Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich have the reputation for being the atypical Islay malts. Where the other five (plus Kilchoman) are all peaty, Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich are not. Or, at least, they have not typically been since the early '60s. Bruichladdich has been experimenting with higher peat levels recently (including such peat monsters as the Port Charlotte and the Octomore), and, to a lesser extent, so has Bunnahabhain (pronounced Bunna-haaven, more or less) since Edrington sold it to Burn Stewart in 2003.
Bunnahabhain is one of two distilleries located on the east side of the island on the Sound of Islay (Caol Ila, located to the south of Bunnahabhain, is the other). Founded during the Golden Age of Scotch in 1881, it probably has the lowest profile of any of the Islay distilleries, never really having been marketed aggressively as a single malt but rather serving as a major blending malt for such mass market blends as Cutty Sark. Unlike most of the other Islay distilleries -- indeed, unlike most of the other Scotch distilleries throughout the country -- it has had a remarkably stable ownership. Its corporate parent has merged with others several times, but until the 2003 sale, the distillery itself had never been sold. Like most other Scotches, it began life as a robust, peaty malt, but it lost its peat by the middle of the 1960s as the world's tastes lightened. With the exception of two experimental runs of peaty whisky in the '90s (one in 1991, the other in 1997), Bunnahabhain was completely unpeated from the '60s until Burn Stewart started experimenting again in 2003.
In addition to being unpeated, everything about the Bunnahabhain distillation process is geared towards producing a light, clean whisky. Unique to Islay, the water used is crystal-clear spring water (most people agree that water doesn't have that much influence on the character of the whisky, but to the extent that it does, one would expect that peaty loch water as is used by the other distilleries would produce a marginally heavier whisky than clear spring water). The wort undergoes a very slow fermentation, the object of which is to produce a clear, acidic wash, both of which properties tend to make for a lighter, cleaner spirit. The still charges (ie, the percent of capacity that the stills are filled with either wash or low wine) are the lowest on Islay, producing more copper contact and a lighter, cleaner spirit. Also tending to increase copper contact are the shape of the stills (tall) and the speed of distillation (slow). And the spirit cut is relatively narrow, meaning that more of the congeners that make whisky heavy are left out.
In light of all of this, I expected my newly-purchased Bunnahabhain 12 year old to be peat-less, light, and sweet. I was surprised to find that this wasn't entirely the case. It's sweet, all right, but there's peat. I wouldn't go so far as to call it peaty, but there is noticeable smoke on the nose. The only thing that I can figure out is that some of that peaty 1991 run whisky is included in this bottling. The nose also has some nuttiness, probably due to sherry casks. Bunnahabhain uses some sherry casks, unlike most other Islay distilleries. I also get vanilla, which isn't typical for Scotch and which I can't figure out. Spirit caramel, maybe? That would make sense, especially because the whisky is much darker than most Scotches of its age. I don't know. Overall, this is a pleasant whisky, although for my money, I'd rather buy Bruichladdich.
Oh, and with this tipple, I have now tried whiskies from all of Islay's functioning distilleries (except for Kilchoman, which just started up and is extremely small, anyway). Rejoice!