The Islay Series – Distillery #4: Bunnahabhain

The 4th part of my 8-part series on the Islay distilleries focuses on Bunnahabhain, which is a distillery that is not widely known but is more than capable of producing some truly stellar whisky.

The entrance to the distillery.
The entrance to the distillery.

Bunnahabhain (pronounced Bun-a-hav-in) is located on the North-Eastern coast of Islay in a village which shares the same name as the distillery. The term Bunnahabhain is derived from the Gaelic term Bun a h-Abhainn, which translates as ‘foot of the river’.

The distillery is located close to the coast and is directly opposite the isle of Jura. On a clear day, the majestic Paps of Jura can be seen from the distillery in all their glory. In terms of proximity, the closest distillery to Bunnahabhain would be Caol Ila in the neighbouring village of Port Askaig.

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The Paps of Jura as seen from Bunnahabhain.

The distillery traditionally produces a range of unpeated and peated whisky, with the latter being peated to approximately 35 ppm phenol. Bunnahabhain uses whisky which is matured in a mixture of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks and vats both types in different proportions to create their core range of whiskies.

In terms of history, the distillery was founded in 1881 by William Robertson of Robertson & Baxter and the brothers William and James Greenless, who were the owners of Islay Distillers Company Ltd. Construction was completed late the following year and the distillery came onstream in early January of 1883. In 1887, Islay Distillers Company Ltd merged with William Grant & Co to form Highland Distilleries Company Limited.

The distillery remained virtually unchanged for many years until 1963, when an additional pair of stills were installed to increase the rate of production. This was crucial as Bunnahabhain is one of the core components of the Cutty Sark blended whisky as well as the blend created by the distillery owners, Black Bottle.

The distillery continued operations until 1982, when it was mothballed until 1984. Upon reopening in 1984, the distillery released a 21 year old whisky to commemorate its 100th year anniversary. The distillery was then taken over in 1999 by the Edrington Group (owners of Macallan and the Cutty Sark blend), who proceeded to mothball it once again but allowed for the distillery to produce whisky for a few weeks during the year.

The distillery remained under Edrington control until 2003, when it, along with the Black Bottle brand were sold to Burn Stewart Distilleries for £10 million. The new owners then released a 40 year old bottling from 1963 to commemorate the change in ownership and the revival of the distillery.

The distillery administration building which also houses the tasting room.
The distillery administration building which also houses the tasting room.

In April 2013, South African spirits conglomerate Distell Group Ltd purchased Burn Stewart Distilleries for £160 million, thus becoming the owner of Bunnahabhain as well as Black Bottle. The acquisition also brought the Deanston, Tobermory and Ledaig single malts and Scottish Leader blend under Distell’s control and directly contributed to these brands becoming more recognised internationally.

In terms of equipment, the distillery sports a 12.5 tonne stainless steel mash tun, six washbacks made from Oregon pine and two pairs of stills (2 wash and 2 spirit) respectively. The fermentation time varies between 55 and 80 hours and is dependent on whether the malt being fermented is peated or unpeated.

The view from inside the mash tun.
The view from inside the mash tun.
The wort being transferred into the underback before being redistributed to the washbacks.
The wort being transferred into the underback before being redistributed to the washbacks.
Bunnahabhain has 6 washbacks made from Oregon pine.
Bunnahabhain has 6 washbacks made from Oregon pine.
The stills at Bunnahabhain.
The stills at Bunnahabhain are filled to 58% capacity to increase copper contact.
The spirit safe.
The spirit safe.

An interesting fact about the distillation process is that the stills are only filled to 58% of capacity. This would be to allow the spirit to have more contact with the copper and this interaction is intended to provide the whisky with the light character desired by the distillery.

The distillery is capable of producing up to 2.7 million litres of new make spirit per year, of which 20% is traditionally peated with a phenol content of up to 35 ppm. The whisky that is produced goes towards the creation of the core range of whiskies, which are the 12 Year Old, 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old.

In terms of the sherry/bourbon ratio for the core range, the 12 Year Old expression is made up of 25% from ex-sherry casks and 75% from ex-bourbon casks, the 18 Year Old is made up of 40% ex-sherry casks and 60% ex-bourbon casks while the 25 Year Old is made up of 10% ex-sherry casks and 90% ex-bourbon casks.

The core range also contains a peated whisky, Toiteach (pronounced Toe-Chack), which is Gaelic for ‘smoky’. This peated malt is sourced entirely from ex-bourbon casks and while smoky in character is only peated to 14 ppm phenol. There have also been limited releases of a 40 Year Old Bunnahabhain while there are also plans to release a 45 Year Old expression in the near future.

Bunnahabhain also has two travel retail exclusive whiskies, Cruach Mhona and Eirigh Na Greine. Cruach Mhona (Gaelic for ‘Peat Stack’) consists of young, heavily peated whisky sourced from ex-bourbon casks which is then married with 20-21 year old whisky sourced from ex-sherry casks while Eirigh Na Greine (Gaelic for ‘Morning Sky’) is a vatting of whisky from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks as well as red wine casks from France and Italy. The latter has been introduced as a replacement for the previous travel retail exclusive, Darach Ur.

The barrels that are filled on-site at the distillery.
The barrels that are filled on-site at the distillery.

Bunnahabhain is one of a few distilleries which retains its own barrel filling stations on-site and they store the majority of their casks within their premises. During my visit to the distillery, my tour guide Bethany mentioned that the distillery recently underwent renovation and that the warehouses were reconfigured in order to allow for more casks to be stored on-site.

My visit to the distillery comprised of the premium tour, which cost £20 per person and included 4 tastings: the 12 Year Old, 18 Year Old, Cruach Mhona & Toiteach. Bethany also surprised us by providing us a sample of the 25 Year Old, which was a real treat.

The reviews for the tastings can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/whisky-review-4-bunnahabhain/

Overall, Bunnahabhain was a very good experience and the whisky I sampled was stellar to say the least. My personal favourite was the 18 Year Old, which is very good. I definitely intend to make a return trip to the distillery in the near future and look forward to what they have in store for future releases.

The next post will focus on one of my favourite distilleries which produces whisky from the higher end of the peat spectrum. I didn’t get to tour the facility due to the weather being exceptionally bad (in winter no less!) but the tastings I encountered were amazing as expected.

Until the next post, have a wonderful weekend (and week) ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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3 thoughts on “The Islay Series – Distillery #4: Bunnahabhain

  1. I sadly have not made it to Bunnahabhain either. But I have tried the Cruach Mhona at the wonderful Duffies bar in Bowmore. It still remains my favourite drop from this distillery. But I haven’t tried the 18 or anything older. Maybe if i swing by in future they’ll bring out the 25 year old again…
    Keep on waffling,
    Nick

    Like

    1. The Cruach Mhona is quite an interesting whisky as the flavour profile is somewhat unique. Reminds me a little of Kilchoman in some aspects but also quite singular as well.

      The 18 is sweet and rich malty goodness mate, defs give it and the 25 years old a go when u can as it’s a real treat!

      Like

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