Bunnahabhain Distillery Tour
A morning of movement had shipped us from our initial meeting point in Glasgow, to be whisked off the mainland to a distant shore beside the Sound of Islay. This was the opening gambit of the Bunnahabhain 2016 Feis Ile Day Tripper event and its goal to make the festival more accessible for everyone.
The outline is provided in my Day Tripper article that acts as a backdrop to the whole day itself. We had stepped through the hustle and bustle of Port Ellen before being driven north towards the distillery and our host for the afternoon. Whiskies were successfully poured in tandem with Islay’s bumpy peaty road network and amazingly little was spilt. Turning off the main road, we descended along a single track, negotiating festival goers and other coach parties before the distillery appeared before us.
A warm welcome and dram from the Bunnahabhain manager ensued with an introduction that went well with the 16-year-old Amontillado Feis Ile bottling. To steady us for a distillery tour with a difference, Andrew then poured the 18-year-old Bunnahabhain before handing tour responsibilities over to Robin; a long serving still man. Normally if you take the Bunnahabhain distillery tour this will set you back £7 and will last approximately an hour. The ticket includes a £5 discount on any 70cl bottle single malt bottle purchase from the shop. Fellow enthusiasts speak highly of the standard tour offering and the guides who ensure visitors leave satisfied.
For all the Islay distilleries during their moment in the Feis Ile spotlight, it’s very much hands on deck. Everyone is involved and focused on ensuring visitors – many of whom have travelled from across the world – are made to feel welcome and part of the festivities. Needless to say all the regular guides were already out providing tours and some of the back staff functions were being performed by familiar faces from Deanston distillery. Instead we had to make do with Robin and his anecdotes from decades of service at Bunnahabhain.
All in jest of course, as to walk a distillery with a member of the production team who is knowledgeable regarding its operation and history is a delight. Seasoned with tales of past events and misfortunes it brings to life a distillery and its workforce. Moments like these I’m reminded of Gavin D. Smith’s excellent book The Whisky Men where the author interviewed a bygone generation of distillery workers. Their stories make for captivating reading and I’ve always felt another generation is slipping away as I write this. In other words, it’s time for a sequel or I should actually start interviewing retired workers from whatever distillery to document their memories? Get in touch if you have anything to offer.
Robin kicked off proceedings with a synopsis of how he found himself working at Bunnahabhain. This set the tone for an informative and entertaining tour with nothing seemingly off topic. My You Tube Channel offers a couple of short videos from around this point that will give you a sense of the setting and atmosphere around the distillery.
Bunnahabhain was established in the early 1880’s at considerable expensive, including the enjoyable road down to the shoreline and the distillery itself. Visiting distilleries as I do on a regular basis, many have evolved or have undergone a bludgeoning in the pursuit of efficiency. It’s with sadness that for instance you tour Caol Ila (just down the road from Bunnahabhain) or visit Mortlach and witness history lost. It is refreshing to visit a distillery where little has changed and you can still have a glimpse of how things were without visiting Dallas Dhu which is kept in situ by Historic Scotland. GlenDronach springs to mind immediately and I felt Highland Park kept a nice balance between old and new much like Glengoyne and Laphroaig to name but a handful.
Bunnahabhain I expect has not changed much since the 1890’s, as starting the tour in the milling area you have this immediate impression of compression. Space is at a premium and it’s been utilised in a way that wouldn’t be permitted in a modern construction today. Sitting just above the mill store is a single gigantic steel mash tun, which dominates the room. Encased by a copper dome that simmers brightly on what was a gloriously picturesque Islay day. My own thoughts cast back to the classic 1950’s UFO’s movies and the shimmering oval machines from another planet. One it seems has deposited itself on the distillery and what a place to call home.
During the Feis Ile the distillery is not in production as tours and creating a safe and enjoyable environment are the main priorities. This pause in the daily routine allows visitors to adopt a more tactile and investigative approach to the tour. You’re able to look deep into this magnificent mash tun without fear of being engulfed by fumes or spray, or reach out amongst the stills. This also applies to the Oregon pine washbacks that number six in total and are reached by a series of stairs, with the last set being especially steep. This briefly takes you high above the still room as you climb the summit to the next stage of production.
Standing amongst the washbacks you can look back through the doorway to rugged stills beyond and another tour slightly ahead of you. Here Robin entertains us with more stories and tales of misfortune with various items being accidently deposited in the washbacks never to be seen again. We are briefly joined by a trio of intruders from what I presume is a DIY tour sandwiched in-between the tour schedule. Robin in his polite way asks them to respect the group by keeping quiet and moving on.
We then gracefully step out and descend downwards towards the two pairs of stills that fit perfectly with the rustic and well-loved style of the distillery. Perched above these distilling beasts for a few moments offers a unique perspective. You cannot help but be captivated the sense of scale and human endeavour to create whisky. These are not sparkling or in pristine condition nor is any attempt made to create such a false facade. They represent the recognisable core of any distillery and their rugged, worn exterior darkened by years of use for me is a perfect accompaniment to Bunnahabhain itself.
This is of course home turf for our guide and his lair. More stories commence and an appreciation that with all the computers and automation in the world, it simply comes down to experience and the skill of the still man to decide when the cut is ready and how to produce good spirit.
Our Day Tripper group steps outside for a tour ending dram; a Bunnahabhain Mòine if I remember correctly. For some this marks the end of the Bunnahabhain visit as they prefer to chase bottles at other distilleries. Other members of the group opt to take advantage of the shoreline, drams, food and festivities which is almost an irresistible proposition given the beautiful setting and climate. For my colleague and I, a brief lull before we embark on the Warehouse tasting tour.