How Bunnahabhain Scotch Got its Peat Back

Casual fans of Scotch whisky know that the Islay region makes smoke bombs. Those a little more studious can tell you that Bunnahabhain, made with zero added peat smoke, is the island's anomaly. But if you're really up on current events, you're aware that there's an exception to the exception to the rule. Bunnahabhain's latest release, Ceóbanach, is a malt that recalls a time when the 134-year-old distillery still adhered to the style of the seemingly peat-carpeted island.

Along with this throwback malt, the master distiller Ian MacMillan is also debuting a new Deanston, with a Cognac finish so long it is fairly double-aged. Both whiskies are uncolored and not chill-filtered. The two distilleries, one Islay and one Highland, are owned by Burn Stewart, which also runs Tobermory on the Hebridean island of Mull.

MacMillan says that he has wanted to recreate a peated Bunnahabhain since the company purchased the distillery in 2003. The facility ceased performing its own floor maltings in 1963 and began ordering unpeated barley malt from an outside malt supplier. To realize his dream, MacMillan purchased malt from the nearby Port Ellen malting plant, which services distilleries on the island. However, he had a couple of extra vats installed so that the standard, unpeated malt was not allowed to mingle with this new smoky product.

MacMillan immediately started distilling what he called "Bunnahabhain mòine" (Gaelic for peat) with a peat-phenol level quite similar to that of Islay neighbor Lagavulin. For the last seven years he has used the results as a three-year-old in blends (the company also makes Black Bottle and Scotch Leader). It is only now with the release of the 10-year-old Ceóbanach (pronounced "kyaw-bin-och" and gaelic for "misty") that it comes to us as a single malt. The whisky, which is aged strictly in ex-Bourbon barrels, has been quite popular for use by other blenders all along, he adds.

The distiller doesn't claim that the new whisky is an exact copy of the earlier peated Bunnahabhain, saying, "I know that going back, the stills were quite small, so I could never properly replicate what was there already, but it is as close as I could ever get to what was distilled [earlier]."

The smaller stills of Laphroaig and Lagavulin create a more medicinal style of smoky whisky, MacMillan says, while the larger stills of Bunnahabhain contribute to the sweetness that the spirit retains even with a phenol level of between 35 and 40 parts per million.

MacMillan other new whisky project has been quite long in the making as well. Deanston Cognac Matured is an 18-year-old with maturation divided between 11 years in Bourbon oak and seven in Cognac casks. The idea came about eight years ago when the company owned Hine Cognac. He was chatting with the cellar master there and said he'd like to take some casks back for experimentation with whisky.

"My intention was to put it in for say one year," says MacMillan. However, when that time passed it was decided to leave the casks on the back burner. Years later, "when we were talking about something that would be unique for the U.S. market, I said, ‘I know the very thing. I have six casks of Deanston that has now been in Cognac casks for seven years.'"

The distiller acknowledges that the duration is well beyond the typical whisky finish of a few months to a couple of years: "To call that a finish, well, seven years is quite a long time. It's really double-matured." Nevertheless, the whisky is not overpowered by Cognac notes. MacMillan believes that the long maturation in Bourbon wood and the age of the Cognac casks (up to 30 years) contributed to the subtlety of the finish. "You couldn't mature new whisky in a [French] Limousin [wood] because it would just be overpowered by the oiliness of that particular oak. That's why we use mostly American oak or Spanish oak."

MacMillan also laid some of the credit for the Deanstown's delicate quality to where it was aged: Warehouse 2B. In a former life the Deanston facility was a cotton mill, built in 1785. It wasn't until 1966 that it was converted for whisky production. Aging is done in the old mill's vaulted cellars. Warehouse 2B was originally the weaving shed and made of stone a yard thick. The overall effect is a static temperature all-year long. "It's a fantastic place for maturing whisky."

Deanston Cognac Matured (92.6 proof, or 46.3 percent alcohol by volume; 18 years old; $159 a 750 ml. bottle)

APPEARANCE: Light blonde; tight, reluctant, tiny legs.

NOSE: Comes out very sweet and honey-like with some floral notes. A bit of lemon drop and some bready qualities.

PALATE: The honey on the nose is the big attack on the tongue, followed by a savory creaminess and the sweet lemon drop referenced above. It also claims a white chocolate flavor and some cinnamon spice as the first wave recedes.

FINISH: Those last notes turn spicier and it fades off with a gingerbread note.

Bunnahabhain Ceóbanach (92.6 proof, or 46.3 percent alcohol by volume; 10 years old; $84.99 a 750 ml. bottle)

APPEARANCE: Corn silk. Slow teardrop legs.

NOSE: Peat's the reveille here, with lots of maritime notes: salt and seaweed. As you take it in it becomes a little more toasty and warm with bread dough undertones.

PALATE: An intense meeting of smoke and spice (anise, cinnamon and pepper). Give that a moment, and in rush some candied layers with lemon and orange citrus, plus vanilla and caramel.

FINISH: Bids adieu quite sweetly for such a smoky introduction. But just as you think you've said goodbye to the peat and sea, they return with a blast of spice. An exciting rollercoaster ride.

CIGAR PAIRING: Davidoff Nicaragua Diadema (Dominican Republic; 6 1/2 inches by 60 ring gauge; $17.90; 90 points, Cigar Insider, August 19, 2014) An attractive, double-tapered figurado with a burn so even that the ash perfectly maintains its shape. Notes of raisin, dried fruit and almond lead to a coffee bean finish.

With Deanston Cognac Matured: Earthier flavors pop right out on the cigar under the whisky's influence, followed by a stronger fruit note, especially pears. The Davidoff's effect on the Deanston is more subtle, with a fortified honey flavor and some spiciness, which lengthens as you move back and forth between the two.

With Bunnahabhain Ceóbanach: The Ceóbanach's peat buoys the hearty notes on the cigar and underlines its coffee finish. The whisky receives a delicious sweetness from the Davidoff fruit flavors. Some interesting spices (particularly cinnamon and anise) trail the sugar. This is a marriage that showcases the complexity to which a peaty Scotch rise.