"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Bunnahabhain Distillery, Islay

On my day visiting Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain I stopped for lunch at the Port Askaig Hotel beside the ferry terminal.  The public bar here was the original Inn built over 400 years ago, the rest of the hotel dates from the 18th century, and it still retains that traditional charm and friendly atmosphere that the word Inn invokes.  They have a nice range of whisky and also McEwans 60/- beer on tap and you don’t see too many of those around any more.

Port Askaig Hotel
When I was there I heard talk of a ceilidh to be held in this cosy bar the next night.  Now the Port Bar here is cosy in both senses of the word but their regular ceilidhs are not of the dance hall craze style that have become popular in recent years, but rather the more traditional ‘gathering’ that the word translates to.  Ceilidhs were, and away from cities, community halls and weddings still are, a gathering of folk from the local area to share music, song, poems and stories, as well as some dancing if there is room.  A few drams with convivial company help make these evenings memorable and I encourage you to seek one out on your own travels.

Barnard also had a short rest at Port Askaig and most likely sat in this same bar.  He then travels the long, winding road up to Bunnahabhain describing similar scenery to his trip to Caol Ila, this time commenting on the “numerous herds of hardy Highland cattle – black, white, red and tawny, with fierce red eyes and enormous horns”.  I didn’t encounter any of these strangely photogenic beasts on Islay (a few on Jura though) but I did find a similarly multicoloured herd of normal (i.e. not so cute) cattle by Finlaggan.

The road down to the distillery proper was constructed by its owners, The Islay Distillery Co Ltd, who built the distillery and opened it in 1881, the same year as Bruichladdich.  Despite the road, the main barley and coal supplies and whisky uplifts from the distillery were by MacBraynes steamers that called into the “commodious and handsome pier”, made entirely of iron and with massive piles sunk into solid rock in deep water.  Since 1995 all supplies have now been brought in by road. 
Bunnahabhain pier with Mull on the horizon
Barnard makes a strange comment here – “Ten years ago there were but few Distilleries in Islay, but the increasing demand…encouraged further enterprise in the extension of existing Distilleries and the erection of new ones”.  Strange because, of the 9 on Islay when he visited, only Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich had been built recently, both opened in 1881.  The others were all from the early 19th century or before.

Bunnahabhain Distillery from the rocky shore
The distillery was named after the bay on whose shores it sits and the small village here was built on previously uninhabited land, entirely to provide for the distillery staff and their families.  On maps from the mid 1800s the bay is named as Bonahaven and this offers an interesting variation on naming conventions.  Bun-nah-abhainn is Gaelic for Mouth of the River, bun meaning base or bottom (and those of you now thinking nice buns may well be right) and abhainn being river.

From Bonahaven we get bona meaning good or nice and haven meaning shelter or harbour, and there is a wide, open bay here offering some protection from the swift flowing waters of the Caol.  So the two variations on the name, while sounding similar, may not be directly connected in meaning.  Perhaps the cartographer recorded Bonahaven as that was his hearing of the name spoken by local people, and as this was also an appropriate name for the bay he didn’t question it.  My limited linguistic skills fail me here and I may be overanalysing it, so let’s get back to the uisge/whisky.

Entrance to courtyard, west wing ahead
The layout of the distillery buildings are mainly unchanged since they were built, where once the full malting, mashing and distilling operation was arranged around a large square courtyard entered under a noble archway, with several large warehouses built adjoining these works.  There are also original stone built cottages scattered around the shore and on the slopes above.

Etching of Bunnahabhain from Barnard
The largest building is the double section south wing, where once there was a barley loft above two malt barns and warehousing on the ground level.  Barnard describes the barley being raised to the loft by steam driven elevators and then “propelled by a screw working within a case to any part of the loft; the discharge being provided for by an adjustment of the openings of the case”.  The same arrangement is used for transfer to the kilns and therefore no barrows are needed, “and much waste of grain is thus prevented”.  Barnard believes this is the only arrangement of its kind on Islay and I think it is also the first he has mentioned on his tour; the Archimedes screw now fairly common for movement of grain around a distillery.  The ready malted barley is now brought in by road from the east coast of Scotland.

Old granaries on left, kilns were once in the corner
At the southwest corner of the courtyard there once stood two large kilns, the roof cowls just visible in the etching above, but they were demolished during renovations at the distillery in 1963.  Barnard records that only well matured peat is used in the kilns, “well-seasoned” peat being free from the sulphurous matter that is present when dug.  Another major change that took place in 1963 was to the character of the main Bunnahabhain spirit, changed from a ‘traditional’ Islay peaty style to a much lighter level of under 2ppm.  They do still turn out about 10% of production at 35ppm, this peated spirit known as ‘Moines’, available as single cask bottlings from some of the independent bottlers.

