Distillery Focus

Westering home

Our man heads to one of Islay’s most remote distilleries
By Gavin D. Smith
Bunnahabhain Distillery warehouse.
Bunnahabhain Distillery warehouse.
Bunnahabhain is one of the trickiest Scottish distillery names to spell and pronounce (Boo-na-HAV-uhn) and its name translates from the Gaelic as ‘the mouth of the river.’ The distillery was established in the same year as fellow Islay distillery Bruichladdich, with production commencing two years later, in 1883.

Although all of Islay’s distilleries, with the exception of Bowmore, are comparatively isolated in location, Bunnahabhain takes remoteness to a whole new level, being situated at the end of a four-miles long, unclassified road, just outside the island’s northern ferry terminal of Port Askaig.

The distillery’s spectacular site was chosen by founders William and James Greenlees and William Robertson for the local availability of pure water and high-quality peat, along with its sheltered coastal location, which was important in the days when Islay’s distilleries were served directly by sea. The remote site necessitated the construction of houses for distillery workers, a lengthy section of road, and a pier to accommodate vessels supplying the site. The total cost was £30,000, the equivalent of £2.6 million today.

After distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard visited Bunnahabhain in 1886, he wrote that, “Ten years ago there were but few distilleries in Islay, but the encouraging demand for this valuable make of whisky for blending purposes encouraged further enterprise in the extension of existing distilleries and the erection of new ones. One of the most successful of these new ventures being the subject of our sketch.”

Noting that the distillery had an annual capacity just short of 100,000 litres, Barnard added that, “The works have a frontage towards the bay, and command a fine view of the opposite shore, and the celebrated ‘Paps of Jura.”

The year after Barnard toured Bunnahabhain, the distillery became part of the newly-formed Highland Distilleries Company Ltd, and remained so until 1999, when The Edrington Group took over Highland Distillers.

The increasing popularity of blended Scotch, especially in the USA, during the 1960s, meant that the complement of stills was doubled from two to four in 1963, and the floor maltings ceased operation in the same year.

The distillery’s fortunes took a dip in the early 1980s, however, when over-production led to the closure of many Scottish distilleries, and Bunnahabhain was silent from 1982 to 1984, only operating at a low level of production for several years thereafter.

The late 1980s saw Bunnahabhain emerge as a single malt, though most of the distillery’s output was for the blending vats, and Edrington’s key brands, Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, and from 1995, Black Bottle, after the company acquired the blend and made it Islay-centric in profile.

Ultimately, Edrington decided to concentrate its energies on a small number of strategic, high profile single malt brands such as The Macallan and Highland Park, and accordingly sold off Glengoyne and Bunnahabhain distilleries during 2003.

Bunnahabhain and Black Bottle were subsequently purchased by Burn Stewart Distillers plc for £10 million, with the company already owning Deanston Distillery in Perthshire, and Tobermory on the island of Mull.

2013 saw another change of stewardship, when Burn Stewart’s owners CL World Brands and Angostura sold its Scottish operations to South African-based The Distell Group for £160 million.

Just as Distell has invested in its Tobermory distillery, so it is putting significant financial resources into Bunnahabhain as well.

Early last year, the company announced its intention to invest £10.5 million in the Islay site, with Distell’s brand director for malts Derek Scott having previously declared that Bunnahabhain had been “under-invested in.”

Distillery manager Andrew Brown explains that, “The distillery is almost 140 years old, so we decided to undertake a complete programme of upgrades and modernisation.

“When we announced the facelift back in 2017, the warehouse roofs needed repair and in general, the infrastructure required investment. But the upgrades that have been going on since last year are to improve the visitor centre and overall experience for the thousands of whisky fans who we welcome every year.

“Our investment is about, first and foremost, improving the operational side of the distillery for the long-term future. The plans were always to make navigation of the site much easier for visitors, and to do this, we needed to declutter and help our staff and guests enjoy the relaxed and real way of Bunnahabhain life.”

With work ongoing for a year now, Brown says that, “Several warehouses have already been removed from their shoreline position and will be replaced with the new distillery visitor centre which is currently still being worked on. The space is set to include a café and retail area, and will have stunning views of the bay and Sound of Islay.

