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Issue 27 - The softer side of Islay (Bunnahabhain)

Whisky Magazine Issue 27
November 2002

 

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The softer side of Islay (Bunnahabhain)

Bunnahabhain is the foil to Islay's claymore, finds Ian Buxton

I once threw my dinner in the sea at Bunnahabhain. Staying at the distillery, I befriended some local fishermen and swapped the contents of their creel (two fine edible crabs) for luxury shortbread.

All went well until the procedure for preparing the delicacy was explained to my children, then four and five. Fervent protests rent the air. Any parent knows the end of this story – yes, the crabs were returned, bemused but unharmed, to the Sound of Islay and I went hungry.

I've always retained a fondness for this little-known Islay distillery and swore one day to return, and that time had come. First, the facts. Bunnahabhain – pronounced ‘bu-na-ha-venn'. Location – north-east Islay, opposite the poetically named Paps of Jura. Established 1881. Owners Highland Distillers. Manager John MacLellan. Capacity approximately 2.4m litres per annum, from two pairs of stills. Expressions – 12-year-old and limited distillery-bottled vintages.

What that bald narrative can't convey is a sense of place. You have to understand that Bunnahabhain only exists because of the distillery. There is nothing else here, and it is literally the end of the road.

I was told that Bunnahabhain means ‘mouth of the river' in Gaelic and, indeed, the River Margadale runs to the bay just north of the distillery. But it really should mean ‘exceptionally quiet place, even by the standards of very, very quiet places'. Just listen: that gentle chattering is the swell of the tide over the pebble beac...

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