Distillery Focus

The softer side of Islay (Bunnahabhain)

Bunnahabhain is the foil to Islay's claymore, finds Ian Buxton
By Ian Buxton
I once threw my dinner in the sea at Bunnahabhain. Staying at the distillery, I befriended some local fishermen and swapped the contents of their creel (two fine edible crabs) for luxury shortbread.All went well until the procedure for preparing the delicacy was explained to my children, then four and five. Fervent protests rent the air. Any parent knows the end of this story – yes, the crabs were returned, bemused but unharmed, to the Sound of Islay and I went hungry.I’ve always retained a fondness for this little-known Islay distillery and swore one day to return, and that time had come. First, the facts. Bunnahabhain – pronounced ‘bu-na-ha-venn’. Location – north-east Islay, opposite the poetically named Paps of Jura. Established 1881. Owners Highland Distillers. Manager John MacLellan. Capacity approximately 2.4m litres per annum, from two pairs of stills. Expressions – 12-year-old and limited distillery-bottled vintages.What that bald narrative can’t convey is a sense of place. You have to understand that Bunnahabhain only exists because of the distillery. There is nothing else here, and it is literally the end of the road. I was told that Bunnahabhain means ‘mouth of the river’ in Gaelic and, indeed, the River Margadale runs to the bay just north of the distillery. But it really should mean ‘exceptionally quiet place, even by the standards of very, very quiet places’. Just listen: that gentle chattering is the swell of the tide over the pebble beach, and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the long grasses move in the gentle evening breeze. That’s it – no people, no cars, no aeroplanes, nothing. The distillery’s four holiday cottages are booked each year by discerning regulars who know that nothing can equal the transcendent quietude of this place.That’s right – distillery cottages. Unusually, you can actually live here, not just visit the distillery. A row of old cottages on the seafront and immediately adjacent to the distillery has been converted into four star self-catering holiday homes. Fitted with every modern convenience, they make the ideal base for touring this starkly beautiful island. Conveniently, they are only staggering distance from the dramming shed. For details and availability, contact Lillian MacArthur at the distillery.Of course, for the people who work here, Bunnahabhain is rather more important than a fortnight’s break. Making whisky means employment, so, romantic notions aside, this is a place of industry (at least until 5pm, when magically it seems to revert to nature). Certainly the original proprietors had money in mind when they put the distillery here during the whisky boom of the 1880s, to capitalise on the abundant water supply. They were enjoying the sales free-for-all due to the dramatic success of the recently introduced blends. More volume for blending was badly needed, and so the Islay Distillery Company founded Bunnahabhain. In May 1881 the steamer ‘Islay’ dropped off building materials and 50 navvies on the stony beach. Work began. With the sea at their backs and bare moorland in front, the first step was to assemble workmen’s huts, after which they began digging and quarrying the stone to build the distillery, road, houses and even a small school.Bunnahabhain was conceived on an ambitious scale. It had a capacity of 200,000 gallons of whisky annually (over 900,000 litres, more than many other malt distilleries produce today) and, as Alfred Barnard admiringly wrote in 1886, “all the plant is of the newest and most approved description.” But if the proprietors were daring in the scale and innovation of their distillery, they looked to tradition at least in its construction, using locally quarried stone. Barnard again: “The distillery proper is a fine pile of buildings in the form of a square and quite enclosed. Entering by a noble gateway one forms an immediate sense of the compactness and symmetrical construction of the work.”Barnard’s “noble gateway” remains to this day, reminiscent of the entrance of a Bordeaux château, an impression confirmed as you step into the enclosed courtyard. But there’s a tough, gritty quality about the buildings, emphasised by the grey tones of the local stone. It’s all too easy to picture the hard physical labour that went into cutting this place from the barren rock. Bunnahabhain has not been prettified for the visitor and the evidence of hard work is all around, from the sombre warehouses to the starkly functional filling shed.Fittingly then, this is a substantial operation, with one of the largest mash tuns you’ll see anywhere. Its copper dome conceals the original fittings, but the cast iron casing was replaced a few years ago by a stainless steel cladding, giving it a piebald appearance. The mash tun takes 12 hours to drain, feeding six Oregon pine washbacks and two pairs of large onion-shaped stills.Ten men work the distillery, backed up by the resourceful Lillian MacArthur in the office. It’s a far cry from the days when Bunnahabhain employed enough staff to justify its own school, post office and general store. Today, all that remains is a public phone box and a few empty houses, but the team who man the distillery today are notable for their long service and island roots and there is still a strong sense of
community in the hamlet.Lillian joined the distillery straight from school 27 years ago; stillman Robin Morton has 25 years’ experience and Manager John MacLellan, a Port Charlotte man, has been at Bunnahabhain for 13 years. He attributes great importance to local connections: “We all know the importance of making things work and pulling together. It’s down to the people here and their commitment to Islay – if something goes wrong, we look to sort it out ourselves.”But, happily, there’s been little sign of that in recent years. Silent season apart, the distillery has been in more or less continuous production for virtually the last 20 years – an enviable record. That’s mainly attributable to the success of the various blends that account for most of Bunnahabhain’s output: The Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and, most recently, Black Bottle. Highland Distillers acquired this grand old brand in 1995 and since have worked to improve the blend and introduce an aged version, Black Bottle 10-Year-Old, using only Islay malts.

