Bunnahabhain Distillery – A Classic Victorian In Need of Love

Seaweed, Jura, and Bunnahabhain Distillery
Seaweed, Jura, and Bunnahabhain Distillery

Bunnahabhain Distillery Overview

Wandering about Bunnahabhain Distillery is a glimpse into the past; the history of Islay, the history of Scotland. Like most distilleries, Bunnahabhain has seen tough times; in 1982 the distillery closed.  Thankfully, operations resumed two years later, though at limited capacity.

Bunnahabhain Distillery has the feel of function over form.  The distillery office is hard to find, as there is not a lot of signage. Tours run daily, but the facilities are minimal, which is in stark contrast to Islay’s other similarly aged distilleries – they have all had makeovers in the last few years by their respective owners. Some of them have been quite significant redevelopments (Ardbeg for instance), and they are reaping the financial rewards for doing so. The good news is that Bunnahabhain’s owners, Distill, have announced a £11 million upgrade for the site. I just hope they don’t paint it white! It has charm in its raw state.

Bunnahabhain (Bu-na-ha-venn), meaning ‘mouth of the river’, was purpose-built for blending. In 1881, Bunnahabhain-made whisky was destined for Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark. Much of what they produce today still goes into blends – today it a dominant part of Black Bottle.

Bunnahabhain does, however, have a range of refined single malts under the Bunnahabhain label. Un-chill filtered and no added colours, most Bunnahabhain single malt has only the lightest wisp of peat.

Bunnahabhain warehouses, and distillery offices
Bunnahabhain warehouses, and distillery offices

Bunnahabhain Distillery Whiskies

Bunnahabhain 12 is one of my go-to whiskies. It’s a lovely clean, crisp dram that goes down very nicely. It has never occurred to me to add water.

I was fortunate enough try a 9yo heavily peated bottling at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh, and more recently, a Bunnahabhain 13 yo finished in Moine Olorosso – available only at the distillery. Unlike the other Islay distilleries, heavily peated whiskies are not what Bunnahabhain has historically produced as their primary product. However, they do this style incredibly well. Click here to check out Bunnahabhain’s core heavily peated range Ceobanach. If you’re visiting the distillery, see what small heavily peated bottlings they have on offer, as they are well worth trying.

How to Get There

Located on the Isle of Islay, Bunnahabhain is 4 miles (6.5 km) off the A846 and 4.6 miles (7.4 km) from Port Askaig.

Car

If you’ve got a car Bunnahabhain is a straight forward drive, past the construction site for the new Ardnahoe distillery. It is a single lane road, so watch out for oncoming cars and lorries. There are many passing places along the asphalt route. You can’t miss it as it’s at the end of the road.

Bus

If you’re on foot (as I have done!) it is a worthwhile walk along the road, with sweeping views across the Sound of Islay – just ask the bus driver (route 451 Port Askaig) to drop you off at the road to Bunnahabhain. He may try to convince you that Caol Ila is a better choice as it’s a lot closer. It is, but it’s nowhere near as beautiful. It is also a 4 mile walk back to the main road, however, I have always found fellow travellers to be very helpful in providing lifts, and it never hurts to ask at a distillery if someone is going your way. Be sure to check the bus timetable as Islay buses are infrequent. They also finish early on Saturdays and don’t run on a Sunday.

Taxi/Tour Bus

Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman are the least accessible distilleries on Islay and if you aren’t keen on walking and don’t have a car, then the next best option is a taxi or tour, such as those found here and here.

Distillery Tours

Tours run daily, and as with almost all distilleries, bookings are highly advisable. See http://bunnahabhain.com/the-distillery/distillery-tours for further information.

Bunnahabhain Distillery

I have been told, by a mostly reliable Islay local, that the Bunnahabhain distillery architect normally designed prisons.  One look at Bunnahabain, and it’s not hard to believe! The high walls and stark design are very reminiscent of a prison, though in this case, the purpose was the keep the whisky in, and potential thieves out.

Bunnahabhain Distillery Office and stairs
You'll find the distillery office upstairs
Casks outside the former Malt House at Bunnahabhain Distillery
Casks outside the former Malt House. The malt floors were retired in 1963. At the same time the number of stills were doubled to four.
Bunnahabhain distillery stone walls looking like a prison
Stone walls in old distilleries are beautiful. Bunnahabhain was established in 1881.
Stone wall close up at Bunnahabhain distillery
Stone wall, Bunnahabhain distillery, est 1881.
Bunnahabhain Distillery Swings
Bunnahabhain distillery was once a thriving mini town. My partner spent a few years of his childhood living here. Sadly most of the buildings are vacant and in a dire state.

The Bunnahabhain Process

Stills

There are four copper stills capable of producing 2.5 million litres of spirit per year. Bunnahabhain whisky is twice distilled – running from the first/wash still, through a curved lye pipe to the condenser, where it is cooled. It then runs on to the low wines receiver, before passing into the second (spirit) still, the output of which is closely monitored in the spirit safe.

Fill strength is a standard 63.5% ABV.

Water

The ‘mouth of the river’ that the name Bunnahabhain refers to, is the Margadale. Margadale spring water is used in production (mashing, bottling etc).

Margadale River plain and lone walker, Bunnahabhain, Islay
Margadale River, Bunnahabhain, Islay
Margadale River, Bunnahabhain, Islay
Margadale River, Bunnahabhain, Islay
Fresh bourbon casks from Jim Beam group at Bunnahabhain Distillery
Fresh bourbon casks from Jim Beam group, including Wild Turkey (zoom in to see stamps!).

For more images and prints visit our Bunnahabhain Distillery Gallery