Thursday, 13 August 2009

"Westering Home" to Bunnahabhain

Those who read my previous whisky related post will be fully aware of my high regard for the Isle of Islay in the Hebrides and the fantastic whiskies that are made there. I visited for the first time in February 2005 with a group of customers and I've visited on average, once every eight weeks since then. I love Islay...and I have a windscreen sticker to prove it. (Its ok, I haven't stuck it on my windscreen....yet)

If it wasn't for Islay whiskies, I probably wouldn't drink whisky now, come to think of it, I probably wouldn't own a whisky shop. I first started to take interest in whiskies after a tasting hosted by Morrison Bowmore Distillers, who also kindly accommodated me on my first visit to the island. If it wasn't for Islay whiskies, I wouldn't be a fly fisherman, David Morris, mashman at Bunnahabhain Distillery, taught me how to cast and accompanied me on my first visits to Loch Ballygrant, Loch Gorm, Loch Finlaggan and Loch Inver on the Isle of Jura.

Mention Islay malts and people assume you are talking about peaty and medicinal whiskies, quite often comparing their flavours to TCP, and yes, there are some great whiskies that do have these characteristics that are produced on Islay. The truth is that most distilleries on Islay do produce that kind of spirit, some as a larger percentage of their output than others. Ardbeg 10 year old, Laphroaig 10 year old, Bowmore 12 year old, Caol Ila 12 year old, Lagavulin 16 year old are all peaty, smoky whiskies. 

There are three other distilleries on Islay, Kilchoman, which produces a peated spirit but is a new distillery so it's product hasn't quite reached the market yet, Bruichladdich, which produces both peated and non peated spirit, the latter tending to be the house style, and Bunnahabhain, which produces more non-peated spirit than any other distillery on the Island. 

If you look carefully, at the back of this pic, you can see the snow covered mountains on the Isle of Mull.

Bunnahabhain Distillery was built in 1881, the same year as Bruichladdich, the two events completely unrelated. Its location is simply stunning, situated in the very North East of the Island over looking the Sound of Islay and on to the Isle of Jura, Colonsay and the Isle of Mull. The waters hereabouts are very dangerous and many ships have sank in the locality over the years. The Wyre Majestic, a fishing boat from Fleetwood in Lancashire is still visible on the rocks today.

When visiting the distillery, you arrive having driven up the 4 mile track from the little village of Keills, passing Persabus, Torrobus and Loch Ardnahoe on the way. You also get a glimpse of Rhuvaal Lighthouse to the North and Loch Inver on Jura to the West. On a clear day, the view over the Sound to the Paps of Jura is stunning. It's hard to believe that, these days, every grain of barley travels up this road in huge wagons and every drop of whisky travels back down the road in the massive Carntyne wagons. The road is new. Right up until the early eighties, the Glasgow puffer boats arrived on the beach with the barley and went away with casks of spirit. It was a hard, labour intensive job.

This picture shows the beach in front of the distillery where the boats arrived. The jetty is used by local fishing boats. The workers cottages at the far end of the beach are now holiday lets and it is where we stay if we are taking customers to Islay. The warehouses on the right are the bonded filling store and warehouse number 7.

The sea was the reason that everything at Bunnahabhain Distillery was built on a massive scale. In long periods of rough weather (which happens a fair bit in the Hebrides), the boats couldn't get in with the barley. The capacity of storage and for production therefore had to be larger than usually required at a distillery so that production could continue. 

The malt bins have the capacity to store 900 tonnes of barley, where usually 100 tonnes would suffice. The grist hopper holds 32 tonnes of grist. The mash is a 13 tonne mash, the biggest on Islay. Usually, during the mashing in process, the mashman sprays 3 batches of water at an increasing temperature on to the grist (milled malted barley) in the mash tun to extract sugars on which the yeast will later feed and produce alcohol as a by product. At Bunnahabhain, 4 waters are used because of the size of the mash. In fact, so much water is required that the distillery has 2 water sources, water for cooling and cleaning comes from Loch Stoisha up in the hills towards Finlaggan and the production water, that ends up in the spirit, comes from the Margadale Springs and is piped to the springs straight out of the granite rock.