One of John MacLellan’s proudest boasts is that every pub on Islay now stocks Black Bottle. I sadly didn’t have time to check every one, but it was widely available and popular with discerning locals. The Black Bottle brand, originally from Aberdeen, has had a chequered history but appears to be settled now and developing a growing following, with Bunnahabhain at its heart. malts. The result is a faint floweriness and a long-lasting nutty finish that marks it out. Perhaps the nearest comparison is Bruichladdich.The single malt expression is bottled at 12 years old. Although too loyal to admit it directly, John MacLellan did not contradict my view that it seemed well-matured and that perhaps a high percentage of the vatting had enjoyed a good deal longer in cask than the declared age. If so, drinkers are getting a bargain.With a lot longer in cask, and a definite bargain, the recently-released vintage expressions are the distillery team’s own innovation (not the marketing wizards at HQ). There have been two issues so far, with two more to come.The first, a 1965 single cask, was introduced last year and the limited edition of 594 bottles sold out within weeks at £99. So they followed this up with a 401-bottle edition of 1966, of which just a few remain (sold only from the distillery at £125). Already it’s being tipped as a sound collecting investment, but John MacLellan hopes that at least some will be drunk, and, at £25 a nip, it’s available in The Harbour Inn at Bowmore.I found it a memorable and rewarding dram. The distillery’s tasting notes offer ripe apricots and honey as key aroma elements. For my money, the apricots came over as a ripe melon note, with a secondary honey aroma – dark, mature honey, not the flowery sort. The immediate impact was round and mellow, but without any of the burnt rubber sometimes detected in old sherry casks. There was a long finish which lingered for some time. It would be a shame if the collectors kept it all to themselves, though as the last of the distillery’s 1966 casks it’s a truly limited bottling.Later this year the distillery will release the Auld Acquaintance bottling, which gets its name from being filled to cask on December 31st 1968. Changed times indeed at Bunnahabhain as John MacLellan half ruefully observed. “Can you imagine the boys turning out on Hogmanay these days?” he asked. Back then, luckily for us, they did so as a matter of course. Auld Acquaintance 1968 is limited to 2002 bottles, at 43.8%, non-chill filtered and yours for £100.But Bunnahabhain’s pièce de la résistance will not be available until next year when the final casks from 1963 will be hand bottled at the distillery as a 40-year-old. These old sherry casks lie in warehouse 5, immediately adjacent to the sea. I nosed a remarkably sprightly vintage, but with a peaty note suggesting that at some point, local malt was being used.That then is Bunnahabhain. Largely unsung, but innovating in single malt and at the heart of some of the best-selling blends around. If you don’t know the standard 12-year-old try to make its acquaintance. Think of it as a foil to Islay’s claymore and you’ll have its measure.