Previous Manager John MacLellan with new mash tun
The west wing of the courtyard once housed the cooperage, coal shed, mill and mash tun.  Unusually for Barnard he doesn’t offer any description of the mash tun.  It was replaced in 1900, the original open topped tun transferred to Bruichladdich where it has sat proudly ever since, and again in 1999 when a new stainless steel tun with a copper dome was installed to replace the previous cast iron tun.

The Still House in the north wing was described as a “vast open building” which included six washbacks and two stills and all the usual cooling equipment and chargers.  In the last of the big changes in 1963 a new mill was installed, a separate tun room created with six much larger washbacks and two new stills were added to the existing two, increasing capacity from 200,000 gallons (909,000 litres) in Barnard’s time to a potential 2.5m litres at full production.

Bunnahabhain's enormous washbacks
Each washback now has a huge 100,000 litre capacity with a normal fill level of 66,500 litres, compared to just 27,000 litres before, and are the largest I have seen at any distillery.  The wash stills are now 35,400 litres and the spirit stills 15,500, 30% and 15% larger respectively than before, but now with double the number of stills processing those huge wash levels.

One pair of Bunnahabhain stills
The Abhainn Araig, Gaelic for Craggy River, runs down from Loch Staoisha in the hills to the south of here.  This river now only supplies the cooling water for the distillery but Barnard records it under its original spelling of Loch Staoinsha as the supply of water that “delights the heart of a Distiller, being of a soft peaty nature”.  Since the 1950s the mashing water has been piped from Margadale Springs which lie to the northwest.  Further down its course the Margadale River merges into the Abhainn Araig before it empties into the bay just north of the distillery, as the source of the name discussed earlier.

Bunnahabhain warehouses, north side of the distillery
Barnard records several large warehouses but they pale in comparison to the current arrangements here.  In this picture the middle block of four lower buildings, which can also just be made out in the earlier picture from the shore, are the ones to be seen in the etching from Barnard’s time, now flanked by six more substantial warehouses with many more scattered around the distillery and on the slopes behind.

The company that originally built the distillery also provided a reading room and school room to provide education for the children of the 50-70 staff who worked there.  The Education Act that first required all children aged 5 to 10 to go primary school was introduced as recently as 1880 and Barnard describes the act of the company as “praiseworthy liberality”.  Some newer cottages have since been added to the village but attendance at school now requires negotiating the four miles of bendy, scenic road down to the town of Keills.

Just 2 years after Barnard’s visit the company joined with W. Grant & Co, owners of Glenrothes Distillery, to create the Highland Distillers Co Ltd.  Apart from a few short closures during the next century, the company continued until 1999 when the Edrington Group took over but only ran production at Bunnahabhain for a short time each year.  In 2003 the distillery was sold to current owners Burn Stewart Distillers who also own Tobermory Distillery on Mull and Deanston near Stirling.

The whisky has changed recently too.  For a long time the standard bottling was a 40% 12yo which was chill-filtered and one of the lightest Islay whiskies available.  This was changed last year to a non chill-filtered 46.3% and the difference in taste is remarkable and welcome.  I first tried the new version at Whisky Fringe last year and was pleasantly surprised at the extra fullness and just a touch more smoke than before.  I am also grateful that the stallholder insisted that I try their 25yo which has a wonderful combination of sweet flavours and went on to win the 2010 Spirit of Whisky Fringe Award.

I had toured the distillery on an earlier trip to Islay, enjoying the company of John MacLellan in his final week as manager there before he moved to Kilchoman, and on my recent visit the new Manager, Andrew, was very welcoming and helped with my Barnard related questions before having to herd a large group of visiting Dutchmen around on tour.  They had arrived on a three mast Tall Ship which was anchored just offshore, that pier now supplying the distillery with whisky enthusiasts in place of the whisky ingredients of before, and I can think of no better way to travel between the distilleries that are dotted around the coast of this wonderful Island like jewels on a crown.

Tall Ship from The Netherlands, looking south down Caol Ila
Alas, my Islay adventure was almost over, though I still had a boat trip of my own to make, across the Caol to Jura.  The power of the water in the Caol, an encounter with Highland Cattle and a description of one of the most remote distilleries in Scotland are up next, after which I will try to wrap up the Islay story in one final post before we return to the mainland for a journey up the west coast through scenery that can only be the work of a visionary creator.