Bunnahabhain, established in 1881 and considered the island of Islay’s most northerly located and remote whisky distilleries, is harnessing ‘The Sound of Islay’ and celebrating the distillery’s rugged, romantic isolation and sea-faring heritage.
“The Sound of Islay aims to take people on a journey to discover the unique pace of life at Bunnahabhain, showcasing all of the aspects that make it so special – from the challenging trip to get there, the summer rain that will one day become precious whisky spirit, to a warm welcome in the most remote corner of Islay.” says Jeanine Smith of the brand’s South Africa marketing team
Over-looking the Sound of Islay, a vast stretch of sea travelled by many a seafarer, the name Bunnahabhain means ‘mouth of the river’ and refers to the Margadale River from whose clear spring waters the whisky is distilled.
Bunnahabhain is an unusual Islay distillery as its core expressions are largely non-peated. Without the veil of strong and smoky peat that the ‘Whisky Isle’s’ malts are known for, Bunnahabhain allows the distillery’s remote location to shine through in the character of its whisky. Maturing all of its malts on site in its seaside warehouses perched on the rugged coastline of ‘the sound’, the distillery has a long, salt-sprayed history with the sea leaving an indelible mark on every bottle of whisky crafted there.
Bunnahabhain’s award-winning portfolio of malts has been recognised across the globe for their salty brine and light complexity. This year, in terms of the Bunnahabhain whiskies available in South Africa, the distillery won Best Scotch Islay 21 Years & Over at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards for its signature 25-year-old expression, which was supported by unprecedented sweep of wins across all Islay age categories for its 12- and 18-year-old.
GET TO KNOW ANDREW BROWN, BUNNAHABHAIN’S DISTILLERY MANAGER
How and when did you get involved with the Bunnahabhain distillery?
My Bunnahabhain journey began in 1988, when the distillery found itself short-staffed for unloading malt boats that came into our famous pier. After helping out on a few occasions, I was given a full-time role as warehouseman, and joined the small, hardworking team. Over the years, I was lucky enough to gain experience in most other areas of the distillery. From the summer of 1989, I worked in both the warehouse and mash house, as the relief mashman. During my time in the latter, I had a great shift partner, who, when things were not too busy, would teach me parts of running the still house and boilers.
In 1997, I took on the role of assistant team leader, during which time I picked up some of the duties of the distillery manager when he was off-site. I held this position until 2010, than after a brief stint as distillery team leader, and using my wealth of experience, became the distillery manager after a while. I’ve been in this position for roughly seven years, and have seen the production at Bunnahabhain increase steadily.
What makes Islay an ideal place for whisky distillation, as opposed to other renowned whisky regions in Scotland?
The simple answer is Islay! The climate, the people, the attitude. Are there really other places in Scotland that make whisky!?! Being an Ileach (someone from Islay) you grow up immersed in the whisky world. The island’s heartbeat is that of whisky production and it finds a way to beat through all aspects of life on Islay.
What makes Bunnahabhain whiskies stand out, as confirmed by a myriad of awards achieved over the years?
Bunnahabhain whiskies stand out for various reasons but it starts with the one single thing that no other Islay whiskies have, and that is the fresh spring water that is used in the making of Bunnahabhain. This combines with our non-peated style for the most part, which is rare for Islay. We think this creates whiskies that really show the best of the character from Islay itself.
Of course that’s only half the story, we have four impressive stills both in size and shape that give a beautiful light fruit spirit character which further enhance the light style of our new make. After this it comes down to cask selection and maturation. The spirit is left to mature only in casks that we’re happy with, and of course we check regularly to ensure they’re developing the flavour character as they should be under the watchful (if a little thirsty) care of the angels.
Finally, it is then the hard part, and that is for our master blender, Dr Kirstie McCallum, to select the cask that will impart the desired flavour to the whiskies that we produce and then repeat this process time and again without allowing the character to change, keeping the dram just as it should be every time a consumer opens a new bottle.
Does the distillery employ only traditional production techniques or are there some modern innovations that are note-worthy?
We are very much traditional in most of what we do, however our mashtun although being for the most part traditional, has a modern twist in that we do not have to clean below the false floor every week as it is self-cleaning.
Our still house is very much a hands-on traditional way of working, but again with just a modern twist on this. We extract our spirit at a certain flow rate out of the still, giving a consistent spirit at a desired temperature. The most modern part is the computer screen that shows the rate and temperature – before that we had the same information just delivered on an old-fashioned pencil and paper tracer.
Tell us about the history of Bunnahabhain and its prominence when it comes to Islay malts.
Bunnahabhain has less of a prominence when it comes to Islay malts as a whole. But you find it is almost a badge of honour when you know enough about whisky to know of Bunnahabhain. It is like a sleeping giant quietly working away producing its gentle style of whisky, slowly gaining more respect and distinction as the years go by.
On an island with some very well-known distilleries, we are not the first that would spring to mind with the likes of Ardbeg and Laphroiaig being known worldwide, even by non-whisky drinkers, but that suits us. Even to find us on Islay is a journey of discovery – we are not on the way to anywhere so you have nobody passing the gate, so to speak. The road ends at the distillery!
What words best describe a personal visit the Bunnahabhain distillery?
To reach the distillery in the traditional way you can brave a sail up the fearsome Sound of Islay, past the shipwrecks to the peace and safety of the bay. Mooring up on the pier and stepping off right into the distillery. For most though, the track is the way to reach us. You travel up what can only be described as a very long and winding road which after turning each corner brings a new vista over-looking the Sound of Islay. As you turn the corner down into the distillery, you are welcomed by a beautiful secluded bay, not over-looked by anything but the distillery.
Bunnahabhain is not the ‘picture-white walls and neat hedges’ kind of place. You notice different things: the pier heading out into the Sound of Islay, the piles of casks waiting to be used and the warehouses that look out across the bay. But even for those that have seen plenty of distilleries, there are surprises inside. The imposing sight of one of the biggest mashtuns in a malt distillery in Scotland and one of the biggest traditional style mashtuns with its glowing copper dome shining in the lights from above.
But for most, what completes a visit to Bunnahabhain is a walk to the end of the pier to hear the world go by. If you listen carefully you realise you hear nothing. Except it’s not nothing. It is nature at play, otters swimming by or eagles flying overhead, waves lapping on the pebble beach. Sounds which are so innate in humans we don’t find them disruptive, just peaceful and calm.
That’s the benefit of having made the journey. With a small dram in hand, time moves at a different pace at the end of the pier.
Loved by new whisky lovers and seasoned aficionados alike, the collection available in South Africa, including 12-, 18-, and 25-year old, is exclusive to fine whisky outlets including Whisky Brother in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, Wild About Whisky in Dullstroom, as well as Makro and Norman Goodfellows outlets nationwide, and from www.vinoteque.co.za.
For more info on Bunnahabhain, visit the website: www.bunnahabhain.com