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Bunnahabhain, Islay’s Hidden Gem Part I: A Short History

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Bunnahabhain, Islay’s Hidden Gem Part I: A Short History

Originally Posted: Forbes
Photo Credit: Forbes

A Short History of Bunnahabhain

The Bunnahabhain distillery is unusual among its Islay distilling brethren. Notably, for the last fifty-odd years, it has specialized in producing unpeated whiskies rather than the “peat monsters” that Islay’s other distilleries have become world famous for crafting. Moreover, unlike its better-known distillery cousins, its history is not shrouded in tales of bootleg whisky and surreptitious smuggling.

Bunnahabhain was built in 1881, during the late 19th century whisky boom, and at the height of the Victorian period. By then, whisky distillation was already a well-established business. Its construction, even now, reflects the optimism, the scale and the grandeur that exemplified Great Britain’s Victorian Age.

Locals have long insisted that the architect who designed the Bunnahabhain distillery also designed numerous prisons throughout Scotland and that consequently the distillery has a prison like appearance. Bunnahabhain does have an imposing gate, a feature that does give it a fortress like character. Given the increasing value of its maturing whisky stocks, a fortress might not be a bad idea.

In reality, it was designed to mimic the layout of a Bordeaux chateau and its buildings are arranged around a central square. The Bruichladdich distillery, which was built in the same year, has a similar layout. Bunnahabhain’s historical records are deposited in the archives of the University of Glasgow, but no one has been able to find any reference to the name of the original architects.

The Islay Distillery Company was organized in 1879, to construct a new distillery overlooking the Sound of Islay—the narrow channel that separates Islay from its neighbor Jura. The founders of the company were James Ford, of William Ford & Sons, tea, wine and spirit merchants of Leith, Edinburgh; James Watson Greenlees, a partner in McMurchy & Ralston of Campbeltown and William A. Robertson of Robertson & Baxter, wholesale whisky merchants, Glasgow.

Land was purchased in 1880. Construction of the Bunnahabhain distillery began the following year. Production volume was set at 200,000 imperial gallons a year or about 900,000 liters, making it one of the largest operating distilleries in Scotland at the time.

This northeast corner of Islay was relatively desolate and uninhabited. Even today, it is considered off the beaten path, and is connected to the rest of the island by only a single narrow road. Its closest neighbor was the Caol Ila distillery about four miles away. Port Askaig, one of the port links with the mainland, was another mile further. Most port traffic moves through Port Ellen in the center of the island.

The distillery was built at the mouth of the Margdale River, where it enters Bunnahabhain Bay. The original land grant covered 20 acres and was a feu; a land grant whose rental obligation could be paid in cash and that did not require providing military service to the local lord.

The site was so remote that a one-mile long road had to be built to connect the distillery with the island’s road network. The distillery company even had to build the village of Bunnahabhain alongside the distillery to house its workers, complete with a school house for their children.

Despite its remoteness, the site offered plenty of water, from Loch Staoinsha and local springs, an excellent natural harbor, which made transportation by sea easier, as well as protection from the gales and high winds that blew in from the Atlantic and battered Islay’s western shore.

Islay's Distilleries

The distilleries of Islay

Ironically, its remoteness then and now, notwithstanding, this desolate northeast corner of Islay was once the heart of the Kingdom of the Isles. The kingdom dated back to 875, and emerged from a series of Viking and Gaelic rulers of the islands and west coast of Scotland. It would last until 1493, when the then rulers, the MacDonald Lords, relinquished their island estates to King James IV of Scotland.

At its height, the Lords of the Isles were among the most powerful nobleman in the British Isles, second only to the kings of Scotland and England. Their empire included the Hebrides, Skye and Ross, as well as the Knoydart, Ardnamurchan and the Kintyre peninsulas on the west coast of Scotland.

In 1462, the then Lord of the Isles, John MacDonald, made a secret treaty with King Edward IV of England and with the Earl of Douglas to conquer Scotland and depose James III.

The discovery of that secret agreement in 1493, is what prompted James IV, the son of James III, to seize the lands of the MacDonald clan and strip John MacDonald of his title.

Since then, the title of Lord of the Isles was granted to the eldest son of the reigning Scottish monarch and, following the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, to the eldest son of the reigning English monarch. The current Lord of the Isles is Prince Charles.

