Our Distillery of the Month for July is Islay’s most northern – Bunnahabhain. The distillery was built on the quiet northeast coast of Scotland’s most famous whisky producing island, next to the River Margadale, from which it draw its water and its name – Bunnahabhain translates from Gaelic to mean “Mouth of the River”.
The distillery’s roots can be traced all the way back to 1879 when William Robertson and Baxter Blending House joined forces with the Greenlees Brothers to form the Islay Distillery Company. They quickly set about building a new distillery and in 1983 Bunnahabhain opened its doors for the first time.
Due to Bunnahabhain’s northerly location on Islay, in their early days they relied a lot on the sea.
Boats would bring in the commodities that the distillery needed to make whisky and then return to the mainland with a hull full of casks of quality spirit.
At this time, the distillery was yet to make a name for itself, so while we don’t know exactly how much whisky was being loading on to the boats, we can safely assume it was a relatively small amount.
The Show Must Go On
Bunnahabhain continued in this vein until 1930 when, with the nation preparing for another war, it was forced to close its doors. This was the case with most of Scotland’s distilleries at the time, and the majority remained closed throughout the entirety of the war, but not this one.
Thanks to some excellent management and a stockpile of maturing whisky in their warehouse, the distillery reopened 7 years later, just one year after the start of the war proper.
What did this mean for Bunnahabhain? Well, it was one of few distilleries operating in Scotland at the time and, with the war making it difficult to actually sell any more than a tiny amount of whisky (or get any to the mainland for that matter), they started stockpiling ageing spirit.
When the war finally finished, the distillery was well positioned to start selling whisky again almost immediately.
At this point there was quite a shortage of the spirit and as a result, Bunnahabhain started to become recognised around the country and beyond.
The distillery managers’ desire to keep producing spirit throughout the most arduous of times had paid off.
The Road to Success
With a growing name and a growing number of maturing casks, the distillery was finally well and truly off the ground, owing largely to some shrewd and clever management.
What happened next would help catapult Bunnahabhain to the forefront of the whisky world, but this time it had nothing to do with anything going on at the distillery itself. Instead, they had the local council to thank.
In 1960, a new road was built that connected the distillery to the rest of the island. So far they had relied on boats to bring them small amounts of supplies, but with the new road, the distillery was given room to grow.
More supplies could now be delivered and, with their name growing, this seemed like the perfect time to increase production, and so they did.
In 1963 Bunnahabhain added two new stills and set about making much more whisky than they had been previously.
Becoming One of the Best
As if the distillery wasn’t growing quickly enough, the launch of Bunnahabhain’s flagship 12 Year Old in 1979 took it to new heights. Scots lapped it up and whisky lovers everywhere doted on it.
It could be said that it was at this point the distillery changed from being a ‘growing Scottish distillery’ to ‘one of Scotland’s best distilleries’, a jump that was truly deserved.
What Makes Bunnahabhain?
The question that is on everyone’s lips. What is it that made Bunnahabhain whisky rocket to stardom and why are their expressions still so sought after today? In other words, what makes their whisky great?
Bunnahabhain is very different from nearly all other Islay whisky. It is known to be one of the milder spirits produced on the island, with lower peat levels, hints of sea breeze and an oily mouth coating character.
This is achieved by making the whisky from lightly peated malted barley and water from the River Margadale. The water rises through limestone and is then transported to the distillery through a pipeline, meaning it doesn’t run through any peat deposits on its way. The result is that the only smoky flavours in their expressions come from the barley.
It is this different style of new-make spirit, combined with great wood selection and excellent maturing conditions, that makes Bunnahabhain whisky some of the best.
Our Distillery of the Month
Bunnahabhain’s story is a fascinating one. It’s a tale of growing from nothing to something, the will to be different and the desire to succeed.
Bunnahabhain has managed to go from a tiny distillery in a quiet corner of Islay to one of the best and most famous whisky producers in the world. They have gone to extreme lengths to get there, from using boats to bring them supplies to operating through the brunt of World War 2.
To top it all off, they have produced some incredible expressions throughout the years that have won countless awards and no doubt created memories for millions of fans.
It is this combination of their powerful history and excellent whisky that makes them our Distillery of the Month for July.