Bunnahabhain situated at the northern end of Islay is a wonderful distillery to visit when on the island. With only Caol Ila a few miles away, it’s fairly off the beaten path in distillery terms for the area, but offers a warm welcome to those who make the voyage, plus a variety of rewarding tours and a stunning setting.
The distillery was originally founded in 1881 with production commencing 2 years later. Founded by William Robertson of Robertson & Baxter, no expense was spared in this new endeavour. In this bygone age they had selected a very remote site, with no existing village or infrastructure to support a distillery. The nearest settlement is the village of Port Askaig, which is about 4 miles south of Bunnahabhain. Instead the founders had to not only build a distillery, but an assortment of buildings to house the workers and their families, plus a way to reach the distillery from the existing road network and an outlet to export casks to market. In effect there were building a village and the source of employment from scratch.
A couple of years later and Bunnahabhain had its single track road that remains as enjoyable to navigate today as it must have been originally in the 1880’s. Descending down towards the site and the stunning Sound of Islay beyond, it’s a classic setting for a distillery and an imaginative choice if an expensive one. Also constructed was a pier to enable ships to collect and ferry casks to locations, again at considerable cost. This remains present at the distillery and offers visitors the opportunity to gaze out across the water towards the Isle of Jura, whilst many of the former worker’s houses have passed into private ownership.
Today, Bunnahabhain is owned by the Distell Group who acquired the distillery in 2013 when purchasing its parent company Burn Stewart Distillers and thereby also becoming owners of the Deanston and Tobermory distilleries. Under its previous ownership, Bunnahabhain was growing in popularity thanks to improvements to the quality of its whisky including the alcohol strength. Prior to Burn Stewart, the distillery was owned by the Edrington Group from 1999, who displayed little affection for this remote Islay producer. The distillery was effectively mothballed with very infrequent bouts of production on site until 2003, when Burn Stewart purchased Bunnahabhain and the rights to the Black Bottle blended Scotch, which the distillery was a vital component of until recently, for around £10 million.
Capacity wise Bunnahabhain is one of the largest producers on Islay and has been since its establishment. Able to produce around 2.7 million litres annually, it currently only produces around half of this amount. The number of stills was doubled in 1963 to 4 and it is the sheer size of these mammoth, tarnished and worn stills that is one of Islay’s memorable sights. Visiting the distillery in 2016, much of the site is as it was from the 1880’s, with the oldest warehouse dating from this period and remaining in use. The layout is a traditional courtyard affair with a large outer wall to protect those within from the elements, with the shoreline just meters away. Space in this remote area is at a premium and the distillery has lacked investment until recently. Remaining relatively unspoilt, a larger workforce is required compared to other distilleries and much of the human craft element remains.
Bunnahabhain is a popular whisky whether as a single malt, or for the blended market. The warehouses on site are at capacity and extra space has been utilised at the warehouses of the former Port Ellen distillery. The whisky has less emphasis on peat or smoky characteristics than other Islay distilleries, although the distillery does produce a heavily peated malt (35-40ppm) for several weeks of the year. The traditional Bunnahabhain whisky is lightly peated with maritime flavours including salt and a touch of smoke, and is often referred to as the whisky that Islay locals prefer to drink.
Widely supported by the independent bottlers, Bunnahabhain has an attractive official range. The main age statements are at 12, 18 and 25 years old with this trio being recommended. Then there are the more heavily peated expressions with the No Age Statement Ceobanach standing alongside the 10-year-old Toiteach, which is more of a single malt blend featuring peated, heavily peated and unpeated whiskies. The distillery also engages in annual special edition releases that are always worth seeking out and for visitors you are often able to purchase exclusive bottlings from casks on site.