At the time it was built, the distillery was considered state of the art. Its stills were, and still are, among the largest in Great Britain, as are its mash tuns. The entire facility was designed to utilize gravity flow to move its liquids.

When he visited the distillery in 1885, Alfred Barnard, the late 19th century chronicler of the whisky industry, noted that barley was lifted to the malting lofts “by steam driven elevators” and then distributed using an Archimedes screw to spread the barley across the floor. A similar arrangement was used to transfer the malted barley to the kilns. Barnard observed that this was the only distillery he visited where this process was so automated.

Bunnahabhain ran its first spirit in October 1882. Full production started in January 1883. The company was initially successful, reporting a handsome profit of £10,000 its first year. The directors decided to sell their whisky wholesale to other distillers and blenders rather than bottle their own whisky.

At the time, there was no requirement to age whisky. The legislation mandating a minimum aging of three years was not enacted till 1916.

Robertson and Baxter, one of the original founders of the distillery, was appointed the company’s sales agent. In 1886 to 1887, however, the British economy experienced a severe recession. The Islay Distillery Company saw its production slashed and its profits fall by half.

Faced with mounting competition, around four dozen new whisky distilleries were created between 1870 and 1900, two dozen of which have survived to this day, the company decided to amalgamate its business with William Grant and Company, the owners of the Glenrothes distillery. The resulting company, called Highland Distillers, would be an important player in the Scotch whisky industry for the next century.

Highland Distillers would go on to acquire additional distilleries, including the Glenglassaugh Distillery (1892), Tamdhu (1898) and Highland Park (1937). At its peak in the late 1920s, Highland Distillers was supplying malt to 180 different blenders.

Bunnahabhain Entrance

The Entrance to the Bunnahabhain Distillery

The whisky produced at Bunnahabhain was heavily peated. It would remain so until the 1960s. Alfred Barnard, during his visit to the company, observed, “nothing but peat is used in the kilns, which is dug in the district, and is of exceptionally fine quality.” Barnard went on to note that the peat was well seasoned so that it was “free from the sulphurous matter which it contains when newly dug.”

At the time, the water used for both mashing and cooling the condensers came from Loch Staoinsha. Like many other of the water sources on Islay, this water flowed over peat and had a light brown color as a result, although the impact of this peaty water on the aroma and taste of the resulting whisky was negligible.

Since the 1950s, the water for mashing has been piped from the Margdale Springs, which lie to the northwest of the distillery, and is crystal clear. The owners of the spring are paid a yearly rent in whisky.

Unlike many other Scotch whisky distilleries that frequently changed owners over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, Bunnahabhain has had relatively few owners.

Highland Distillers owned the distillery from 1887 until 1999. That year the Edrington Group, now just Edrington, which had long held a share interest in Highland Distillers, teamed up with George Grant & Company, to take Highland Distillers private.

Edrington is an international spirits company whose shares are owned by the Robertson Trust. The trust was created by the descendants of William Robertson, one of the original founders of the Islay Whisky Company.

Although, Bunnahabhain has had relatively few owners, that doesn’t mean that it has not suffered from the boom and bust cycles that have characterized the Scotch whisky industry. The distillery was closed from 1930 to 1937, because of the Great Depression. It had seen its sales decline in the 1920s, as a result of the imposition of prohibition in the United States.

It was again closed from 1942 through 1944, during the Second World War, and had to operate at a reduced capacity because of grain rationing, until 1953. In was again closed from 1982 to 1984, and operated on a part time basis from 1999 to 2002. During the latter period, it only operated for a few weeks a year and produced around 300,000 liters of alcohol, around 12% of its capacity.

Until the 1960s, Bunnahabhain produced heavily peated whiskies for the blenders. These whiskies were typically peated to about 35 to 40 ppm, comparable to the peated whiskies produced by Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

Bunnahabhain’s peated whiskies tended to be oily and smoky, very different from its peated expressions today, with the pronounced phenolic aromas typical of the other Islay distilleries.

Starting in the 1960s, however, Bunnahabhain moved away from heavily peated whiskies in favor of unpeated whiskies destined for the Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark blends. Peating levels in the malt dropped to around two ppm. After distillation, phenol levels were around .5 ppm, a level imperceptible to most humans.

