Islay Distilleries #1 of 8: Bunnahabhain – The Grey Mouse

by Oliver Klimek on May 15, 2010

On the first evening after my arrival in Port Ellen I treated myself to a welcome dram in the local pub, called Ardview Inn. A group of Swedish whisky lovers had a lively discussion at a table nearby. I don’t know any Swedish, but I certainly picked up many distillery names. All Islay distilleries were mentioned but one. Yes, you guessed right, it was Bunnahabhain.

This is symptomatic for the image of this distillery. Often overlooked or regarded as the least interesting of all Islay distilleries, Bunnahabhain is something like the ugly duckling or grey mouse of the bunch. So I was very eager to learn a bit more about it when I set off to Bunnahabhain on my first morning on the island.

And somehow the low-key image of Bunnahabhain is also reflected on location. Tucked away behind steep hills at a remote bay at the northern end of the Sound of Islay, on the dead end of a very curvy single track road, the grey houses of the village blend with the grey distillery buildings. And that greyness was accentuated even more that day by a very gloomy cloudy sky.

Bunnhabhain has no visitor centre to speak of, but rather a combination of a reception room equipped with a small bar and comfy leather armchairs and a small shop, both located in different buildings. Only one other visitor had found his way to the distillery, so it turned out to be a tour for two led by a long-time distillery worker.

A tour led by someone who tells you about his actual work is always a nice thing. The personal experience adds another dimension to the standard facts and figures that are commonly told by the seasonal guides that are commonplace in most distilleries. Our guide was especially frank with his opinion on whisky quality that in his view had been deteriorating over the last decades because traditional trial and error methods had given superior results to today’s regime of science and EU regulations. Of course this is a point that can be argued about (I for one tend to agree), but it clearly shows the passion that the workers have for their jobs and that there really is more to whisky making than just chemistry and physics.

Bunnahabhain has got a slightly larger mash tun (66000 litres) than the other big Islay distilleries and it is made from stainless steel rather than the commonly used cast iron. And unlike other distilleries, they use four waters to extract the sugars from the mash, the first to going into the wash still, the last two being used for the next mash.

Another thing that is a bit unusual is the shape of the spirit stills which almost look like pears. Most other distilleries use a much sharper transition from the pot to the to neck of the still.  This design limits the reflux of distillate into the pot. The result is a shorter distillation time and a less complex spirit because there is less re-combination of aromatics.

Workflow in the distillery seems to be pretty straightforward and traditional. There is a computer in the stillhouse but it seeems to serve monitoring purposes only.

My overall impression of Bunnahabhain distillery was that of a place where people are happily doing their jobs without caring too much about the outside world. Compared to the other distilleries with their fancy visitor centres and snow white picturesque buildings, Bunnahabhain almost seems like a time capsule from the past. But times seem to be a-changing also at the far end of Peat Island as their recent bottlings display a certain spirit of innovation. The Darach Ur with its maturation in fresh casks is an experiment that is quite spectacular for the Scotch industry as a whole, and the Toiteach is a definite turn away from Bunnahabhain’s tradition of distilling only very lightly peated spirits.

I think Bunnahabhain’s rather poor standing among the Islay distilleries is largely due to a very undistinctive profile in the past. Islay has been synonymous to peat, and the distillery had no unique expressions to set against the peat bombs. So they almost faced the same fate as their “unpeated counterpart” Bruichladdich which had to close down as we all know. With the change of ownership in 2003 they just managed to avoid that. But they certainly know how to make a good malt, and I think the distillery deserves more recognition than it is getting now.


Bunnahabhain Distillery as viewed from their pier



The entrance to the production and office buildings



Warhehouses



The Pier



The Reception Room


The old Porteus malt mill, very popular among distilleries because of its robustness


The mash tun, stainless steel with a copper lid



The washbacks made from Oregon pine. The CO2 from the fermentation is not pumped away.

One of the two wash stills showing signs of heavy usage

One of the two cuddly spirit stills. The old fire chamber is still in place

The spirit safe is a lot shinier than the stills

A sherry butt in the warehouse

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gordon May 16, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Hi Oliver ,
Nice to see Bunnahabhain getting a bit of a write up before the usual suspects .
Bunnahabhain has several problems in putting it’s self up against the other Islay Distilleries , the first is a rather uninspiring standard bottling , the 12yo , now i happen to like the 12yo but if you ask anyone it isn’t high up on their list for trying . They could bump it up to 46% and NCF to start with ! As they did with the Darach Ur ( a lovely drink BTW) . The Second is the owners or rather the owners Marketing Department , they don’t know what to do with the place ! They came up with the “Gentle taste of Islay” slogan (fair enough) but then someone found they’d done experimental batches of peated malt , which is actually very good imho (i own a share in a 2005 cask) and they panicked because they couldn’t send it out as it goes directly against what they are marketing ! So they release an odd festival bottling and flog the rest for supermarket / non-attributed brands……
They probably could sell loads under their “Moine” brand !
Then we had the festival bottling that the Market department decided was in the same league as other Premium brands , £220 for a 21yo , caused a bit of a commotion , needless to say a few years on it’s still available in several retail outlets……..

Several times during the festival i’ve been on tours with the former distillery manager in the warehouses and i can tell you there is some fantastic stock in them ! Just again they either don’t seem to know what to do with it or don’t seem interested in it .
It’s a real shame as they have a superb spirit , the 18yo is a hell of step up from the 12 (though again they could do with bumping up the ABV) , if anyone really wants to discovery the true Bunna they should try some of the independent bottles from the likes of the SMWS , Signatory , Rattreys or even Dreamdrams ! You can pick up both the unpeated and peated and the Unpeated really comes into it’s own when it gets older (hunt out the SMOS 1979′s ) .
We can only hope someone at BSD finally figures out to do with this great distillery !
They may finally twig onto what a few of us already know…….
Slainte
Gordon

P.S. we spend our Summer Holidays at the cottages so we know what a great place it is to chill out at……

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