Creating great experiences for whisky fans is the priority at Bunnahabhain
NESTLED in a cove on the Sound of Islay, at the end of several miles of single-track road, the historic Bunnahabhain Distillery is remote even by the standards of Islay.
But it’s a trip thousands of whisky fans are eager to experience every year as they make a pilgrimage to one of Scotland’s best-known distilleries.
First opened in 1881, Bunnahabhain is one of the oldest distilleries on the famous whisky isle, as well as one of only two on the island that specialise in producing unpeated spirit.
The legendary distillery has a loyal following around the world, but that doesn’t mean the team behind the brand is content to rest on their laurels.
In fact, recent years have seen Bunnahabhain owner Distell – which bought Bunnahabhain along with sister distilleries Deanston and Tobermory in 2015 – investing heavily in the Islay site in order to improve production systems as well as the experience for visitors.
Additions to the facility are evident as soon as you arrive, including a recently installed Biomass Energy Centre powered entirely by locally-sourced forest biomass and spent malt (known as draff) which is a by-product of distillation.
The £6.5 million Biomass Energy Centre will save up to 3500 tonnes of carbon a year for the distillery, and is another step forward on Bunnahabhain’s journey to become Islay’s first distillery to have a Net Zero emission distillation process.
On the visitor experience side, a new visitor centre and gift shop now takes pride of place at the entrance to the distillery.
Tour guide David Brodie, who joined Bunnahabhain in 2015 after careers in hospitality and, prior to that, the banking sector, told SLTN the visitor centre has become much more than a place to meet before tours or to pick up a souvenir bottle.
“When someone arrives at the visitor centre we speak to them, to get to know them, and understand why they’ve made the journey to our distillery,” he said.
“What do they normally enjoy in a dram? What kind of whisky do they gravitate towards? Is there something they would want to try?
“And then we can go on and do a full tasting if they want.
“But we try and make sure that if anyone comes through that door they go away feeling like they’ve had an experience as opposed to just going in and having some whisky.”
Visitors are able to participate in a number of different tastings in the visitor centre. They might sample some cask-strength expressions or take a tour through some of the distillery’s core range, including Bunnahabhain’s flagship 12 year old, double matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels, and Bunnahabhain 18, a complex dram matured exclusively in sherry casks.
But the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the distillery’s Warehouse 9 Tasting Experience, where a tour guide will accompany visitors into the titular warehouse and guide them through a tasting of drams drawn straight from the cask.
It’s a chance for whisky fans to really get to grips with the breadth of flavours in Bunnahabhain’s spirit and learn how quality casks help those flavours to develop over time.
David said the naming of the experience was a happy accident, with the tasting having become a brand in its own right in recent years.
“We had already started doing the warehouse tastings and as they were in Warehouse 9 the logical thing was to call it a Warehouse 9 tasting,” he said.
“And it’s become an accidental stroke of genius, because it’s widely known about and people talk about it in terms of a brand, which is great.”
From the making of the whisky to the guided tastings, it’s clear that each day at Bunnahabhain is about providing special experiences for whisky drinkers – whether they are new to the spirit or lifelong fans.
“In an ideal world, whenever people think whisky we want them to think Islay and we want them to think Bunnahabhain,” said David.
“And if that happens, even just every now and again, we’ve really done something.”