The tradition and heritage of the whisky industry is well documented – and regularly rolled out on many a distillery tour. But whilst learning about the past and seeing history in action is undoubtedly interesting, and also important, I find a different kind of excitement from seeing the modernity and innovation that is now driving the industry. As the saying goes - if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Independent bottler A.D.Rattray are looking to challenge perceptions in their own way and have recently produced a new experimental range that allows you to do the same. So let’s take a look at their Octave Project.
Octave casks are made from the staves of previously used casks and are roughly 1/8 the size of a butt, holding around 50 litres of liquid. The smaller casks provide a much higher surface area to liquid ratio, allowing for a far greater interaction between the spirit and wood – changing colour, taste, structure and character in a much shorter space of time than a standard sized cask. For their Octave Project, A.D. Rattray commissioned four different types of Octave cask – each constructed with staves from larger casks which previously held either Pedro Ximenez sherry, oloroso sherry, Rioja or rum.
Selecting single malt whisky from three distinct distilleries – Arran, Bunnahabhain and Pulteney - A.D. Rattray divided a hogshead of each between the specially coopered Octaves and finished the whiskies for a five month period. The resulting bottles form the basis of their Octave Project – a selection of experimental whiskies which allow the drinker to compare the effects of four different short and intense octave finishes.
The whisky is available in two forms from the newly redesigned A.D. Rattray webshop – either as whole bottles of each of the four octave finishes, but also helpfully, in ‘Little Dram Sets’ which also include a 3cl of the original ex-bourbon hogshead for comparison. Likewise, it’s entirely possible to take your home experimentation a step further with this mini-series and compare similar octave finishes across the three different distilleries – how does a rum octave finished Arran compare to either a Bunnahabhain or a Pulteney?
For today’s review, A.D. Rattray have sent us the Bunnahabhain Octave Project bottlings, including the original ex-bourbon cask as a starting point for comparison. As it’s not available purchase a whole bottle (only in the Little Dram Sets), we’ll provide tasting notes, but not a summary or score of this one:
Bunnahabhain 14 year old ex-Bourbon Hogshead 57.1 % ABV
Nose: Resolutely ex-bourbon, with buttered popcorn, creamy custard and split vanilla pods. Bright zingy lemons are joined by freshly-made toast, pronounced minerality and a sprinkle of salt. The addition of water brings out the natural fruitiness of the Bunnahabhain spirit with stone and berry fruits, as well as iced buns and croissants.
Taste: Quite a glossy arrival with very creamy vanilla, fresh lemons, berry fruit and bakery flavours – bread, cream cakes and meringue. Behind this is distinct earthiness from mushrooms and intense mineralitity – crystalline, almost quartz like – again with salt elements. In the mid to back palate, cask influence brings spice – in this instance pepper. Dilution improves the overall integration of flavours and takes out some of the residue ‘heat’ that can be perceived at 57.1% ABV. It also adds both nuttiness (hazel) as well as heightening the earthy flavours with musty cellars and dunnage floors.
Finish: Medium, somewhat drying and with a combination of oak and pepper spice.
So, that's our baseline - now let's dig into the four different octave cask finishes and see how each has affected the underlying ex-bourbon matured Bunnahabhain.
This 15 year old Bunnahabhain was matured for over 14 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being subjected to an additional 5 months of finishing in a specially commissioned PX Sherry Octave.
Nose: Initially rather on the shy side – 10 minutes of resting unlocked much more aroma. Fresh gooey sherry rich with demerara sugar, strawberries and raspberries. Raisins and chocolate and a hint of balsamic sit alongside light ginger spicing and gentle minerality – wet slate. Water really amps up the berry fruit as well as adding stewed plums and licks of toffee.
Taste: A slightly syrupy arrival – akin to tinned fruit juices. A juxataposition of sugar and salt – reduced red berries and poached pears meet salinity and granite minerality. An interesting jumble. Milk chocolate, tobacco leaf, cinnamon and anise provide additional flavours. The addition of water brings out the cask influence – vanilla, oak and some fair astringency.
Finish: Medium in length, wet soils, scattered nuts and salt. Quite drying.
The short, but intense octave finish that this Bunnahabhain has undergone has introduced some exceedingly interesting elements – sugar vs. salt can certainly be a ‘thing’ and likewise, its refreshing to experience a PX influence that hasn’t over-ridden the underlying spirit character (which likewise is often a thing). That said, the nose on this example was exceptionally tight and there is certainly a sense of the PX cask and original ex-bourbon hogshead fighting each other with neither willing to completely submit.
Bottle Name: Bunnahabhain 15 year old Oloroso Octave
This 15 year old Bunnahabhain was matured for over 14 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being subjected to an additional 5 months of finishing in a specially commissioned oloroso sherry Octave.
Nose: A gentle nose that improves and opens with a short period of resting. Apple and berry crumble – buttery and biscuity. Poached pears with a punnet of cranberries drenched with the juice from a tart lemon. Toffee and fudge, spiced with cinnamon and allspice. Alongside these warming aromas, slight minerality – rock pools and sea breeze and gentle mustiness – damp soils. The addition of water adds creaminess – so now your crumble can have some much needed custard. It also introduces further biscuity and cereal notes – breakfast bars and Kellogg’s Special K.
Taste: A viscous arrival that’s certainly on the sweet-side and packed full of flavours – apples, raspberries, cranberries and blackberries are met by toffee fudge and chocolate sauce. There’s gentle pepperiness, but plenty of cinnamon. Earthiness develops in the mid to back palate, merging with the spices to create a sense of bitterness. Water brings out the underlying mineral aspect as well as pronouncing both chocolate and unctuous red fruits.
Finish: Medium with sugar dusted berried, chocolate and tobacco. A well-judged drying fade.
The five-month Oloroso Octave finish has suited this Bunnahabhain rather well – there’s just the right amount of sherry influence here. Rich, fruity and with plenty of natural sugars – not only is this very tasty, but it’s maintained the underlying distillery character well. My personal favourite of the Bunnahabhain selection of A.D. Rattray Octave Project finishes.
Bottle Name: Bunnahabhain 15 year old Rioja Octave
This 15 year old Bunnahabhain was matured for over 14 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being subjected to an additional 5 months of finishing in a specially commissioned Rioja Octave.
Nose: Exceedingly shy and wound up tightly. This cries out to be rested. Musty red fruits – hedgerow berries and blackcurrants are joined by some patisserie aromas – iced buns, cream cakes and pastry. Earthiness is quite high here – mushrooms and musty cellars (perhaps a wine cellar?). Minerality is certainly quite expressive here, wet slates and chalk dust. Water adds gingernut and custard cream biscuits.
Taste: A perfectly reasonable arrival that focusses on stone fruits – plums, peaches and apricots – but then quickly becomes exceedingly dry and tannic. Toffee and burnt caramel are played off against some particularly pronounced steely flavours – granite, rock pool pebbles, almost aluminium tin. In the mid to back palate some interesting leafiness arises – quite earthy – ferns and mosses. The addition of water improves the balance of this whisky immensely, reducing the perception of tannins and dryiness, whilst allowing some space for further fruits (blackberries and blackcurrants) to develop.
Finish: Short to medium, crystalline sugar, crystalline minerals – joined by some gum-licking tannins and lip numbing alcohol bite.
Long-time readers will know I’m always a touch wary of wine-finishes and this Rioja Octave typifies why. Whilst the Rioja cask has inferred some new aromas and flavours, the whisky has drawn all of the tannins out of both the wood and the red wine itself, making for an incredibly drying and unbalanced experience. Undoubtedly the small cask will have contributed to this effect. Likewise, it’s important to remember the experimental nature of this series – all have been finished for 5 months and it would be most unlikely to find that this length of additional maturation was somehow perfectly suited to every single type of predecessor liquid. Alas, in the case of this Rioja Octave, the stars haven’t aligned.
This 15 year old Bunnahabhain was matured for over 14 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being subjected to an additional 5 months of finishing in a specially commissioned rum Octave.
Nose: Immediately quite expressive with buttered toast, burnt biscuits, meringue and marshmallows. Fruitiness favours stone fruits – peaches in particular, but also with some reduced/dried fruits – raisins and prunes. Everything is dusted with a fine layer of powdered sugar – this plays quite nicely with the underlying earthiness and mineral elements, which are present, but quite reduced from their original ex-bourbon origins. The addition of water introduces some toffee and caramel sweetness, making for a rounder, more unctuous nose.
Taste: Juicy sweet fruits with more of a tropical outlook - spit-roasted pineapple, guavas and unripe mangoes are joined by some souring lemons and limes. In the mid palate, raisins and prunes alongside espresso beans provide some additional deeper flavours. In the back palate, some cask influence comes out to play – vanilla and sappy oak alongside buttered toast and cream. Dilution adds some orange peels in to the mix, but also heightens the ex-bourbon cask influence with plenty more vanilla and oak.
Finish: Medium in length with vanilla, refined sugars and touches of minerality.
This Rum Octave finished Bunnahabhain ably marries the aromas and flavours of ex-bourbon maturation with tropical fruits and additional sugars from the rum cask. Whilst at times the two casks fight for attention, the addition of water gives the ex-bourbon the upper hand. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and tasty whisky and one of the very few ex-rum Bunnahabhains I’ve seen.