Bunnahabhain’s unpeated malt was also used in Black Bottle, Highland Distiller’s bestselling blended whisky. Highland had acquired that brand in 1995.

Black Bottle incorporated whisky from seven of Islay’s distillers, along with contributions from other grain and malt distillers on the mainland.

The brand dates to the late 19th century. It was developed by Gordon Graham, an Aberdeen tea merchant who switched to blending whiskies. He bottled the blend in opaque black bottles, hence its name, and it quickly became an Aberdeen favorite.

The Bunnahabhain Distillery

Bunnahabhain’s malt also went into Scottish Leader, another distillery blend that dated from the 19th century. Scottish Leader also incorporated peated whiskies, but was less peated than Black Bottle.

In 1963, in response to burgeoning demand for blended whiskies, the Bunnahabhain distillery underwent a major expansion. The number of stills was doubled from two to four, and their capacity was expanded to 35,400 liters for the wash still and 15,500 for the spirit still; an increase of 30% and 15% respectively. The floor maltings were eliminated, and six new, larger washbacks were introduced, each with a capacity of 100,000 liters.

Overall, the distillery was modernized, and its capacity was doubled to 2.5 million liters. This was not the first time that the distillery had undergone expansion, although it was by far the most extensive. Renovations had occurred throughout the course of the 20th century.

In 1900, for example, Bunnahabhain’s mash tun, a cast iron behemoth with a seven-ton capacity, was replaced with an even bigger mash tun, capable of holding up to 15 tons of mash. That tun was in turn replaced with a stainless steel, copper top mashed tun of equal capacity in 1999. The original mash tun ended up at Bruichladdich, where it is still in use.

Starting in the 1970s, the distillery began to bottle small quantities of its single malt. Independent bottlers had issued select bottlings of Bunnahabhain in the past but during this period, the pace of independent bottlings increased dramatically. By the late 1980s, the distillery began producing a core line built around a 12-year-old expression.

In the meantime, Bunnahabhain began to experiment with a return to its peated roots. In 1991, Bunnahabhain produced its first batch of peated whisky. It measured 28 ppm phenol. A second batch followed in 1997, which registered 38 ppm. Most of this production was sold to independent bottlers.

In 2003, Edrington sold the Bunnahabhain distillery and the Black Bottle and Scottish Leader brands to Burn Stewart, a subsidiary of CL Financial, a Trinidad based spirits company. Edrington retained most of the stock of maturing whisky and continued to rely on Bunnahabhain, under a five-year contract, to supply whisky for the Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark blends.

Burn Stewart in turn owned the Tobermory distillery on Mull and the Deanston distillery near Sterling, while CL Financial owned a range of other spirit-related companies, including Angostura Bitters, Belvedere vodka and Thomas Hine Cognac.

Burn Stewart cranked up Bunnahabhain’s production and began to emphasize the brand as a single malt. It also began to produce peated whiskies for inclusion into the distillery’s core range. The first official offering, a no age statement (NAS) peated expression branded Toiteach, was released in 2008. Currently, about 20% of Bunnahabhain’s production is peated.

The tenure of CL Financial proved to be short lived, however. In 2013, the company was declared insolvent and Burn Stewart was sold to Distell, its longtime South African distributor. Distell was also a spirits conglomerate. It owned a broad portfolio of South African wine, beer and spirits brands, as well as French Cognac producer Bisquit.

Since acquiring the Bunnahabhain distillery, Distell has continued to emphasize the development of its single malt brands, as well and the continued expansion of its production.

In 2017, Distell announced a three-year, $14 million program to modernize the facility to better cater to visitors and add a larger visitor center and gift shop, as well as improve road access to the distillery. In addition, it will build new maturation warehouses and replace the current company housing with new facilities.

Producing Whisky at Bunnahabhain

There are several interesting features about Bunnahabhain’s production process. The company stopped malting its own barley in 1963. The malting floors still exist. If the distillery ever wants to return to making its own malted barley it could probably manage about 40 tons a week.

The distillery brings in unpeated malted barley from Simpsons Berwick Maltings (about 80%) and the balance in malt peated at 35 to 40 ppm from Port Ellen Maltings on Islay. In 2016, the company did about 10 weeks of peated whisky distillation.