Bunnahabhain has six huge traditional Oregon pine washbacks. The two pairs of stills have the largest capacity on the island. This pic shows a wash (or low wines) still in the foreground and a spirit still at the back.

These large and very tall stills ran very slowly promote a good amount of interaction between copper and spirit. This is a process called reflux and has a massive influence on the final spirit and ultimately, the house style of the whisky. If a stillman fills the spirit still to capacity and runs it very quickly. He will end up with a very heavy spirit...the less he fills the still and the slower he runs it, the lighter spirit he will achieve.

Bunnahabhain's new make spirit is the best I've ever nosed and has a really good starting point, even before it has been filled in to casks to mature.  The majority of the 21,000 casks on site are ex Bourbon Hogsheads, traditionally though, a good amount of ex sherry butts and puncheons (like the one in the pic) have been used, and it is these casks that tend to produce the very best of whiskies from Bunnahabhain, as anyone who has tasted the 18 year old expression will agree.

There are eight warehouses at Bunnahabhain, number eight is the first one you see when you arrive at the distillery, it's the large racked one on top of the hill. All the others are down on the seashore. These are dunnage warehouses, i.e. they have earthen floors. When a storm gets up, the atmosphere in these warehouses is full of the sea. The casks are designed to breath, maturation is a slow, controlled oxidation of the spirit within. This sea air plays its part in determining the final character of the whisky. 

Recently, Bunnahabhain 12 year old (see pic at top of post) has been marketed as "The Gentle taste of Islay" and it is. We sell cases of it in our shop because it is easy to drink but full of character, and is a perfect gift because it is so light in style. Bunnahabhain does produce a heavier peaty whisky too though...since 1997, for four weeks every year a peated spirit has been produced and of late it has started to appear on the market. 

We have managed to purchase a cask of heavily peated Bunnahabhain we have now bottled it under our own Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask label. This bottling is limited to only 82 bottles. The whisky is completely natural and has been bottled straight from the cask without commercial colouring or any chill filtration.. I recommend that you put a fire in, sit in your favourite chair, open a bottle and stand well is a monster, both in peat and alcohol (60.2%). This whisky will sell very quickly...get in touch if you would like to reserve a bottle..or two. It is £59.99 per bottle.

Dave "The Squire" Cross sent me these notes:

"We had a prop forward called Cheeks who held up the loose head side of the scrum for over a decade. Cheeks didn't put in that many tackles but when he did they were good un's. Once we were somewhere in Lincolnshire in February with an easterly wind coming straight off the steppes, Cheeks tackled a guy so hard the poor sods boots came off.
1997 Bunnahabhain Single Cask is a bit like Cheeks' tackles; opportunities are few and far between but when they arise you are likely to end up firmly on your harris. At a full 60.2% cask strength this is a monster of a whisky but its appearance belies that, it is very pale and innocuous. Just goes to show that looks can be deceiving. I found that the flavours in this dram benefit from a tad of water, not too much mind. This really brings out the flavours and makes my imagination run wild. It takes me onto one of the lochs gently casting my flys for a wild Islay brownie. I can taste the sea and smell the peat.
This is another belter from Queen of the Moorlands and highly recommended. Make sure your boots are done up tight mind."

Bunnahabhain has always been a fisherman's dram, as you will gather from the traditional Hebridean rhyme that, until recently, was printed on the label of the bottle.

Westering home and a song in the air
Light in the eye and it's goodbye to care
Laughter o' love and a welcoming there
Isle of my heart my own one.

Tell me o' lands of the Orient gay
Speak o' the riches and joys of Cathay
Ay but it's grand to be wakin' at day
To find yourself nearer to Islay.

Where are the folk like the folk o' the west
Canty and couthie and kindly the best
There I would hie me and there I would rest
At hame wi' my ain folk on Islay.


  1. At last!! Bunnahabhain has for far too long been the overlooked taste of Islay.
    I must however confess to a bias as, my father was employed there for many years and I enjoyed the best childhood anyone could have wished for in these beautiful surroundings

  2. Bunnahabhain 18yo single malt, at last I have found a West Coast malt I can drink, found myself in heaven with my first taste, made to be sipped and enjoyed, not down the hatch, then pour another. Highly recommended from a 64 year old Scotsman, try it.
    Billy Boe.