Bunnahabhain distillery

Situated on the northeast coast of Islay, Bunnahabhain was established in 1881 and, unusually, had few changes of owner. It is presently owned by Distell of South Africa, originally a wine company but with desires to move into whisky: Distell also owns Tobermory and Deanston. The distillery can be found down four miles of narrow, winding and undulating single track road off the A846 and clings to a rock hollow from which the stone to build it was quarried. Bunnahabhain had been designed from the start as a high-output distillery and after expansion in 1963 has a production capacity of over 3,000,000 litres per year but is producing only 2,500,000 litres today on a 5-day 24-hour operation and it consumes about 150 tons of barley in that period. It is expected to increase operation to 7-days for a three month trial period. The distillery has the largest mash tun on Islay, holding about 15 tons of barley. The first wash is 50,000 litres of water at 64°C which is drained out over four hours. This is followed by 24,000 litres at 83°C over two hours. The third and fourth washed at 21,000 and 22,000 litres are used as the first wash in the next batch. There are six washbacks that are filled to 65% and give an 82 hour fermentation. The distillery has its own pier but this fell into disuse in the early 1990s and all incoming fuel and malted barley, and outgoing whisky, is by road. Maturation is done on site but bottling is done on the mainland.

The visitor centre and shop has been moved from the quaint but somewhat cramped first-floor office to a new location opposite. The staff are friendly and knowledgable and tours informal. The distillery was coming the end of a silent period so was not actually producing anything, which made the still room a more pleasant place to be than if it had been operating.

It is only recently that Bunnahabhain has been available as a single malt. Prior to that it was a peated whisky that was destined for blending into Cutty Sark. It is now available in 12- and 18- year old unpeated and a variety of sherry and port finishes. Limited edition older releases are made from time to time. Peated varieties are still produced and represent 10% of output. Peated barley comes from Port Ellen and unpeated barley comes from Simpson's, on the mainland. There are two wash stills and two spirit stills.

Bunnahabhain means 'mouth of the river', and that would be the Margadale River, and shares its name with the hamlet that grew up nearby. There is a major upgrade and expansion planned for the next five years with the demolition of a warehouse to make a new car park, demolition of the old houses to build a new warehouse and conversion of the cottages into a cafe and demolition of the existing visitor centre.

The tour guide was Catherine. The tasting was Bunnahabhain 12. This was followed by the Warehouse 9 tasting hosted by David. This was an excellent session where we tried four different cask strength whiskies.

54.5% whisky aged for 9 years in a refill Bourbon and then 2 years in Muscat.

Cask 331, 51.3% whisky distilled on 14-Feb-2005 and aged for 13 years in a Manzanilla butt.

Cask 555, 54.8% whisky filled on 18-Feb-2004 and matured for 14 year in a Gonzalez Byass Pedro Ximenez (PX) NOE cask. The NOE means that the original sherry was 30+ years old.

Cask AR13000005, 53.4%, Bunnahabhain Moine PX 14 years old with original peating at 35ppm. Originally matured in a Bourbon cask, it was transferred to the PX in 2013.

We also tried some 68% new make peated spirit. This had a surprising amount of flavour and was not as harsh as pure ethanol.


Bunnahabhain Manzanilla 20cl cask strength

As part of the Warehouse 9 tour, but at additional cost, you can choose to fill a 20cl bottle with your preferred whisky from the four casks that were tasted.