Distillery Tour: Bunnahabhain

This being a dream come true, I hoped for a good experience. I had a great one. We were picked up after a restful night at our inn (the Bridgend, highly recommended) by Uncle Charlie, the proprietor’s ex-merchant marine uncle. A great guy was Charlie and full of information. He worried me a bit, explaining that Bunnahabhain was getting a bit frayed around the edges He was more animated by the prospect of a new distillery being built on the same one-track road where Bunnahabhain lies.

And on arrival we saw a distillery that looked like distilleries did before they were tourist attractions: a working factory, with the dark grey coating the distilleries get from the odd collection of microbes that flourish around the Angel’s share. And out front, stacks of casks. Besides a crop, I have not retouched the photo. It was that grey and gloomy.

Bunnahabhain, a working distillery. Click for hi-res.

I walked along the main track, smiling all the while. Bunnahabhain is not a gleaming, freshly painted glamour queen like some other places, and I could care less. My favorite whisky comes from here, and I was going to see where the magic happened. Besides, if you’ve read some of my earlier posts, I have an appreciation for the grungier side of life.

Bunnahabhain visitor’s center. Yes, that is me, I don’t like to advertise myself but this was the best shot we had of the place.

The scene brightened up at the visitor’s center, a re-used storeroom with a freshly scrubbed and painted exterior. Inside is a small shop with the usual swag and special bottlings. They have a variety of expressions from past Islay Whisky Festivals in white canisters.

Scott MacCallum, a soft-spoken, 50-ish gentleman with steel-grey hair and an avuncular disposition gathered up our group and led us outside. He explained that the new owners of Bunna, Distell Group, had promised extensive upgrades but had not delivered as yet. However, he did explain that a new logo was coming soon, having been in the works for two years. (We’ve seen the logo on new bottles this year.)

After a short discussion of Bunna’s history and future, we repaired through a portal to a courtyard across the way. Scott pointed out an iron-railed staircase that led to the Bunnahabhain offices. I looked wistfully, wishing for an opportunity to take a peek inside the brain center of Bunna. Unlikely, but dreams do come true….

Bunnahabhain’s Porteus mill.

Next we went inside where Scott showed off their 1964 Proteus malt grinder, a deep red beauty with a bespoke wooden hopper; we then filed past a control panel and up the stairs to a worn-out calculator, held together with tape and hope, and beam balance by which they analyzed each new batch of malted barley. The balance and measuring tools are used to determine the density of the grind. The wooden brewer’s box is where it starts. A sample from the mill is added and the box is then shaken 80 times. By then, the screens inside will have filtered the grist into husk, grit and flour. They fine-tun the mill based on the density — too much flour and the mash is too dense, too much husk and the mash is too watery.

It’s a mash tun, son.

Next we visited the mash tun, showed at right. The tun was empty, so I got a nice shot of the interior. Clean machine. This is their ‘new’ 1960’s era tun, the old one being at Bruichladdich. It’s a bit smaller than the tun at Glenfarclas, for comparison. On the wall Scott pointed out the level sticks that have served the distillery since it was built in 1881. They have a computer to track tank levels now but Scott said the crew still use the easy-to-read wall mounted levels. Pretty cool. I hope when they update the place they preserve these Edwardian era indicators.

Tank controls, old (right) and new. Click for hi res.

A measure stick in the washback room. Every scratch and dent tells a story. That’s a lot of stories.

The washbacks were next. Each of the five washbacks is six meters tall and made of Oregon pine; they’ve got a lived-in look, these venerable old soldiers. My notes say they are 100 k liters – they fill with 66.5 k liters wort and 5k L cold water with 250 kg yeast. It takes seven hours to fill. Then follows a 48 hour ferment, but the wash can be in the washback as long as 80 hours.

In the next room are the stills, two wash and two spirit. It’s a crowded still room, and for the first time we see stills with no ornamentation, no polishing, just the copper aging in its own way. Here the fermented wort is heated to 92 degrees (Celsius  I assume) and these very tall stills have three windows to monitor the height of the foaming wash.

