Driving down the slim entrance road to Bunnahabhain Distillery on Islay was perhaps one of the most beautiful moments during my time on the small island and also one of the spookiest.
My drive to get there took me along roads that ran parallel to the beautiful view of the Paps of Jura (seen above), past numerous newly born lambs bouncing alongside their mothers, and further away from any civilisation.
When I made the sharp right turn into the distillery, I paused the car and simply took in the view for a moment. Set right on the shores of Bunnahabhain Bay, the distillery sits peacefully – and has done since 1881 – surrounded by rolling hills, almost built into the side of the land rather than on it.
As I pulled into the site, it was clear that there weren’t a bucketload of tourists who would be joining me. In fact, if it weren’t for the presence of a couple of cars, I would have thought I’d arrived to a silent distillery. It was eerie, dark, lonesome and grainy – as if I’d walked onto a film set from the 1940s.
Scurrying my way out of the parking lot and past the paint thin and rain-stained buildings, I found a tall staircase that took me up to the offices, since the main visitor centre was closed due to the time of year.
And, luckily, I found a warm welcome inside from Lillian MacArthur – for by that point I was starting to think retreat would be the wisest option, it being the first time I’d managed to wander around a distillery’s grounds in the daytime on my own without running into anyone.
Lillian was perhaps surprised to see a random Canadian showing up inside the distillery offices but quickly put me onto Andrew Brown, the distillery manager, who – while planning to head home – was kind enough to take me on a quick tour.
Bunnahabhain distillery is now owned by South African outfit Distell, which bought Burn Stewart Distillers (the distillery’s operator) in 2013. It is probably most famous for its Black Bottle blend – a secret blend of whiskies from all the distilleries on Islay – but does also have a 12- and 18-year old in its staple range.
It’s had a rocky history, having been closed and reopened twice over the past few decades during ownership by both Highland Distillers and then Edrington Group. All of this has led Islay’s gently peated whisky – a great intro to Islay whisky if the peat levels of Ardbeg or Laphroaig are a bit too much for you – to look slightly weather worn. The buildings – such as the former malting floors – that Andrew pointed out as we wandered the site looked haunted, ghost-ridden.
Inside the main area which is still used for distilling, Andrew told me some of the history. In the 1960s, it was the biggest distillery on Islay, producing around 2.7m L per annum. Today, around 1.8m L flows out annually and the team is running on a five-day week. Much of the equipment still exists from the 1960s, when it was more of a workhorse, so the equipment is large: a 15 tonne mash tun takes up much of one floor, while six 66,000L washbacks occupy another area.
The stills are steam heated and, again, very large – their shape looking slightly like darkened Bosc pears. While the wash still has a capacity of 35,000L it is only filled with 16,000L, and although the spirit still fits 15,000L, it is charged at 9,000L. With a slow distillation, this means in simple terms that the spirit is getting a lot more copper contact, resulting in a slightly softer and smoother final whisky down the line.
While my visit to Bunnahabhain was short, it was a brilliant chance to see the distillery on a quiet day without any tourists around. It is a fantastic site and I can only hope that something will be made of all of those old buildings surrounding it, for it looks a little unloved at the moment.
But my thanks to Andrew and the team for showing a slightly lost, slightly nervous Miss Whisky around that cold February afternoon.
For more information on the distillery, head to: www.bunnahabhain.com