Bunnahabhain Distillery feels a little different from other established distilleries on Islay. There are a number of reasons for this, and together they build up to a distillery with a highly distinctive character that is well worth visiting. Intending visitors should note that Bunnahabhain tends to have a rather longer silent season than most distilleries, so it is worth checking with them before setting off to visit: see contact information and website links on the right.
This is doubly true because Bunnahabhain is also the most remote of Islay's distilleries. It enjoys an absolutely idyllic location on the coast looking out over the northern end of the Sound of Islay to the empty (if you don't count deer) west coast of Jura and the dominating heights of the Paps of Jura. Bunnahabhain Distillery is reached by a single track road which makes its way though a beautiful wilderness of heather clad hills and lochs for 3½ miles from the A846 a little inland from Port Askaig before descending into the village built to serve the distillery and, after a final hairpin, into the main distillery complex itself. You know you are getting close when you see a cask beside the road with an arrow indicating that the distillery is half a mile away. The other end of the barrel directs you to "Other Places".
The name "Bunnahabhain" comes from the Gaelic for "stream foot" and denotes its location close to where the Margadale River, the source of the distillery's water, flows into the Sound of Islay. It is pronounced "Boona-haa-ven".
Its sense of remoteness is the first thing that contributes to Bunnahabhain's distinctive character. The second is its appearance. The external pictures on this page were taken in rain, so do the distillery few favours, but Bunnahabhain Distillery is the only coastal distillery on Islay that does not now paint just about every building on the site white. Instead the universal finish is a much more subdued grey, albeit with a white band running along the seaward face of the buildings above the shore, to form a backdrop to the name of the distillery in large black letters. In this respect at least, Bunnahabhain does conform to usual Islay practice.
The choice of grey is a deliberate attempt to minimise the visual impact of what is actually a very extensive complex of buildings in a very remote setting. In white, Bunnahabhain would stand out like a sore thumb when seen from the summits of the Paps of Jura. The choice of finish ties in with the low key approach taken to handling visitors. Everyone you meet is friendly and welcoming, but the place has the authentic feel of having been captured in a black and white photograph taken a century ago. You are certainly visiting somewhere designed primarily to produce whisky rather than to entertain visitors.
And a great deal of whisky can be produced here. Although Bunnahabhain is arguably the least known of the established Islay distilleries, its potential capacity makes it, by some accounts, the largest distillery on the island. In practice it tends to work at around half its theoretical maximum level of output, and this is one of the reasons for its extended silent season. The house style and the absence of peat used in the malting of its barley makes Bunnahabhain's whiskies the lightest of those produced on Islay, and much of the output goes into the internationally well known "Black Bottle" blend.
Bunnahabhain was founded in 1881. It was therefore still a new venture when visited by the author Alfred Barnard when he was researching his definitive book on distilleries in 1886. Like today's visitor Alfred Barnard approached by road, though he noted that at that time goods arrived and departed from the distillery pier, which had cost £3,500 to build. From his description and drawing you get the impression that large parts of the distillery have changed little over the intervening century and a quarter, though at that time the distillery had its own floor maltings.
The distillery closed in 1930, only to reopen seven years later. In 1963 the floor maltings ceased to operate and at the same time the distillery underwent a major expansion that saw the addition of a second pair of stills to join the two it started with. There was a further period of closure in the early 1980s. In 1999 Bunnahabhain's owners, Highland Distillers, were taken over by the Edrington Group. For the following four years the distillery only operated for a few weeks each year, for long enough to ensure a continuity of supply for the blends to which it contributed. Then in 2003 the Bunnahabhain brand and the distillery were sold to Burn Stewart Distillers, who also purchased the rights to "Black Bottle" blended whisky. It continues to operate under their ownership.
Today's visitor begins in the reception and shop on the first floor of a building on one side of the distillery's main courtyard. It is worth noting that Bunnahabhain is a distillery with many steps, and in places gives the appearance of having been built up the side of the hill, resulting in some steep climbs and descents, in and around the stillroom in particular.
You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process. The large mash tun has a stainless steel body that only dates back to 1999. The copper top to the mash tun was kept from its predecessor. The six washbacks are found in a room accessed by steep steps that climb up to the rear of the stillroom. The are, like most washbacks, made of Oregon pine, but are unusual in being held together by a series of white steel rods that encircle them. The effect is visually very striking, and one we've only seen before at Highland Park, though we are unsure why this approach was used rather than the more usual flat steel bands wrapped at intervals around the washbacks.
The doorway between the room housing the washbacks and the stillroom offers one of the best views of the very large, classically shaped stills in use at Bunnahabhain, though it is one that will set the pulse racing for any vertigo sufferers, as you seem to be looking right down onto the stills from a considerable height. As already noted, there are two pairs of stills in use. The spirit stills have their condensers inside the stillroom, while the much larger wash stills have external condensers. The scale is such that you almost get the feeling that you are looking down into a James Bond set rather than a stillroom. The two spirit safes are tucked away at the end of the stillroom beneath a sign promoting "Black Bottle".
The scale of the potential output at Bunnahabhain is best illustrated by the sheer size of the space given over to filling casks. There are a number of bonded warehouses on site, including some older ones on multiple levels that have as much character as any you will find anywhere in Scotland.