Distillers of Islay like a challenge, it seems. The island’s first distillery at Bowmore set the tone in 1779, when the founders broke ground several miles away from the nearest fresh water source. A lengthy 7-mile lade had to be constructed just to carry this most essential of ingredients to the site.
Such reckless disregard for logic was apparently still in evidence in 1881 when Glasgow blender Robertson & Baxter, under the leadership of William Robertson, partnered with the Greenlees Brothers of Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown and established Bunnahabhain on a rocky stretch of coastline five miles north of the last bastion of civilization at Port Askaig.
Building a Victorian-age distillery in such a remote area was no mean feat and took almost two years to complete. As well as the distillery itself, a road and pier had to be constructed, along with cottages for the workers and a small schoolhouse where their children could be educated. Spirit ran for the first time in 1883 and the distillery was soon producing a much in-demand whisky which was sent in great quantity to the giant blending houses of Glasgow and beyond.
Bunnahabhain has long celebrated its connection with the sea. In the early days, the site was accessed almost exclusively by boat. Small puffer ships, able to navigate the treacherous waters of the Sound of Islay, came loaded with supplies and returned to the mainland laden with a cargo of the finest whisky.
Such was the owners satisfaction with Bunnahabhain’s early success, the manager was rewarded with a salary of £350, along with free lodging and keep for a cow. His agreed contract stated that ‘not less than £30’ be spent on furniture – equivalent to around £2500 today. With the manager (and his cow) satisfied, the distillery continued to flourish and played a key role in the creation of Highland Distillers (now Edrington) when the owners merged with Glenrothes distillery in Speyside.
Over the years Bunnahabhain continued to provide for various blends, featuring prominently in the likes of Cutty Sark and Black Bottle. When Highland Distillers became Edrington in 1999 however, the company decided to concentrate on it’s three biggest brands, The Macallan, Highland Park and the Famous Grouse. Bunnahabhain was deemed surplus to requirements and sold in 2003 to Burn Stewart, which would itself, be acquired by South African drinks group, Distell ten years later.
Bunnahabhain has a reputation as the mildest and most mellow of Islay malts. This has always seemed a little misleading to me however, for even though the spirit is largely unpeated, it remains a malt of great character and robust flavour, forged through a unique marriage of sherry and salty sea air.
One of the latest additions to the distilleries core range is the Stiuireadair (Gaelic for ‘Helmsman’), named in tribute to the salty sea dog who adorns each bottle of the Bunnahabhain malt. Produced using a combination of first and second fill sherry casks, it is bottled at 46.3% abv and retails in the UK for around £38.
Smell: A youthfulness about the nose. Feisty even. There’s a ton of Brine, wafts of Bonfire Smoke and Smoked Kippers with Lemon and Sea Salt, interwoven with some classic Sherry notes – Raisins, Prunes and dark Caramel.
Taste: Toffee, Creamy Sherry, Caramel and Orange with Cinnamon and Pepper. Sea Salt & Brine and Peppery Smoke on the finish.
Value for Money: No doubt this is a very affordable Bunnahabhain, but then so is the 12 year old – and it’s magnificent. Stiureadair is some way off that level but if you find the prospect of a younger Bunnahabhain that turns the coastal vibes up to 11 enticing, this is the dram for you.
The overtly briney nature of the Stiureadair never seems to sing in complete harmony with the ex-sherry casks, but the dram kind of works anyway. It’s like the 12 year old’s younger sibling has returned after 6 months lost at sea – and isn’t all that happy to be home. Instead it longs to be back out there, navigating the violent waves of Scotland’s Atlantic coast once more.
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