Bunnahabhain Distillery – A Classic Victorian In Need of Love

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 Distillery and the Sound of Islay, with Jura Paps in the background

Bunnahabhain Distillery and the Sound of Islay, with Jura Paps in the background

How to Pronounce ​​Bunnahabhain

​Pronounced '​bu-na-ha-venn'

​Bunnahabhain Whisky

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 batch heavily peated bottlings they have on offer, as they are well worth trying.

Where is ​Bunnahabhain Distillery?

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.

Taxi/Tour Bus

North Islay Whisky Tour: £125, day long tour, runs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from April to October, however, other days may be available on request. Bunnahabhain have partnered with neighbours Ardnahoe and Caol Ila, in collaboration with Islay Taxis for transport, so you can now easily discover Islay’s three northern distilleries in one day!  Includes transport, tours, tastings and lunch. This is an excellent option if you're not driving yourself - I wish they had this tour available when I first visited Islay! For more information, call Bunnahabhain on 01496 840 557 or to book, contact Stuart at Islay Taxis or email info@islaytaxis.com

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.

Ardnahoe Distillery is also now at the half way point between Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, so you'll have somewhere to stop for a rest (and perhaps a wee dram?) on the way/way back.

​Bunnahabhain Distillery Tours, Pricing & Bookings

Children under the age of 12yrs old are welcome at ​Bunnahabhain distillery, but are not admitted to the production areas or tasting areas.

For tour times see https://bunnahabhain.com/visit-us/tours/

Bunnahabhain Production Tour, £7 per person, 50 minutes duration: A guided tour of Bunnahabhain Distillery (and the beautiful views of Jura across the Sound of Islay) to learn how they make their whisky, then sample a dram of Bunnahabhain in the tasting room. Includes a £5 voucher redeemable against a 70cl bottle of Bunnahabhain from the Visitor Centre.  Advanced bookings are highly recommended.

Quick-Look Tour, £5 per person, 30 minutes duration: Includes a short 20 minute tour tour of Bunnahabhain Distillery and a dram of Bunnahabhain whisky in the tasting room.  You will also receive a £5 voucher redeemable against a 70cl bottle in the Visitor Centre shop.  Advanced bookings are highly recommended.

End of Day Tour, £10 per person, 50 minutes duration: A guided tour of Bunnahabhain Distillery (and the beautiful views of Jura across the Sound of Islay) to learn how they make their whisky, then sample a dram of Bunnahabhain in the tasting room (as per the Production Tour) and includes an additional tasting of the plus a taste of the current Bunnahabhain Fill-Your-Own bottling. Includes a £5 voucher redeemable against a 70cl bottle of Bunnahabhain from the Visitor Centre.  Advanced bookings are highly recommended.

Warehouse 9 Tasting, £30 per person, 60 minutes duration: The Warehouse 9 tasting is one of Bunnahabain's most popular events. Enjoy an exclusive tasting of non-peated and peated Bunnahabhain whiskies straight from the cask, hidden away from the outside world in one of Bunnahabhain’s warehouses (originally one of the the malt floors). There is also the opportunity for you to fill and label your own 20cl bottle from any (or all!) of the casks – these cost an additional £35 per bottle.  You will also receive a £5 voucher redeemable against a 70cl bottle in the Visitor Centre shop.  Advanced bookings are highly recommended.

Premium Tasting, £35 per person, 60 minutes duration: Enjoy a tutored nosing and tasting of 5 different expressions of Bunnahabhain from their core range, as well as limited editions and distillery exclusives.  Many will be cask strength.  The exact make-up of the tasting will vary throughout the year, depending on the availability of limited editions and exclusives.  The experience is hosted in the Bunnahabhain tasting room overlooking the Sound of Islay or, if the weather is nice, on the distillery pier itself (the view is stunning on a good day!!). You will also receive a £5 voucher redeemable against a 70cl bottle in the Visitor Centre shop.  Advanced bookings are highly recommended.

Ultimate Bunnahabhain Experience, £250 per person, 90 minutes duration: The chance to taste some older Bunnahabhain expressions, along with releases and Warehouse 9 drams.  This exclusive tasting will showcase some of the most iconic expressions of Bunnahabhain. Available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4.30pm during the summer season (April-October), however other times can be arranged by prior arrangement – please contact the distillery Visitor Centre for more information and to arrange bookings for this experience. You will also receive a £5 voucher redeemable against a 70cl bottle in the Visitor Centre shop. This tour also includes free collection and drop off in the Bunnahabhain Bus. Call the Bunnahabhain Visitor Centre on +44 (0)1496 840557 to discuss. Advanced booking essential.

North Islay Whisky Tour, £125, day long tour: Runs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from April to October, however, other days may be available on request. Bunnahabhain have partnered with neighbours Ardnahoe and Caol Ila, in collaboration with Islay Taxis for transport, so you can now easily discover Islay’s three northern distilleries in one day!  Includes transport, tours of all 3 distilleries, tastings and lunch. This is an excellent option if you're not driving yourself - I wish they had this tour available when I first visited Islay! For more information, call Bunnahabhain on 01496 840 557 or to book, contact Stuart on +44 (0) 1496 850 170 or visit the website Islay Taxis or email info@islaytaxis.com.

​Bunnahabhain Distillery Images

​I have been told, by a mostly reliable Islay local, that the Bunnahabhain distillery architect ​was usually employed to design​ 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 would have been to keep the whisky in, and potential thieves out!

Bunnahabhain is currently being renovated, ​thanks to a £10.5m ​investment by parent company Distell International. A key part of the redevelopment will be a new visitor centre, complete with a ​café and a new distillery shop. Th​ new visitor centre ​has been designed to take advantage of the distillery's stunning views ​over Bunnahabhain Bay and across the Sound of Islay, towards Jura.

Other areas being improved include the build of a new filling store, refurbishment of the production building and ​the six cottages that run alongside the distillery, which will eventually be used for holiday accommodation.

The development schedule ​has been carefully designed to ensure minimal disruption to whisky production and to ​distillery visitors.

Bunnahabhain distillery and surrounding countryside covered in ferns

On the road to Bunnahabhain Distillery

Bunnahabhain distillery warehouses viewed from the pier

Bunnahabhain Distillery Warehouses (sadly, soon to be demolished to make way for the new visitor centre)

Bunnahabhain warehouses, and distillery offices

Bunnahabhain warehouses, and distillery offices

Rickety pathway from the old village houses to the distillery at Bunnahabhain

Rickety pathway from the old village houses to the distillery

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.

Upright Casks at Bunnahabhain Distillery outside the old malt floors

Upright Casks at Bunnahabhain Distillery outside the old malt floors

Bunnahabhain distillery sign on top of a rock

​Front entrance sign to Bunnahabhain Distillery, ​with Jura ​in the background on the left.

Fresh bourbon casks from Jim Beam group at Bunnahabhain Distillery

Fresh bourbon casks from Jim Beam group, including Wild Turkey.

Seaweed, Jura, and Bunnahabhain Distillery

Seaweed, Jura, and Bunnahabhain Distillery

​The Bunnahabhain Process

​The 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.

Whisky Stills, Bunnahabhain Distillery Islay

​Spirit and Wash Stills, Bunnahabhain Distillery Islay. Note: normally you wont be able to get a picture of the stills, however I was fortunate enough on my first trip to visit during the silent season.

the 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 and pedestrian bridge railing Bunnahabhain, Islay

Margadale River, Bunnahabhain, Islay

​What ​Else ​Is ​Nearby

​References & ​Further ​Reading

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