Bunnahabhain Mash Tun

The mash tun at the Bunnahabhain distillery

The mash tun has a capacity of 15 tons of malted barley, although it is usually filled to about 12.5 to 13 tons, roughly 50,000 liters.

The usual procedure in Scotch whisky production is to spray the grist in the mash tun three times with progressively hotter water. The water dissolves the sugars in the grist. The process is called the three waters. The first two waters, now called wort, go to the washbacks where they are fermented into wash, while the third water is reused as the first water of the next mashing.

At Bunnahabhain, the grist receives four waters, since the mash tun is so large. The first two waters are at temperatures of 147º F (64º C) and 176º F (80º C). The last two waters are at 194º F (90º C). The first two waters go to the washback, while the last two are recycled into the first water of the next mash cycle.

The distillery has two fermentation cycles designed to optimize the efficiency of the wash stills. Monday’s and Tuesday’s ferments last for 48 hours so that the wash can be distilled that same week. Ferments on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday last for 110 hours so that they are ready for distillation the following week. The spirit made from the two different fermentations is blended together before casking.

Another feature of Bunnahabhain’s fermentation is that the wash passes through an underback, where suspended particles are allowed to drop out, before being moved to the washbacks. This results in a very clear wort. The wort itself is not filtered, suspended particles simply settle out.

Clear worts, sometimes referred to as Japanese style worts, produce a light, cleaner style of whisky, while cloudy or opaque worts that have a lot of suspended matter tend to produce whiskies that have more nutty and spicy flavors.

Casks at Bunnahabhain

Empty whisky barrels at the Bunnahabhain distillery

Bunnahabhain has among the largest stills in the Scotch whisky industry. The stills are also the tallest on Islay and, at 20 feet 10 inches, among the tallest in the industry.

The most significant feature of distillation at Bunnahabhain, however, is the relatively low fill charge used by the distillery. The wash stills are charged at 16,625 liters, only 47% of capacity, while the spirit stills are charged at around 60% of capacity.

Low charge rates create more reflux and increase copper contact resulting in a lighter malt. That’s the primary reason why Bunnahabhain’s peated whiskies are so different than their historic antecedents.

Rather than being oily and pungent, Bunnahabhain’s current peated offerings are drier and lighter with a more pronounced peppery influence. The tall stills and low charge rates also explain the lightness of the distillery’s non-peated offerings.

The heart cut is from 72% to 64% with an average alcohol by volume (ABV) of 68.5%. The cut lasts for about two to three hours and is preceded by a foreshots run of about 10 minutes. The heart cut for peated whiskies is from 72% to 61.5%. Both peated and unpeated whiskies are casked at an average ABV of 63.5%.

The water used to dilute the newmake spirit is from the Margdale Springs, the same as is used for mashing. Casking is in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and sherry butts. The percentage of whisky matured in sherry butts has been steadily growing. In addition, the distillery has been experimenting with a range of cask finishs featuring sweet wines. These include, Port, Marsala and PX Sherry. A brandy cask finish has also been released.

All the whisky intended for bottling as single malt is matured at the distillery. One of the interesting features about Bunnahabhain is a noticeable salinity in many of its expressions. There are seven dunnage warehouses currently in use, numbered from 2 to 8. Traditionally, warehouse number 7, which sits on the bayside of the distillery, has exhibited the most pronounced saline influences.

As part of its current distillery renovation, Bunnahabhain plans to build new warehouse for maturing its whisky stocks, all of which will face the Sound of Islay. It will be interesting to see whether this new warehouse placement will have a noticeable impact on the perceived salinity of the whisky.

Since 2010, Burn Stewart has opted not to chill filter its whiskies before bottling. Chill filtering is a practice that began in the 1970s, largely in response to the needs of the American market for whiskies that would not turn cloudy or hazy when chilled.

By chilling the whisky to just above freezing before bottling, colloidal particles (suspended microscopic particles) and oilier, fatty alcohols are forced to drop out of solution or congeal into a semisolid form where they can be removed by filters.

The result is a whisky that won’t become hazy when chilled. The drawback is that those fatty alcohols, what are typically called congeners, add flavor and texture to the whisky. Removing them strips the whisky of some of its aroma, flavor and mouthfeel.