|Port Askaig Hotel|
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|
|Bunnahabhain Distillery from the rocky shore|
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|
|Etching of Bunnahabhain from Barnard|
|Old granaries on left, kilns were once in the corner|
|Previous Manager John MacLellan with new mash 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|
|One pair of Bunnahabhain stills|
|Bunnahabhain warehouses, north side of the distillery|
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|