Bunnahabhain, Briefly (Summer 2017)


Of all the distilleries I visited in Scotland, whether in depth or on a hit and run basis, none were more of a pain to get to than Bunnahabhain, few had as idyllic a location when I got there, and none presented as depressing a prospect in such a lovely setting. This does not immediately appear to be the case as you approach the distillery—see the photograph alongside for the promise of charm. It’s a lovely glimpse after a not-very fun four mile drive on a single track road on which you meet far more oncoming traffic than you would like (more than 0 vehicles was far too many for me at some of the spots where we encountered trucks etc.) but the promise is not kept. At least not right now. It’s been reported recently that the owners are going to spend a lot of money to refurbish the distillery and I think you’ll understand why below. 

Of course, there are those who believe that this kind of cosmetic attention to what a distillery looks like is frivolous or irrelevant, that the only thing that matters is what the whisky produced there tastes like; and some worry further that the cost of refurbishment will only be passed on to the customer. The latter is, of course, possible, but it should be noted that many distilleries have managed to renovate or keep a clean coat of paint on without sticking it to the average punter or losing their charm—see Laphroaig, for example, or Bruichladdich (coming soon); even Tomatin, which isn’t going to win any beauty contests any time soon, makes an effort (and they have an attractive visitor centre and shop).

Bunnahabhain, alas, looks like a factory out of Dickens, probably owned by Mr. Murdstone and managed by Uriah Heep. The truth about the staff is quite the opposite—the people at Bunnahabhain are said to be very friendly; but they’d have to be to overcome the oppressive feel of the place. Victorian gloom aside, right now it’s not even clear where you should park, and finding the visitor centre is a bit of a scavenger hunt, and then a bit of a shock when you do find it. This is obviously on the minds of the new(ish) owners. Distillery tourism is very big now in Scotland—see this report—and, if nothing else, it’s an opportunity for brand building: there’s no profit in being the ugliest distillery on Islay, especially when you have such a stunning location and could well be the most beautiful distillery on Islay, making people feel like the drive was worth it and sending them away ready to talk about how lovely it is.

As we got there rather late in the day there was no question of doing a tour (though I wasn’t planning to anyway on this trip). All I can give you therefore is a sense of what the grounds look like. If you are interested in a tour, they have a few options, most very reasonably priced (not sure what the “Manager’s Tour” gives you for £100). If I ever make it back to Islay I would like to do a tour—their tours have good reputations. I did peek into the still house on my way out—if I were more shameless I could probably have wandered in, as there were no staff anywhere to be seen. Apart from two people in the shop there was no one else to be seen at the distillery, and I was the only visitor, late on a Thursday afternoon (the family were sitting in the car)—a bit unfortunate so close to one of the two ferry terminals.

As limited as this look at the distillery is, it should give you a sense of what I’m talking about. To take a look please launch the slideshow below. And scroll down to see what’s coming next.

I’d originally planned to cover my quick visits to the two Port Askaig distilleries together but for the sake of my sanity I’m trying to limit the number of photos I crop and resize for each report to a number below 30. So you’ll have to come back on Friday for Caol Ila, who do a little bit more with what is another very attractive location on the water. And tomorrow I’ll have my first report on eating on Skye.

5 thoughts on “Bunnahabhain, Briefly (Summer 2017)

  1. It looked the same as when i visited in 2010. I got a tour from the most striking-looking guy I met in Scotland – a look well in keeping with the Dickensian feel of the place. (I wish I could attach the picture.) But I must say, I enjoyed the distillery and I was not bothered by the steam-age industrial mood. I felt like it added a lot of character. Certainly one of a kind! The one and only distillery on Islay I found somewhat depressing was Caol Ila, which had all the charm of a 1970’s East European meat factory.

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  2. Couldn’t disagree more with your assessment. I hate the drive for everything to have a gloss on it. I thought at first you had tongue planted in cheek, but quickly realized you were serious. It’s really not that bad, and much better than the alternative…the disney-ifcation of distilleries; what with their “Homes of Flavour”, “Sensory Rich Tour” or “Six Pillars Experience”…bah.

    Oh, and I fixed this for you:

    “…some worry further that the cost of refurbishment will only be passed on to the customer. The latter is, of course, guaranteed..”

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    • I agree that the Disneyfication of distilleries is not a good thing—see my reactions to Talisker and Oban. But there’s no reason why a refurbished Bunnahabhain has to end up as a Disneyfied distillery. All the other Islay distilleries are more attractive (well, Florin would disagree about Caol Ila) and most of them have a great deal of character. I think Lagavulin’s aesthetic is a good one to strive for: whitewashed walls on the outside, old-world without being cloying on the inside; no gloss at all.

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