"Everything about Bunnahabhain is big," declares Master Distiller Brendan McCarron by way of introduction. "Starting with the view." And he's absolutely right, with the distillery stunningly located on the north-eastern shores of the Hebridean island of Islay, with views across the Sound of Islay to neighbouring Jura and its famous trio of breast-shaped mountains, named The Paps.
Although most of Islay's nine working distilleries are relatively isolated in location, Bunnahabhain takes remoteness to a whole new level, being situated at the end of a four-mile long, unclassified road, just outside the island's northern ferry terminal of Port Askaig. Bunnahabhain is on the way to nowhere.
The distillery's spectacular site was chosen by founders and whisky blenders William and James Greenlees and William Robertson for the local availability of pure water and high quality peat. Its sheltered coastal location was also very important in the days when Islay's distilleries were served directly by sea.
Bunnahabhain was established in 1881, and constructed along the same lines as a Bordeaux chateaux, with the first spirit flowing during October 1882. The distillery and its infrastructure cost some £30,000 equivalent to more than £2.6 million today.
Part of that "infrastructure" involved the creation of a road, pier, and houses for staff, plus a post office and school. At the time, distilleries required a great deal more manual labour than they do today, and on-site facilities were essential in such a remote spot.
The company that owned Bunnahabhain, Islay Distillers Company Ltd, merged with the proprietors of Glenrothes distillery on Speyside in 1887, creating Highland Distilleries Company Ltd. Highland remained in control until 1999, when The Edrington Group took over, reducing Bunnahabhain to just a few weeks of whisky-making per year.
Edrington soon decided to concentrate its energies on a small number of strategic, high profile single malt brands such as The Macallan and Highland Park, and accordingly sold off Glengoyne and Bunnahabhain distilleries during 2003.
Bunnahabhain was purchased by Burn Stewart Distillers plc, and through a series of sales, Burn Stewart itself was ultimately acquired by South African-headquartered drinks giant Distell International in 2013, along with Deanston and Tobermory distilleries, in a deal worth £160 million.
All of which brings us to the present day and the "bigness" of Bunnahabhain. Brendan McCarron expands on his initial comment about the scale of the distillery, saying that "'Bunnahabhain' is a big word, a real mouthful, meaning 'mouth of the river' in Gaelic. And it's a big site, with a large courtyard. And a big whisky. Matured almost exclusively in sherry wood, the big character of the spirit can take sherry wood maturation all its life, and is great at the chosen bottling strength of 46.3% abv.
"We have one of the largest mashtuns in Scotland, which can accommodate 15-tonne mashes. We're doing 14.2-tonne mashes and 13 of them a week. We do big batches, but not many of them. That's how we work. The mashtun isn't always on the go.
"We put the wash - 60,000 litres at a time - into six huge 18-feet-tall wooden washbacks, and allow 55 hours for fermentation. We have just four stills, two wash and two spirit, but they are vast. To make the amount of spirit that we do, most people would think you'd need six stills. We could make 3.3 to 3.4mla at capacity."
McCarron declares that "Bunnahabhain is a cult distillery and it's time to lay down quantity to the highest quality. I know people all over the world want to drink it, and we need to be more slefish with the stock and not use too much for blending or selling it to other companies. Around 50 percent of output goes for single malt and I'd love that to be 70 percent.
"It's a cool stillhouse where you feel the sea breezes coming in, which helps reflux. Bunnahabhain is all about reflux, with lots of copper in the large still stripping out the sulphur leaving lots of big flavours. The spirit stills are teardrop-shaped and the wash stills are like wizards' hats."
Distillation is relatively slow, partly due to the large size of batches being distilled, with the middle cut lasting from two to two and a half hours. Production is largely manually controlled.
When it comes to spirit character, McCarron says that "You get green apple and Conference pear notes. Floral and malty, with a bold, burnt cereal note, and it's oily. There's a salinity about Bunnahabhain because it's distilled by the sea. You can smell the sea at the distillery. There's a sprinkling of crystalline sea salt. It's a very complex whisky, with real depth."
Investing in Bunnahabhain
Distell has already proved itself to be a worthy custodian of its Scottish distilling estate, providing funds for much-needed investment. £10.5m was allocated to Bunnahabhain, with a three-year programme of work starting in 2019.
Central to improving the appeal of the distillery was the creation of a dedicated visitor centre, which replaced two shoreside warehouses that were in a poor state of repair. According to Global Marketing Lead Chiara Giovanacci, "We were ready to opening it just before the Covid lockdown. The shop has been open, but we've had very restricted public access, so it's been a sort of 'soft' opening as visitors have started to come through. We're really excited about it. It brings the distillery to life and the staff at the distillery get so much out of it.
