoM: What will you be drinking over the festive period?

SW: Bunnahabhain of course! It’s difficult for me to see beyond the beautiful sherried influence in a Stuireadhair or a Bunnahabhain 18 if I really want to spoil myself. Having said that, I really can’t ignore our other distilleries… the peated warmth of a Ledaig 18 is a fantastic way to enjoy a cold winter evening and a Deanston 12 with a single cube of ice is a great welcome to a happy and healthy 2021.

Behind door number three is the classic Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old

Tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Fresh, sweet. Seaweed, malt.

Palate: Soft, supple. Sherry, nutty. A little sweetness, malty, juicy sultana. Slightly coastal.

Finish: Sherried, mochaccino, herbal, balanced salty tang.