Distillery Focus

Welcome to Islay's gentle soul

It calls itself the gentle malt of Islay,but Bunnahabhain is much more than just that.Dominic Roskrow bravedthe last blast of winter to visit it
By Dominic Roskrow
When it comes to what are technically known as ‘blow me sidewards’ moments,entering the still room at Bunnahabhain distillery takes some beating.In the first place, it catches you by surprise.The entranceway takes you out on to a gantry that is halfway between floor and ceiling, so you’re about eight metres above the stillroom floor. It’s not what you would have expected, and neither is the room itself.It’s a tight,warm and cluttered room that envelopes you with its intimacy.Black Bottle and Bunnahabhain banners adorn the far wall to provide some personality but overall the room shares the same buzzing feeling of a ship’s engine room.Then there are the stills, four of them.They seem to be lined up with all the discipline of a bunch of sulky schoolboys trying to form a queue.This is distilling up close and personal, an in your face experience with the nearest copper still just centimetres away.You can feel the heat of its breath and to pass through this dragon’s den you have to all but clamber over the copper monsters in front of you.Contrast with the cathedral-like still room at Glenrothes, featured in the last issue, and you appreciate what a varied business whisky production is.But looks can be deceiving. For what might look like some form of ordered chaos from the gantry, unveils itself as a feat of engineering from the still floor. In fact the stills formtwo pairs and are set up to complement each other perfectly.No space is wasted elsewhere, either, with the spirits safe, holding tanks and feints receivers all squeezed in.Not surprisingly, there is little room for much else, including visitors.Distillery manager John McLelland makes no apology for this though.“It might seem a bit tatty,”he says.“Parts of it are creaking with age.But the way we look at it is that this is a working distillery that allows visitors in, and not a showpiece distillery that occasionally makes whisky.” That’s the thing about Bunnahabhain – there’s something endearingly traditional about it. It lies off on its own not far from Port Askaig on Islay at the end of a long road that leads nowhere else to a remote stretch of shoreline that overlooks Jura.You approach it from above and you’re struck by how weather-beaten and battered it looks.When the rain is lashing down and the carbon smoke clouds cover it, it’s a study in East European sullenness.The offices are warmbut tatty, all worn 70s carpets and traditional study-like dark wood.An incongruous computer sulks among the Post-it notes, magazine stacks and bottle displays.But – get this – the friendly folk who work here know how important a hot cuppa, a sweet biscuit and some old-fashioned conversation are, and they extend a welcome to pretty much anyone. If it’s personal service you want this is the place to come.And just as it is with the still room,there’s much disciplined business going on at the distillery here than it might seem.Indeed, let’s go further – Bunnahabhain is a ship on the move, a distillery with momentum.There’s a very real sense that after a great deal of patience,Bunnahabhain’s time has come and it’s about to take its place in the spotlight.Production was doubled here in the 1960s when two new stills were added but as with so many other distilleries, production now is right up, and comparable with its very best years.“I’ve been here since 1989,”says John,“and production is the biggest since I started at a fraction under two million litres. It might seem a little tatty on the surface but we’re starting to get proper investment.Between £600,000 and £700,000 was spent here last year and it will be a similar amount this.We’re moving ahead.We got two new boilers last year and that’s made a huge difference in terms of our efficiency.“It’s much,much better.” And it has to be – there is little time for lengthy delays that a broken boiler can cause. In most weeks they’re doing nine mashes and producing 45,000 litres of spirit, though some natural factors work in their favour.“We have a huge storage capacity here,”says John.“It’s because traditionally the barley was delivered by sea and to minimise the number of trips the distillery was able to take in big loads.At the moment that’s an advantage because barley is going up at such a rate that we have been able to save a significant amount by buying in bulk.” Although Bunnahabhain is known for its lighter,gentler style, once again,appearances can be deceptive.Today, for instance, the aromas from the distillery are distinctly Islay.By which we mean traditionally peaty.“I’m not going to lie to you,” smiles John.