In the spirit stills, the low wines will be about 28% alcohol. During the second distillation, the head, consisting of 90% down to 74% alcohols and esters, distills out within 15 minutes. The heart, the good stuff, takes about 2.5 hours to reach 65% alcohol, and the tail is run down to one percent. These are split out in the spirit safe. Below is a photo of the Bunna spirit safe. Just to think, every bottle of Bunna you’ve tasted cascaded through here. If I were a billionaire I’d have a duplicate made just to have in my man cave. Sigh.

The Bunnahabhain spirit safe. Click to zoom, some wag had a comment about it…

Our next trip was to the warehouse and here, unlike everywhere else, we were free to wander around, take photos, run our hands over the casks…no stress, no bogus ‘flash danger’ from our cell phones. Unhurried, each visitor spent his or her own time contemplating the spirits at rest here.

The magic happens in these casks.

If that was not enough for me to appreciate Bunnahabhain’s hospitality, the best was yet to come. Scott led us back to the shop and through to the back, in a converted storeroom where a dark oak table held a herd of Glencairn glasses. We all stuffed in, about 8 of us, for a convivial chat about Islay history (Scott is the editor of the local paper) and a little celebrating as this was my wife’s 50th birthday. Everyone was joyful and friendly, and then we got to tasting. As we had arranged an extended tasting, my wife and I got to start with a couple special malts and damn were they good. Good thing we had a ride to the next venue. We tried their very tasty 18-year, the slightly peated Toiteach, then a much peatier expression, the Cruach Mhona, a cask-strength monster with 25 ppm peat – ‘slightly oily’ I noted.

The rest of the tasting covered three special release expressions — Bunnahabhain certainly rolls out the red carpet for their extended tasting. We all had a good chat, whisked our whiskies around the Glencairns, and repaired unhurriedly to the shop. Brimming with enthusiasm, I gazed at the wall of special releases until I found bottle number 600 from the 2017 festival. Along with the self-bottled mini-bottle from the Balvenie, this is my top prize from that trip. Every now and then I pull it out for a tiny taste and go, wow!

Bunna Headquarters. Yes, I got to go in. You can be jealous now 🙂

And yet, we’re not done…I had to use the bathroom, so I was directed…UP THE STAIRS IN THE COURTYARD!!! Yes, I got to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the Bunnahabhain distillery. Past the door of the general manager and the malt-master, past a really gorgeous old safe (what lay within? Recipes?). Nice bathroom, too, wainscotting, vintage plumbing in top condition.

As the wife and I ate our lunch our by the loch we laughed at how wonderful we had found the whole experience. The antithesis of the marketing-driven multimedia-led zip tour of Glenmorangie, Bunnahabhain’s tour was a throwback to a simpler time and an honest display of workmanlike approach to making a very good whisky.

Sure, I hope Distell puts some bucks into the plant, and for sure they could use a more capacious visitor’s center. But I hope they read this review and realize the goodwill an open, honest presentation to the product can bring, that allowing the faithful to wander among the casks is worth more than a thousand brilliant marketing ‘hooks.’ We who appreciate craft come to see the craft, frozen as it is in time, the secrets obscured behind the wood and metal of the still and washback, like the meaning that lies behind the words of a poem.

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Whisky and Words Number 36: anCnoc 12

Four anCnocks, Edinburgh style.

This is one of the whiskies in our cupboard which has a (brief) story behind it. Like the Caol Ila 18, this one is a pick by the wife. While in Edinburgh a year ago, we stopped by the very same whisky shop where my single-malt obsession began many years ago. A friendly, energetic woman invited us for a taste of her wares and had on a little table a number of Balblair, anCnoc, Speyburn and Old Pulteney whiskies. These are all owned by the same conglomerate, ThaiBev.

We tried the anCnocs and my wife was quite taken by the one in black — the Rascan. I remember liking all three of the anCnoc whiskies, so when the anCnoc 12 appeared at our local shop, I was amenable when the wife suggested we give it a go.

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Whisky and Words Number 35: Caol Ila 18

Caol Ila 18..what has it to do with an old stompbox? Just the colors…eerie!

