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The Islay Distillery Company was founded in 1879 with the goal of creating a new distillery on the island’s northeast coast, overlooking the sound of Islay and the opposing coastline of neighbouring Jura. Through a partnership between James Ford of William Ford & Sons, James Watson Greenlees from McMurchy & Ralston of Campbeltown and William A. Robertson of Robertson & Baxter, a stretch of land was purchased in 1880 and construction work began the following year.
Built at the mouth of the Margadale River where it enters Bunnahabhain Bay, the distillery is remote even by today’s standards. Back in the Victorian era it must have felt like the middle of nowhere. A mile long section of road had to be built to link the business with the track that led to Port Askaig, four miles down the coast. The vast majority of transport to and from the distillery was done by sea however, making efficient use of the natural harbour of the bay.
Between 1885 and 1887, journalist and historian Alfred Barnard embarked on a tour of every working distillery in the United Kingdom, a journey that would result in the definitive work on the subject in 1887’s ‘The Whisky Distilleries of he United Kingdom‘. During his travels he visited Bunnahabhain, providing us with this description of the distillery in the early days…
“About a mile from the Bunnahabhain Distillery the rough hill road is joined by one which leads in serpentine curves downwards to the bay. This road was entirely constructed by the Company, and is as good as it was costly; but, although indispensable, the greater portion of it is not much used for heavy traffic, the extensive import and export being entirely by sea.”
“The Distillery proper is a fine pile of buildings in the form of a square, and quite enclosed. Entering by a noble gateway one forms an immediate sense of the compactness and systematical construction of the work.”
It is remarkable when reading Barnard’s descriptions how little the distillery and surrounding countryside has changed in the 130 odd years since his visit. Designed to mimic a Bordeaux Chateau, the entrance to the courtyard is like some Victorian-era whisky version of the Jurassic Park gate.
Change is coming however, current owners Distell are the largest drinks company in Africa and have announced an investment of £10.5 million in the distillery and visitor centre. As well as improvements to the production area, the extensive upgrade will see the construction of a Cafe and Retail Space that will make the most of the fantastic coastal location with spectacular views across to the famous Paps of Jura.
Today the Bunnahabhain spirit is renowned as being unpeated, though this wasn’t always the case. In Barnard’s time for example, he found kilns churning out peat smoke in much the same way as the other distilleries on the island…
“Nothing but peat is used in the Kilns, which is dug in the district, and is of exceptionally fine quality. A large quantity of this peat is always kept stored, so that only that which has become thoroughly matured is used; this is a very important consideration in drying the malt, as well-seasoned peat is free from the sulphurous matter which it contains when newly dug.”
Even today, despite an unpeated core range, the distillery regularly releases heavily peated malts in the traditional style of the island and it is one such cask that the Scotch Malt Whisky Society has bottled here, in celebration of the 2019 iteration of the Islay Festival…
*Full Disclosure: As an affiliate of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I can be paid commission should any of my readers choose to become members or buy bottles that I have reviewed.
Smell: Bonkers! In the best possible way. Malty & winy with smoky bacon and maple syrup, sea salt and brine. Apple, pineapple and chargrilled meats. Toffee.
Taste: Juicy and smoky. Bacon and maple syrup again. Chilli and cloves, raspberry and blackcurrant jam. Pastry. Ash and smoke. Sea salt and brine.
Thoughts: At £70 a bottle it is a little pricey for a 10 year old perhaps, but single cask Islay doesn’t come cheap and to be fair, the dram does not disappoint.
A magnificent single malt from a magnificent island. Carries all the seaside character you’d expect from a peated Bunnahabhain dram whilst also offering something unique thanks to its two years in a wine cask. Excellent.
Visit the Bunnahabhain website here.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a unique members only whisky club which releases an array of new single cask bottlings each month. Members not only gain access to this monthly out-turn, but also to the purpose built members rooms in Society venues in Edinburgh and London.
For more information on joining the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, click here.