“The renovation plans that begun last year included the revitalisation of six cottages neighbouring the distillery, and the plan for those is to use them as holiday accommodation as a further way of introducing visitor facilities.

“While not all of the new facilities are completed yet, we can guarantee that visitors will still have an excellent experience this season, as the renovations are causing minimal disruption to our production process and our tours.”

Brand director Derek Scott points out that, “We are committed to reducing the environmental impact of the works. The whisky industry is starting to be more environmentally aware and our achievement of recycling over 99 per cent of materials shows, with a little bit of extra effort, it is remarkable what we can achieve.”

Despite the demolition of warehouses, Andrew Brown is keen to stress that, “We’ll stick true to our commitment to the quality of our single malt and as such will age a significant proportion, if not all, on Islay. Warehouse capacity will still be 14,500 casks on site of various sizes.”

A number of original buildings are being restored, and a new filling store constructed, while the production building is being refurbished and changed from relatively manual operation to a much greater degree
of automation.

Andrew Brown explains that, “Technology is implemented to monitor key parameters of the process. The production of new-make spirit is overseen by a team of skilled operators who ensure that technology doesn’t have the final say in the quality of the spirit, and it’s this passion that shines through in the finished product.

“More than 50 per cent of what we produce in 2020 will be laid down as single malt, and our biggest markets are currently the UK, US, France, Germany and Taiwan.”

Bunnahabhain has long been noted as one of the ‘mildest’ of the Islay single malts in terms of peatiness, and its large, slow-run stills allow for a significant degree of reflux, enhancing the comparatively light style.

Andrew Brown notes that, “The wash stills are the tallest on the island, shaped like onions, and we only use 47 per cent of their capacity.”

Under the Edrington regime, amounts of heavily-peated spirit were also produced each year, and this continues to be the case today, with peated Bunnahabhain being referred to as Moine – the Gaelic for peat.

Currently, 40 per cent of annual production is dedicated to making peated spirit, with the peating level having been increased to 35-45ppm.

Peated Islay spirit is in demand by third parties, and Bunnahabhain has become increasingly popular as it has become more difficult to source ‘traditional’ peated Islays.

The distillery’s own first peated expression was a 6-year-old named Moine, which was launched in 2004.

Today’s core range of Bunnahabhain includes 12, 18, 25 and 40 Years Old expressions, along with the NAS Stiùireadair, matured in first and second-fill sherry casks, plus a brace of peated single malts. These are Cruach Mhóna, which translates from the Gaelic for cut peats stacked to dry, and Toiteach a Dhà, matured in a combination of ex-Bourbon and former sherry casks.

Distell’s 2019 Limited Release Collection included a Bunnahabhain 2007 Port Pipe Finish, a 2007 French Brandy Finish and a 1988 Marsala Finish, with more such bottlings expected later this year, while a plethora of other limited editions are profiled on the distillery website.

Since 2010 Bunnahabhain has been offering most of its mainstream whiskies at a strength of 46.3% ABV, rather than the previous 40 or 43% ABV, and all the expressions are non-coloured and non-chill-filtered.

Andrew Brown declares that “there are some exciting releases planned for 2020, and they will definitely be worth waiting for!”


Getting technical



Water source

Margadale Spring. The only distillery on Islay to produce whisky using pure spring water

Malt

Unpeated and peated (peated to 35-45ppm) – Laureate variety

Mashing

Traditional 12.5 tonne stainless steel, copper-topped mash tun. 12-hour mash cycle

Fermentation

6 Oregon pine wash backs (100,000 litres capacity, filled with 66,500 litres). 55-100 hours fermentations

Distillation

2 x wash stills – onion-shaped (charge 16,625 litres), 2 x spirit stills – pear-shaped (charge 9,500 litres)

Production capacity

2.5mla
The mash room
The mash room
Sampling the maturing whisky
Sampling the maturing whisky
The still room
The still room
The distillery
The distillery
Bunnahabhain from the sea
Bunnahabhain from the sea
Casks waiting to be filled
Casks waiting to be filled
More casks
More casks
An outbuilding on the site
An outbuilding on the site