The unicorn

Posted 05 August 2019 by Matt / In Bunnahabhain
The Dramble reviews Bunnahabhain 1968 Auld Acquaintance

Bottle Name: Bunnahabhain 1968 Auld Acquaintance

ABV: 43.8%
Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Region: Islay Age: 34

Unicorn (noun): something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain: a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead (farts rainbows). There’s no set definition of what a unicorn whisky is - to many it’s simply a bottle that has become so expensive that save for a second mortgage or selling a kidney, the likelihood of obtaining one has now become very low. To others, it’s the rarity of it - the Malt Mills of this world - the never, (if ever) sighted. To me, it’s both more than that, and less than that. It's a milestone on my whisky journey. The completion of a side quest, but not the end of the story.

Today I’ll be writing about what has been my unicorn whisky for approaching a decade. But, actually obtaining a sample for this piece has been far from easy – indeed it’s been (up until earlier this year), near impossible.

Whilst the cost and the rarity of my unicorn bottling have arguably had an impact on my ability to experience it to date (I.E. I haven’t just spent the price of a second hand car and gone out and bought one), what has elevated the status of this whisky up my ‘dream dram’ list is actually more simple - it's just personal desire.

A combination of hailing from one of my favourite distilleries and being held in incredibly high regard by my fellow commentators has precipitated an innate desire for me to try this liquid. This desire has only grown as the years have gone by and the chances to actually find it (at anything approaching a remotely realistic price) have increasingly dwindled. It’s been a long time coming, and expectations are often a bitch.

Bunnahahbahin 1968 Auld Acquaintance was released shortly after the millennium as part of a small series of official bottlings drawing from the distillery’s stock of 60s spirit. Bottlings hailed from 63, 65 and 66 - but it was arguably the final release in the form of the 68' Auld Acquaintance which catapulted Bunnahabhain into the limelight of unicorn bottlings. Auld Acquaintance is held by many commentators (particularly the ones that I trust) as the finest expression of Bunnahabhain produced to date. Strong praise indeed.

Auld Acquaintance is described as a ‘Hogmanay Limited Edition’ – it was distilled on New Year’s Eve 1968 and then matured in sherry casks for 34 years before being bottled at 43.8% ABV in 2002 for the Islay Festival. 2002 bottles were released – which even back then flew off the shelves – possibly because of the asking price – a mere £100.  

If you took £100 from 2002 and added 17 years of UK inflation, you’d end up with something close to £161 – alas, the price of Auld Acquaintance has been subjected to more than mere annual economics. Its limited supply and legendary status has resulted in a bottle which has tracked alongside the boom in the whisky industry and particularly the secondary market. Bottles appear infrequently at auction, but have grown in price considerably – particularly over the last two years when everyone has, by and large, decided to lose any semblance of sanity when it comes to whisky. Check this out from SWA:

2002 - £100
2012 - £520
2015 - £800
2017 - £1050
2019 - £1600

Or, if you can’t wait to bun fight for the next auction listing - Whisky Exchange have at least one bottle – for a cool £3,000. Be my guest.

As a long-time Bunnahabhain fanboy, the reputation and allure of Auld Acquaintance foisted it to the status as my unicorn dram. My perception of it has likely only been reinforced by how hard it’s been to actually get to try the liquid itself.  A bottle – well that’s right out. Back in 2002 my whisky journey was in an embryonic state – and I was not spending anywhere near £100 on any booze-based purchases.

But I’ve been keeping my eyes out for an open bottle to purchase a dram from for some time. I came close not all that long ago when I spied Auld Acquaintance on the shelves of the excellent Highlander Inn in Craigellachie - only for owner Tatsuya to dash my hopes by informing me that the contents had been consumed and released with tea. Foiled again. Let me tell you, this quest has been a litany of close encounters.

But, then earlier this year it happened. It finally happened.

Auld Acquaintance was listed as attending the Old & Rare Show in Glasgow. And alas, I wasn’t.

Location be damned, I was not to be thwarted - I called on the lovely @SpiritAndWood to go on a mission to obtain me a sample with which to finally ride my unicorn. 

<Deep breath>

Nose: Pronounced, expressive and gloriously polished. Lacquered mahogany tables, antique furniture shops packed with old Chesterfields, and oak panelled dusty libraries stacked high with ancient parchments. The dustiness and fustiness is entirely elegant and is livened with tons of sherried fruits – dried, but still incredibly vibrant – raisins, sultanas, figs and orange peels. Ground coffee and oily espresso beans sit with sponge cake, treacle and honeycomb, whilst granite cliffs and shale beaches are joined by engine oils and axle grease. Patience here is rewarded as resting (unsurprisingly) offers up a wider array of aromas – fine loose tobacco, leafiness including resin and tree sap, coco powder, glace cherries and salty sea air. Complexity is off the chart. Reduction favours the more industrial aspects of the Bunnahabhain spirit with additional polishes and lubricants alongside a puff of steamboat smoke and brightness from orange liqueurs. I could make nosing this a full-time occupation.

Taste: The arrival is seriously silky – still favouring the underlying body of the distillery’s spirit – fat, fulsome and oleaginous. Expensive woods – ebony, blackwood, agar – dried and reduced fruits – raisins, damsons, stewed plums, cranberries and strawberries. Incredibly voluminous and incredibly communicative. Ground chocolate, mocha and bookbinder leather sit with liquorice, dusty cinnamon and mentholated oak. The mid-palate continues to offer new discoveries – chopped almonds, fine fruit teas, beeswax and honeycomb. So much depth. The back-palate reverts to the coastalness of the spirit – a lick of salt, a fleck of limestone. The addition of water unlocks an even softer body, with toffee-dipped hazelnuts and even more mineral aspects – shingle beaches and sandy bays.

Finish: Very long with juicy red berries, fading dried fruit teas and plenty of aged (somewhat drying) oak.

Bunnahabhain 1968 Auld Acquaintance is hauntingly improbably. Spirit, cask and time have come together perfectly resulting in a near-faultless expression of sheer excellence. The nose is as good as any I’ve ever experienced, and the palate has the depth and complexity to back up this claim. Only a slightly drying (with this amount of old wood there should be no surprise) finish takes the glean off of things – but that’s being exceedingly nit-picking. This is god-like level stuff. Legendary for a reason.

So, it’s done – my unicorn has been ridden – and there were indeed rainbow farts. What now?

Whilst unequivocally the best Bunnahabhain I’ve sampled to date – there was no epiphany (not that I was expecting one). There was no sudden conclusion that my whisky journey was complete – and that now all I needed to do now was eat beans and toast for a year and lurk on auction sites waiting. Unicorns are not the only mythical beast……and we’ve not written anything about 1960s Bowmore on The Dramble as yet….the saga continues.

With immense thanks to Alistair (@SpiritAndWood)

Score: 94/100

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