It’s the Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 8: Bunnahabhain time! It’s the eighth day of our celebration of all things Islay and we’re looking at what’s going on at Bunnahabhain while Ian Buxton shares with us some of his memories of the distillery.
Today, we’re moving the virtual party to Bunnahabhain, famed for its unpeated whisky though it does produce some smoky bottling. So let’s take a look at what the distillery is laying on before handing over to Ian Buxton for some Islay reminisces. But first, here’s a rain-drenched video we made in 2019 with distillery manager Andrew Brown. And if you want some music, why not listen to our Islay memories playlist on Spotify?
What’s going on today:
It’s all taking place on Facebook on Friday 4th June. Go here for more information:
4pm – A warehouse tasting of drams straight from the cask.
8pm – A masterclass featuring a veritable class of masters including master blender Julieann Fernandez, master distiller Brendan McCarron, Andrew Brown, visitor centre manager Billy Sinclair and whisky writer Dave Broom. They will be tasting the 12 year old before moving on to the Fèis Ìle 2021 bottlings.
The distillery is also hosting a virtual tour of Islay, which will give viewers a chance to choose where the distillery visitor centre manager, Billy Sinclair, visits. He’ll speak with some of the island’s most famous residents, sharing tales about everything it has to offer and explain why we’re so taken by Islay’s landscapes, Gaelic heritage, whisky bars and nautical past. The distillery has also made Islay Roam Around and Spotify playlists to enjoy and will today unveil a third Fèis Ìle release live during its evening tasting – a super-exclusive bottling which one lucky fan will have the chance to win by taking part in Billy’s voyage around the island. All of the distillery’s events will be broadcast live on Facebook.
What are the distillery exclusives to look out for:
There are two whiskies, bottled just for the festival: a 2013 Moine (peated expression) finished in Bordeaux casks and bottled at 59.5% ABV for £85, and a 2001 Marsala Cask Finish, bottled at 53.6% ABV, which cost £199 but it is sadly already sold out. A third is also due to be announced…
Ian Buxton’s Bunnahabhain memories:
I have fond memories of Bunnahabhain.
I first visited around 35 years ago when it, like most of Islay, was in a sorry state. Production was at a very low ebb or had possibly stopped completely. The buildings, stark and functional at the best of times, felt almost abandoned, looking drab, unkempt and uncared-for. There was a somnolent air about the place, lacking even a Hebridean sense of urgency.
It was not always thus. Visiting shortly after its construction, that indefatigable Victorian whisky hack Alfred Barnard thought it “a fine pile of buildings … and quite enclosed”, noting also “a noble gateway”. Much later his spiritual successor Michael Jackson went so far as to compare it, not unfavourably, to a Bordeaux château. But in Barnard’s day Bunnahabhain was second only to Ardbeg in output and Michael, ever the extravagant romantic and ready to embrace lost causes, saw only the best in places that a colder eye might have found harsh, almost brutal.
It’s the concrete, of course. The original builders, who landed here to create from the heath and bare rock a distillery and a community, made free use of it. The tiny puffers (small coastal tramp vessels, vital to the economy of all Hebridean islands until pushed aside by the larger ferries in the 1960s) could run up onto Bunnahabhain’s stony beach and land men and materials and, once the distillery was operational, bring barrels and barley (and tea and like necessities for the men and their families) leaving with barrels and whisky. Eventually, a pier was built, functional yet graceful and larger ships would call. Today most supplies and visitors come by lorry or car along the tortuous, twisting road that starts just above Caol Ila immediately before its precipitous drop into Port Askaig.
Summers on Islay
I recall long summer breaks, staying first in the old manager’s house high above the distillery itself and later in one of the rows of cottages to the left of the main building. It was the perfect spot for a holiday with small children – safe and quiet and with access to rock pools to explore, shipwrecks to discover and a deserted beach on which to build a makeshift barbeque.
And it was cheap – tourism to Islay had yet to be invented. In my memory, the sun shone, though I am surely putting a generous gloss on the weather. Most days, we could at least glimpse the Paps of Jura and the fast-running waters of the Sound of Islay.
Once I traded with some fishermen and acquired two fine partens (edible brown crabs) which I intended to cook later that evening. The children had other ideas: having made firm friends with the doomed crustaceans, they argued long and passionately for their release. And so it came about that I threw my dinner in the sea, an enduring memory of this place. On better days we enjoyed Loch Gruinart oysters – with just a splash of Bunna and sea air to taste.
The wreck of the Wyre Majestic
I should think we visited the Wyre Majestic almost daily. Walk just past the cottages and round the point and you’ll see her: a 338-ton trawler, looking slightly less majestic since October 1974 when she ran aground on the rocky shoreline, perhaps seduced by hints of whisky on the breeze. Here’s the thing: if you time your visit for low tide it’s perfectly possible to hit the rusting hulk with a well-aimed stone (there is no shortage of suitable missiles). It makes a very satisfactory noise and if you have small children with you, especially boys, they will be impressed by your manly skills.
Since 2014, Bunnahabhain’s ultimate owner is Distell, a major South African drinks company and owner of Burn Stewart whose name is on the door. But, with Heineken circling Distell and a takeover bid rumoured to be imminent, it’s unclear who will end up with the keys to Barnard’s noble gateway.
Bunnahabhain holds a special place in my whisky memories, its austere and apparently forbidding walls a part of my whisky soul. It’s unclear when I will return. But return I shall and take in the peace and recall the crabs and the sea trout I took off the beach – or nearly took, for it slipped the hook only inches from my over-eager grasp – and throw stones at the old Majestic in search of lost time and memories.