My wife and I each have a favorite island whisky, a whisky that has a twist. In both cases, the twist is a medicinal quality brought forward by the phenols imparted by the peat smoke used to dry the malt. The expressions and their unique flavors vary between distillers. For me, the peaty, weird island favorite is Talisker. For my wife, it is Caol Ila.

We came upon Caol Ila off-handed: a neighbor brought a bottle of the 12 to a tasting at my house and said, “Someone gave me this, I don’t like it. You can have it.” I am not one to turn down a single malt. I thought the flavor a bit odd; it had a hint of nineteenth century mouthwash. But the wife lit right up. “I like this stuff,” she proclaimed, and grabbed the bottle. We’ve had it on hand since as a peaty alternative to the usual ‘nice’ drams like Glenmorangie, which she favors as a daily driver. I’ve even got used to it.

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Reflections on Non-Age Statement Scotch Whiskies

This post will appeal best to those who read The Economist. If that’s not you, this entry will appear rather wonkish; you might want to skip to the bottom for the summary of tested expressions.

Why NAS?
NAS as a concept has taken the industry by storm in the last five years. This trend is driven by two factors: a restriction in supply of aged whisky used in traditional expressions and increased demand in the Far East (backstopped by continuing popularity in the West). And unlike other products, the supply of suitably aged whisky is restrained in an insurmountable way: there is no way to go back in time and put more whisky in barrels.

The supply and demand interaction has two facets: if the distillers don’t react to higher demand with higher volume, the inevitable result is higher prices for their product and customer discontent; secondly, if the distillers fail to capture their share of the growing market, they risk losing market share to rivals.

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Whisky and Words Number 34: Glenmorangie Astar

I thought ‘Astar’ sounded Far Eastern, so paired this one up with Ganesha.

I have my wife to thank for the Astar. She had spotted an unpeated Caol Ila she wanted to try. We went to the local shop together and spotted Astar. We both like Glenmorangie’s offerings – they are reliably well done, balanced and focused. Their 10-year is a standard for us and what I serve guests who want to try a single malt for the first time. We have had tastings with the sherry, port and sauterne finished versions and they were well received. I also have a bottle of the ‘very rare’ 18-year old, which is some serious whisky. At $115 locally, it should be.

The Astar is nearly as expensive at $99.95 and caught the good wife’s eye. If regular Glenmorangie was good, she reasoned, this expression, aged in barrels crafted with select woods, must be better. I was a bit more skeptical, noting the absence of an age statement. But given the malt master at Glenmorangie has produced so many good offerings, I relented and we decided to give it a go.

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Wanderings – Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle from the East

My wife and I blundered upon this lovely little castle pretty much by chance. This was our longest driving day of our trip, and we had to make a long haul and on time – from Fort William, just south of the Loch country, all the way down to Kennacraig to catch the six-o’clock ferry to Islay. Not so many miles, you say, but look at those roads! Single lane each way and sinuous as a hibernating ball of earthworms. So we were careful not to dally too much anywhere along the way. We got out of Ft. William at a decent time, planning to be in Oban for lunch. Dunstaffnage at that point was merely a note in my list of things to see in nearby Oban, and the photos we found online did not impress. Just a little pocket castle. Continue reading

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Whisky and Words Number 33: Two Pips of Jura

The Paps of Jura. Click for hi-res.

I laid eyes on the Isle of Jura for the first time last year on my trip to Islay. From the Bunnahabhain distillery, our driver, Uncle Charlie, pointed out ‘the Paps of Jura,’ two mountains rearing up from the southern lobe of that island. (The shot at left is from Caol Isla distillery, just to the south of Bunnahabhain.) We did not make it to the island, nor try the whisky while we were there, but we bought a couple tasters in a whisky shop in Edinburgh. And they are what you see below.

Jura Superstition (NAS) left, and Origin 10

This review will be a microcosm of the NAS vs. ‘standard’ 10 or 12-year old debate — whether the Non-age-statement whiskies represent a good value and experience for the whisky taster.  (Note, both of these whiskies are listed as limited release.)

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