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.