Great expectations

Posted 10 February 2020 by Matt / In Bunnahabhain
The Dramble reviews Wemyss Malt Bunnahabhain 1987 29 year old The Viceroy’s Elixir

Bottle Name: Bunnahabhain 1987 The Viceroy’s Elixir

ABV: 46%
Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Bottler: Wemyss Malts
Region: Islay Age: 29

Whisky and expectations are inherently tied together. As a producer - freshly laid down new make spirit is all potential – a foundation upon which to build, a canvas on which to paint. Its prospects driven by both nature and nurture – and its eventual end point somewhat clouded in mystery until the finishing line of bottling is reached. Throughout the spirit’s long slumber expectation and anticipation are both present. Is the liquid destined for blending, or already earmarked for potential greatness as a single cask? Will it capably fulfil the requirements for either of these? What if it doesn’t? But similarly, as consumers, our journeys are also defined by our expectations – when we open a bottle will we find that familiar friend or unlock the demon of disappointment?

We’ve all been there, excited to open and sample a particular bottle – our minds already a whirl with the prospects of what we’ll shortly be nosing and tasting. And (unless we’re approaching it truly blind) we’re already influenced by the information that we’ve gleaned – distillery of origin, ABV, cask type (1st fill, refill, finish etc), precursor liquid, colour (seemingly more important to many folks than I can ever understand), age, price, even bottling names.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing – certainly as a whisky writer, I rely on my expectations of what whisky can and should be to guide my judgements as to what I’m looking for in any future expressions – that’s simply experience and learning and it’s something which should not be underestimated. But at the same time, expectations can unfortunately be a bitch – preconceptions, particularly when stemming from age, price and history are all dangerous and can, and will invariable lead to disappointments along the way.

There’s still a strong vein of belief that price, age and rarity are inherently linked to excellence. Even amongst the more knowledgeable of enthusiasts, you’ll still see eyes light up when presented with a large age-statement or a bottling that’s deemed (by peers) to be uncommon. It’s a sad fact of expectations that you’ll still regularly see a visitor to an exhibition stand immediately gunning for the oldest or most expensive bottling available to taste on the table. And similarly that this approach often results in dissatisfaction.  Nevertheless, we all have markers for our expectations - and as enthusiasts, it’s important to manage these.

Not every bottling is going to match our personal tastes and preconceived standards. Some will be found wanting, some will exceed our greatest hopes, and some might even defy our beliefs – indeed, these types of experiences doubtless keep enthusiasts continually coming back for more and continually buying more bottles. We’re always looking for the next great thing. But with highs must come lows.

So what do you do when you have expectations for a bottle and they just don’t pan out as you expected?

When it comes to older whiskies, or those that have been in bottle for a long time, resting is at worse advisable, and at best essential. Take your time. Similarly, whilst you’d think that producers and bottlers always create expressions at the best possible ABV this is far from the truth – they aim to craft whiskies where the aromas, flavours and compositions are at their optimum, based on their palates and preferences. Your expectations and partialities might well be different – as such dilution is always an option. Never write a whisky off until you’ve given it a fair crack. Unless it's Fujikai…there’s nothing which will save that.

Most of all though – you need to manage your expectations. You will invariably suffer from disappointments – and that can feel particularly painful when you’ve forked out a princely sum for a bottle which you believed gave off all the right signals. Attempt to get as much from that whisky as you can – rest it, water it, share it with your friends and seek their opinions. And then learn from it. Recognise that it is still OK, indeed important to have great expectations – but equally, it’s imperative to try to temper them.

Today’s review has much about it which would likely result in some preconceptions. Wemyss Malt’s Viceroy’s Elixir is a 29 year old Bunnahabhain that was distilled in 1987 and then left to mature in a sherry butt until bottling in 2017 at 46% ABV. 579 bottles were produced at an original price of around £220. Nowadays retailers with stock will want you to pay around 50% more for the privilege – though it’s auction price seems to be hovering only slightly above its 2017 RRP.

I suspect many of the more colour obsessed enthusiasts would likely have expectations of this bottling. But similarly, each aspect of its features and presentation similarly generates certain expectations.

Nose: Macerated cherries, sour plums and heavily reduced berries are served alongside pronounced old oak – polished ebony tables, lacquered panelling, leather covered armchairs and dry parchment paper. Dark chocolate runs throughout with liquorice, musty spent pipe tobacco, balsamic and soy. There’s an underlying ‘volcanicness’ here – struck match and saltpetre – more sharp, mineral and metallic than egg and cabbage, but still perceptible. Resting has huge benefits to the overall composition of the whisky, expressing nutty old oloroso packed full of hazelnuts and walnuts, richer, brighter, sweeter fruitiness and a considerable less brimstone. Reduction also proves to be beneficial, revealing butterscotch and tangy 70s orange liqueurs alongside mentholated oak and mint leaf.

Taste: The arrival is viscous, rich and cask-forward. Immediately on mahogany drawing rooms, laminated high-sheen flooring and varnished oak. Bright but sour fruits follow – blackberries (quite jammy), cranberries and plums alongside dried fruits – raisins, sultanas, figs and prunes (a veritable fruitcake). The mid-palate expresses some mustiness – damp soils, moist cellars and ferns, before additional richness arrives in the form of thick black cherry cordial, liquorice, dark chocolate ganache and spent coffee grounds. Resting is once again advisable – no overt change in flavour base, but with an improved balance which favours the sweetness of the fruits over the sourness of the oak. Dilution should be undertaken sparingly, but is a game-changer. Juicy berries, walnut oil, old cola, crystalline ginger and mentholated oakiness. Much improved.

Finish: Quite long with fading red and black berries alongside progressively drying oak and fading metallic brimstone.

Straight out of the bottle this Bunnahabhain is all potential, no poise. It’s arguably been left maturing too long - at least in this particularly sherry butt – which has resulted in sourness and perceptible atomic number 16 (though not by any stretch calamitous). There’s deepness, richness and complexity abound, but with a vein of irritating stubbornness.

It’s therefore quite fortunate that patience and a willingness to experiment both have the ability to shake this old-timer from its near grumpy slumber. Adequate breathing time (at least 20 minutes for me) and just a few drops of dilution are completely transformative – resetting the overall balance between sweetness, deepness, favour density and oak. The result is as it should be – quite excellent and much more immediately appealing. This viceroy presents as more bad-tempered than benevolent leader - but under the surface there’s an old softie that’s still willing to be cajoled into giving you that reassuring hug.

Score: 84/100

Master of Malt
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