“We make a peated version of Bunnahabhain for blending purposes for a few weeks a year and this just happens to be one of those times.” It’s no lightweight, either, containing 30 to 40 parts per million of peat, up there with its neighbours to the south of the island.Later we are to taste some of it, and it is stunning though I am warned that if I mention it I may have to be shot, as the concept messes with Bunnahabhain’s ‘gentle’marketing tag.But it still begs the question; wouldn’t it be nice just to do an occasional special,perhaps under another name in the same way as sister distillery Tobermory does with Ledaig? John’s answer is of the house of cards ‘you might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment’ variety. Fair enough – Burn Stewart should do it.There.Not that there’s anything at all wrong with the current malt,and when you look at the care that goes in to distillation that should come as no surprise.At every stage the distillery has its own quirky way of working.There are four washes to each mash instead of the more common three, with the last two at 90 degrees being combined to form the first water for the next mash.There are six washbacks each with a capacity of 66,500 litres,and each working 12 hours apart from the next.They produce enough wash to fill the pair of wash stills twice, with a quarter – 16,500 litres – being used in each wash still for each charge.This is about half the capacity of the still but essential for the process and not likely to be altered to cut corners when driving the production.“By having the still only half full the spirit has further to travel over the copper,”says John.“This of course causes the heavier spirits to reflux and leaves just the lighter spirit we’re looking for.” With output as high as it is the distillery admits that it faces the not altogether unpleasant problem of running out of warehouse space, but there’s general acceptance of the situation, with demand for Bunnahabhain on the increase and set to continue to go up as malt lovers fully appreciate the delights of the standard 12 year and the two older expressions released a couple of years ago, the 18 and the 25, continue to pick up awards.Then there’s the small matter of Black Bottle.Originally the purpose of the trip was to mark the relaunch of the blend, but the weather conspired to keep the press party off Islay.The whisky has taken far too many knocks in its 130 year old history to let a weather squall hold it back though.And it would seem that like Bunnahabhain,Black Bottle is getting some proper support from its parent company.Pound for pound it is arguably the best value Scotch whisky on the market, containing each of Islay’s seven producing malts.Reinforcing its Islay heritage by adding the sponsorship of Islay’s pipe band to that of the Autumn jazz festival.Heady times then, but even when modernising Bunnahabhain is a malt with its feet firmly on the ground.As we stare out through the rain and over the jetty to where the Jura is hidden in storm cloud, cask strength Bunnahabhain in hand, I can’t help wishing it will always be like this.And the magic of that still room will last forever. THE TASTING
Nose: Like smelling the sea while eating fruit
Palate: The peatiness is held in check,a might frustratingly for this
palate,but the younger whiskies in the mix give it an
appealing zinginess
Finish:Most recognisably Islay:sweet and peaty12 YEAR OLD
Nose: Quite thin,sharp and malty.Deceptively shy
Palate: That’s better.Biting fruit,clean malt and a salty fish thread
through the centre.Almost defines what a coastal malt is meant to
taste like
Finish: Quite gentle and tangy18 YEAR OLD
Nose: Again,slightly shy and a shade musty
Palate: The best taste of the three official bottling,with a richer,
fruitier body,clean barley and a healthy dose of wood spice
showing its age
Finish:Warming and woody25 YEARS OLD
Nose: Grape and spicy wood
Palate: Big wood presence,tannin spice on the side of the mouth,
and a strawberry jam centre .Big and bold
Finish: The fruit and oak do battle beforeit all fades away gently16 YEAR OLD OLOROSO SHERRY54%
Nose: Heavily sherried,with rich stewed prunes
Palate: Intense,but with water zesty orange and soft fruit,
maraschino cherry and some wood and spice
Finish: Beautifully full and rounded,verymore-ish1977 REFILL OLOROSO SHERRY ABOUT 42%
Nose: Honey and melon,clean and crisp
Palate: Rich citrus notes,possibly grapefruit and rapier sharp and
clean malt hit
Finish: Pleasant and savoury1989 FIRST FILL SHERRY ABOUT 50%
Nose: Christmas cake,sherried fruit trifle
Palate:Fist a hint of wood and spice,then a full dark chocolate and
summer fruits assault.Very,very drinkable
Finish: Long,rich and warming.Outstanding1971 ABOUT 44%
Nose: Fizzy,sherbet candy
Palate:Whatacontrast to the others we tried! Strawberry sherbet,
zesty fizz,almost a children’s strawberry sherbet drink
Finish: Falls away quickly but that’s dangerous because you
definitely want more