"Welcoming people into the distillery is of paramount importance. Getting people to explore Islay and to taste the drams is like nothing else. You can sit in the new visitor centre and enjoy your dram and take your time. You can just enjoy the centre and the views if you wish. You can go as light or as deep as you want with the tours. It's all small-scale and hands-on with the distillery team.
"We were getting around 10,000 visitors per year pre-pandemic, but we're not expecting that level again for a few years. It's all about the quality of our offering, and by the nature of where we are, we get real malt aficionados."
A large chunk of Distell's investment at Bunnahabhain has been dedicated to a biomass energy centre, which came on stream in March of this year, putting the distillery on-track to become Islay's first to have a net zero emission distillation process. The plant is powered entirely by forest biomass, sourced 15 miles away, and draff, and is expected to save 3,500 tonnes of carbon per year. As Chiara Giovanacci notes, "We are lowering our carbon footprint ongoing as part of the Scotch Whisky Association's target of achieving industry-wide net zero emissions by 2040."
Additional expenditure has been devoted to refurbishment of the mash tun, replacement of a still condenser and lyne arm, while two replacement washbacks and two stills are to be installed this summer. Brendan McCarron adds that "We've also spent a small fortune painting the distillery white again!"
The distillery previously operated with eight production staff, but since McCarron was appointed Master Distiller early last year, that number has increased to 10. "It allows greater flexibility and we've been working a seven-day week instead of a five-day week for a year now," he explains.
The core range of Bunnahabhain single malts comprises 12 and 18-year-olds, along with Stiuriadair and Toiteach a Dha, while 25, 40, and 40-year-olds are also available.
The NAS Stiuireadair - pronounced "stew-rahdur" - means "helmsman" in Scots Gaelic, while Toiteach A Dha is a peated NAS expression, with a higher sherry cask influence, and the name - pronounced "toch-ach ah-ghaa" - means Smoky Two.
Until the early 19060s, Bunnahabhain was a peated single malt, in common with its fellow Islay whiskies, but the distillery's owners required unpeated whisky for their light-bodied Cutty Sark blend, and Bunnahabhain duly began to produce the style for which it is famous today. Around the same time, the original 1881 open-topped mashtun was replaced and a second pair of stills was added.
Burn Stewart's ownership saw a return to the production of quantities of heavily peated spirit once again - named Moine, the Gaelic for peat - and a number of peated single malt expressions followed. Peated production now accounts for around 50 per cent of the distillery's annual output, with some destined for bottling under the Bunnahabhain label, while the remainder either goes into Distell's Black Bottle blend or is used for reciprocal stock trading with third-party companies.
The latest addition to Bunnahabhain's permanent range is a cask strength expression of the 12-year-old, and as Chiara Giovanacci explains, "12-year-old Cask Strength came out of an "ask" from our consumers. People visiting the distillery get great pleasure sampling the whisky at cask strength, so we wanted to bring the experience to our consumers. Bunnahabhain new make stands up to sherry wood and cask strength very well.
"We launched the first batch of cask strength 12-year-old last November and it exceeded all our expectations. It sold out online in 40 minutes and into retailers in 48 hours. There will always be variations in ABV and flavour profile from batch to batch and the chocolate and berry fruits are intensified at cask strength."
Meanwhile, two new limited editions were released to celebrate this year's Feis Ile festival in May, namely Abhainn Araig, which translates from the Gaelic as Araig River, and a 1998 Calvados Cask Finish.
The former contains a proportion of spirit matured in ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry octave casks, with the small vessels helping to concentrate aromas and flavours, while the latter spent its final two years in casks which previously held the famed French apple brandy.
There is no doubt that you need to make an effort to visit Bunnahabhain distillery, but that effort certainly pays off in an experience that is "big" in every way. And if you aren't able to take the trip, there's always a temtping range of Bunnahabhain single malts available from The Whisky Shop. As Chiara Giovanacci says, "Bunnahabhain has a small but mighty group of fans who are very loyal. We are predominantly known for unpeated, sherried Islay single malt. That's our signature style and what sets us apart."
The original feature is from the Summer 2022 edition of Whiskeria, delivered to the door of W Club subscribers and also free with any Whisky Shop purchase in store or online. Click here to read the full Summer 2022 issue of Whiskeria online for free.