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Though ne’er to tread thy shores again,
My heart with thee shall still remain;
Where’er I wander, I’ll retain
My dearest wish for Islay.
– An Islay Song, Alexander M’Gilvray
1pm is normally my lunchtime rather than single malt whisky time but sometimes you have to bend the rules in pursuit of your profession – and in this case of pleasure.
Yesterday I was privileged to take part in a ‘virtual tasting’ of five outstanding single malt whiskies, courtesy of South African wines and spirits company Distell and Hong Kong International travel retailer CDF-Lagardère (which trades as Duty Zero). The quintet of single malts were from Bunnahabhain, an Islay whisky with a difference – known for aromas and flavours other than the heavy peat character usually associated with single malts from the remote Scottish island.
Now let’s qualify the ‘virtual tasting’ description. The virtual referred to the hosting of and participation in the event – conducted by Zoom from Scotland, London and Hong Kong respectively.
The participants were 30 of CDF-Lagardère’s VIP customers from China and me, the sole media representative and a long-time whisky aficionado. But the tasting was as real as it gets and the engagement almost as good as being there.
With one eye on our Virtual Travel Retail Expo in October, where several brands plan to create experiences ranging from masterclasses to new launches, I watched the format closely.
The pre-engagement started with a delivery to my home several days earlier. I unwrapped the stylish, ribboned black box to discover miniatures of the five whiskies to be tasted (plus two additional ones as gifts) and five Bunnahabhain (pronounced with an enunciated “oo” at the start and “van” as opposed to “hain” at the end) tasting glasses. What a way to build anticipation.
Although my internet chose an inopportune time to crash just before the tasting began, I managed to reboot it (amazing what a swift kick to a router can do) in time for the opening words from Lagardère Travel Retail Business Director (Spirits, Wine & Beer) – Asia, Scott Hamilton, who set out all the rules of engagement for such an innovative concept. Scott had personally invited his selected VIP customers (and me) and welcomed them with the promise of some amazing whiskies. He wasn’t wrong.
Distell Global Travel Retail Managing Director Luke Maga followed with an introduction to the group’s single malt portfolio (it also includes Tobermory on the Isle of Mull and highland malt Deanston), with the focus on the star of the evening, Bunnahabhain.
Bunnahabhain Brand Director Derek Scott, speaking from his home, then took over, promising (and delivering) no “death by powerpoint”. Instead, he interlaced the tasting with some evocative shots of Islay and the Bunnahabhain (it means ‘mouth of the river’ in Scots Gaelic) Distillery with some compelling background on history, production and aging.
So to the whiskies:
Bunnahabhain An Cladach: The brand’s third global travel retail exclusive (joining Cruach Mhona and Erigh Na Greine), An Cladach means ‘The Shore’ in Gaelic. Bunnahabhain is renowned for its use of sherry casks to age its whiskies and the influence of the famous Spanish fortified wine hits you (or caresses you) on the nose immediately, leading into lovely honey and fruit aromas. A little bit of trademark Islay saltiness but it’s the softness that wins the day here for me. A delicious, easy-drinking malt.
Bunnahabhain 12yo: Derek called it “our global flagship… the quintessential Bunnahabhain” and certainly the 12yo is the reference most-known around the world, including within the travel retail sector. Explaining the fact that no peat is used in the whisky-making process, Derek said that Bunnahabhain “draws out the character of the island”. You certainly get that here with a tantalising medley of aromas. I nosed it again this morning as I was writing this Blog (it’s 7.01 as I write so I emphasise it’s a nosing only) and what really jumped out of the glass was the dried fruit characters. Cut it with just a little water and it brings out a beautifully creamy, light whisky that finishes long and clean.
Bunnahabhain 25yo: This is simply a great whisky, its quarter of a century spent ‘slumbering by the sea’ in former sherry casks imbuing it with a symphony of floral and fruity notes that lead through to a soft, vanilla texture. Derek likened it on the palate to strawberries and cream (“it’s like going to Wimbledon”); and while I didn’t get the strawberries, the creaminess certainly defines this malt, nicely counterbalanced with a hint of sea salt. I could slumber quite happily by the sea after a dram of this multiple award-winning whisky, cut again just with a splash of fresh water.
Bunnahabhain 40yo: Tasting is a personal thing and different people often perceive very different notes and flavours from any wine or spirit. But Derek’s reference to coconut struck home for me, underpinning this gorgeously sumptuous gentle giant of a whisky’s thrilling mix of toasted nuts and tropical fruits. “That’s a privilege,” said Derek as he sipped a dram. I’m inclined to agree. Last night when I finally brought a long, long day to an end, I poured myself a small glass (well, not that small) of the 40yo. I cut it with a dash of water, took in the treasure trove of aromas, looked out over my garden through the still dark night and thought everything was good in the world. And, you know, it was.
Bunnahabhain 1980 Vintage Canasta Cask Finish: And now for something completely different. Well, not completely, it’s still got that trademark Bunnahabhain sherry sweetness but here it translates as treacle and toffee. This is a big, dark whisky, its distinctive hue forged by breathing Islay’s briny coastal air for over 14,000 days – first in casks that held Oloroso sherry, then in sweet Canasta sherry oak. I got dark chocolate on this one which lasts and lasts on the palate. Canasta is a reference to a rich Williams & Humbert cream sherry (a blend of dry Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez to create a rich and sweet fortified wine). As Derek says, if you smoke cigars, this would be an amazing complement. I’m going to test that theory at the weekend with a Partagas D No.4, a dual prospect that is simply going to make the rest of the working week rush by.
Derek finished with a flourish, through the exclusive reveal of Bunnahabhain 36yo – the latest edition in the brand’s super-premium Elements Series. This limited-edition single malt was exclusively bottled for CDF-Lagardère and only six decanters are available. “We wanted to work with Scott and his team on something unique,” he said.
All the elements that make Bunnahabhain are represented here, Derek noted. The 36yo, bottled (six only) last year, features lots of rich dark chocolate, toffee, dried fruits and quintessential saltiness. “It’s a masterpiece… the sort of whisky that doesn’t come along very often… incredibly rich and luscious.”
So what was the verdict on this concept of a virtual tasting? Those of who have been Zoomed, Microsoft Teamsed, or Webinared to death over recent months might have feared a contrived, sterile experience. It was anything but. Derek Scott helped greatly in that respect, via a combination of his relaxed yet enthusiastic demeanour, down to earth way of conveying often complex information, and a great mix of information about Bunnahabhain and Islay.
When The Moodie Davitt Report first started talking to brand partners about our Virtual Travel Retail Expo, one of the first pieces of feedback we got was that the idea seemed great but what a pity tastings could not be conducted. We said they can be, and we had something like the Bunnabhain approach in mind. Bravo to the Distell and CDF-Lagardère teams for showing that it can work: a triumph of pre-engagement, communication, logistics and, of course, great whisky.