On our earlier visits to Islay, we had already been to Bunnahabhain distillery, but somehow we had never come around to do a tour or stay longer than an hour or so to take the obligatory panorama picture at their pier, and walk to the wreck a little further on. Last year, we had the plan to change this, and booked a standard tour and a warehouse tasting while we were there during the festival. The distillery itself is only reachable by a long winding, single lane road, and for the distillery day they had decided to close down the road for normal traffic, and have the visitors park on a nearby field and transport them with a mini bus.
There are not that many roads on Islay, and there are only two ways to get to the distillery; from From Port Ellen and Bowmore, go to the crossing in Bridgend and follow the A846 towards Port Askaig, stop for a new cap, scarf or tweed anything at the Islay Woollen Mill while you are there anyway, or have a look at the Finlaggan ruins, where the Lord of the Isles used to life. Driving on, you will see the signs at the side of the road pointing you in the right direction. From the ferry in Port Askaig, the road leads you towards Bridgend, and then it is the second distillery-sign pointing right.
From this sign, there is only one never-ending single lane road meandering to the distillery, leading you through picturesque little cottages, mesmerising vistas and the lonely white painted cask every now and then confirming you are still on the right track. These casks prove to be very useful, but if you still think you lost track, just look at the electricity lines at the side of the road which confirm there really must be civilisation at the end. Also, there is the road itself, as a dead give-away you have not reached the end of the world. Yet.
When you finally get to the end of the road, you will see a grey and somewhat desolate little village, that – upon closer inspection – turns out to be the Bunnahabhain distillery. In 1881, when the distillery was built, besides building the expected distillery buildings and warehousing, also housing and a school for the 50-75 distillery workers and their families were built. Many of the houses were left in the 1960’s, and have an aura of never having been entered since.
When walking on the pier, you watch across the water of the Sound of Islay towards the Isle of Jura with her magnificent Paps, and – weather permitting – you might even see the third largest whirlpool of the world, the Corryvreckan, just to the left past Jura. Turning towards the distillery for a second look, she doesn’t look too shabby at all, with the gate leading towards the courtyard and the large letters on the side of the warehouses, you might even consider her to be close to photogenic. Now that you are facing the distillery, walk to the left, where a small footpath leads to the wreckage of the Wyre Majestic, a little less majestic as the name suggests nowadays, but a nice picture moment – as long as it lasts.
On their “distillery day” during the festival, it is quite a busy place to be. We could tell the tempo of the distillery is normally a little different. Setting up the event (tents, benches, food trucks, etc.) seemed to be built only when the visitors actually had arrived, as if they had not realised what the day was. One after another, everything popped up and opened, music started to play, rain started to pour, as did the liquid. Umbrellas were opened for the people waiting in line for their festival bottling and all of a sudden the complete staff seemed to be in overdrive, which added to the atmosphere.
During the festival day, we were treated to probably the fastest tour we have ever had at a distillery. We started with a dram, were shown into the millroom with the 1960’s Porteus mill, on to the 12.5 tonnes shiny, copper top mash tun (they sold their old smaller open top mash tun to Bruichladdich around the 1900’s, where it is still in production – sort of), passed the six Oregon Pine washbacks (55-80 hours) into the stillroom, where four huge stills were crammed into an impossible small space, connected with cables, pipes, hoses, tie wraps and duct tape (well almost). We learned that the four stills (2x 35000 liter wash still and 2x 15500 liter spirit still) have a capacity of producing 2.7 million liter per year, of which only 1.5 million liters are actually created in the ratio of 90% / 10% unpeated / peated spirit. There was even time to learn that only in 2014 the malt floor was converted into another warehouse. All this in about 20 minutes. Some sort of record for sure.
Time for us to catch some breath, sit down in the sun (Islay can have all four seasons in one hour, so enjoy while you can), have another dram and a very well made grilled cheese sandwich, before it was time to get ready for a separate tour through the warehouses, since these are not included in the standard tour. With many stories about how this tour was not to be missed, we went in with quite an expectation, and came out again with a slight disappointment. Fun, nonetheless, but with a too large group and only one warehouse to see, we got to stick a finger in a butt (the Sherry version, you perverts) every now and then to taste, and once we were outside again, three samples of their bottle your own, where we could purchase a 20cl bottle of, straight from the casks (after a little persuasion).
All in all the day was a complete chaos, but that made it feel real too. We could see the passion and on-the-fly reacting of the staff, who came up to the people in line for the bus back, in order to treat everyone with yet another dram. Good times. Go there when you are on Islay and try not to be held back by the first looks of the distillery as we did. The buildings may need some Tender Loving Care, the people seem to be genuine and full with passion, and they make a great dram. And that is what it is all about in the end…
Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller