October 17, 2012

Bunnahabhain - crazy roads, rustic stills, great whisky

The last few kilometres of the road to Bunnahabhain distillery is not for the faint-hearted! Although very charming, and offering up gorgeous scenery, we have here a single track road with few passing places, scary blind corners, and neck-stretching brows of hills.
On the other hand, the scenery on that road and surrounding Bunnahabhain, the most north - easterly Islay distillery,  is simply stunning, even on a  grey, drizzly day.
It was comforting to reach the distillery - a surprisingly large complex at the end of a wee road -  where distillery manager,  Andrew Brown, was there to greet me with a smile, some distillery stories and history, and several nice drams.
Very few distilleries in Scotland are independent. Most are owned by other companies which, in turn, might be owned by bigger companies.  It's a reality of the global economy and the huge amount of financing required to be a global player. For example, Ardbeg is owned by Glenmorangie Co Ltd, which is owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. LVMH own many luxury companies like Tag Heuer, Chateau d'Yquem, Givenchy, Sephora, Donna Karan and others. So, who owns Bunnahabhain?
The distillery is currently owned by Burn Stewart Distillers Ltd, which also owns Tobermory and Deanston distilleries, and produces Black Bottle whisky, a much favoured blend. Burn Stewart is owned by CL World Brands Spirits Group, which is owned by CL Financial, a Trinidadian based industrial conglomerate. This company is currently government controlled, and one can spend many hours reading about the various reasons leading to this status.
As it happens, CL also owns Angostura, so later that day I shook up  a cocktail, involving Bunnahabhain 18 year old (shame on me), angostura bitters, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and ice. I'm currently calling this the Margadale Special, in honour of the river nearby.
Andrew has been with Bunnahabhain distillery since 1988 and has undertaken most roles, until being recently appointed as distillery manager. He clearly enjoys sharing the history. The distillery was built in 1881, and the current owners have been in place since 2003. The name means "mouth of the river" in Gaelic and the river in question is the Margadale, (hence the cocktail name). The pure spring waters of the river are used in the production of Bunnahabhain whisky - not for cooling water, but in the other key areas.
As with quite a few distilleries, there have been periods of mothball, and some changing of hands and fortunes over the years. Until about 1963, the distillery produced a warm and peaty style of whisky, all of which went to blends. In that year much of the equipment was upgraded and Bunnahabhain started producing unpeated whisky - more of a Speyside style, according to Andrew. That style is much loved by Bunnahabhain fans, who enjoy the core range of 12 year old, 18 year old (a personal favourite) and 25 year old. Andrew was excited to share the news that a 40 year old would be coming out soon. The quantities will be very limited at about 750 bottles worldwide, more than 100 of which will be going to Taiwan, apparently. There will be about 10 available at the distillery in the £2500 range. In 2003 the distillery, once again, started to produce peaty whiskies, such as the new Toiteach (totche). The current range offers both peated and unpeated whiskies.
Andrew indicates that current production levels are about half of the 2.7M litre capacity, and last year about 90% of production went to blends. Presumably, the plan is to increase production to keep building stocks for anticipated future global demand. The core range was relaunched in 2011, with much acclaim, at a higher alcohol level, unchillfiltered. and with no caramel colouring. With the addition of new peaty expressions and World Duty Free offerings, Bunnahabhain should be seeing some of that increase in demand.
The peated malt at about 35ppm, comes from Port Ellen, and the unpeated, at about .8ppm, from Inverness or Berwick upon Tweed - all to Bunnahabhain's exact specifications. The mash tun uses about 12.5 tonnes of malt per mash and is fed with spring water. As with many distilleries, the draff residue in the mash tun goes to cattle feed. Many distillery folks will refer to fermentation times as having impact on the character of the new make spirit. At Bunnahabhain, however, fermentation time is typically longer at weekends than week days,  for labour reasons. Andrew reckons that there's no discernible difference in the spirit, although there will be slightly more alcohol in the washbacks for longer fermentation times, and the washback water temperature will be varied a bit. It was interesting to hear his perspective, since slow fermentation time is a definite aim at some other distilleries.
Much thought has gone into mitigating against power cuts. Bunnahabhain is more remote than the other distilleries and power cuts happen. Among the various things in the distillery bag of tricks, in the event of a cut, is to grate a little natural soap into the washbacks to "take the head out" when fermentation is raging.
The four stills at Bunnahabhain are uniquely shaped and, although they're made of copper of course, they have a rustic appearance that I hadn't seen in other distilleries. External appearance will have no impact on the whisky inside, but I realized that other distilleries, with gleaming stills, actually polish them!
With so much of the current production going to blend, a lot of the whisky is filled into tanks and taken elsewhere for maturation. But there are lots of barrels maturing on site and others waiting to be filled.
It was time for a tasting so, with some other keen enthusiasts, we headed into the tasting room, where Andrew treated us to some fine drams. First up was Darach Ur, a new, unpeated, duty free offering at 46.3% and no age expression. It had a fruity and vanilla nose and was very spicy. It softened down very nicely with a drop of water.
The relatively recently relaunched Bunnahabhain 12 year old, at 46.3%, was fresh, with citrus, vanilla and spice again. The 18 year old, a lovely whisky, is all elegance with great flavours. It's sweeter, fruitier, still with that characteristic spice, dried fruit and Christmas pudding. Both of these are available in Ontario at around $80 and $160. Ouch! Weep with us, my friends who have access to more favourable pricing.
The 25 year old was the most elegant, with vanilla custard cream aromas and flavours coming into play, along with everything else.
We were treated to a wee dram of the 2011 Feis Ile special bottling - a 14 year old, 59.4% whisky which had spent the last 3 1/2 years in a cognac cask. It was rich on the nose with orange and ginger spice, a cornucopia of flavours and fire on the palate, and a big spicy finish. This was also created to celebrate 130 years of Bunnahabhain. Thanks for sharing that one, Andrew. I'm sure there are few, if any, bottles for sale anywhere.
The Toiteach (means smoke on Islay, mist on Lewis) had a smoky, medicinal, young nose, and was sweeter and chewy on the palate. It had a nice smoky finish.
The other new duty free addition to the range is the Cruach Mhona (Peat stack/peat moss). This is another unaged expression, but drinks very nicely and is a good one to buy to get a feel for peaty Bunnahabhain.
In the distillery shop, there are all kinds of rare, unique and pricey bottles that collectors will love.
As you approach Bunnahabhain, signs on barrels point to the distillery. On the way out  a quirky barrel sign points to "other places". Brilliant! This is definitely a distillery worth visiting - for the drive in (not everyone will be as wimpy as me), for the warm welcome and the chance to taste some fine drams.

Next up Ardbeg, but not for a few days, while my travels take me to Munich. I feel a beer story coming on...............