Bunnahabhain, Islay, Scotland.
Extract from Alfred Barnard’s historic tour of every whisky distillery in Great Britain, published in ‘1887’
After a short rest at Port Askaig, we drove to Bunnahabhain, three miles further on, over a winding mountain road, from which at various points and turns, most enchanting views were obtained. On the left nothing could be seen but rough hilly pasture, made picturesque by an occasional farmsteading or cottar’s shieling, and by numerous herds of hardy Highland cattle-black, white, red and tawny with fierce red eyes and enormous horns-which feed and sleep amongst the green brackens and purple heather on the hillside. Far below on the right runs the swift current of the Sound of Islay, which IS here so rapid that a boat manned by four powerful Islesmen can make no headway against it. Beyond this silver streak is seen the west side of Jura, with its rugged hills of curious geological construction, while away to the north and west the island of Colonsay presents its well worn cliffs to receive the surly salutations of the wild Atlantic.
About a mile from the 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 Company have several steamers constantly chartered for the purpose of carrying barley and coals, while Mr. MacBrayne’s steamer “Islay,” calls weekly with general stores, and loads Whisky for the return voyage. To enable the work of loading and discharging to be expeditiously performed, the Company have erected a commodious and handsome pier at a cost of about GBP 3,500. It extends about 75 yards into the bay, built upon massive iron rites sunk deeply into the solid rock, and everything used in its construction is of the same metal. The depth of water is at all times sufficient to allow steamers to load and discharge on both sides of the pier.
Ten years ago there were but few Distilleries in Islay, but the increasing demand for this valuable make of Whisky for blending purposes, encouraged further enterprise in the extension of existing Distilleries and the erection of new ones. One of the most successful of these new ventures being the subject of our sketch.
The Bunnahabhain Distillery was built in the year 1881, and is situated on the bay of that name. At that time this portion of the island was bare, and uninhabited, but the prosecution of the distilling industry has transformed it into a life-like and civilized colony. The works have a frontage towards the bay, and command a fine view of the opposite shore, and the celebrated “Paps of Jura.” 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. The southern wing is four storeys in height, the ground floor being occupied as a Warehouse, the second and third floors as Malt Barns, and the upper floor as a Grain Loft. The barley is raised to the Granary by means of Elevators driven by steam, and propelled by a screw working within a case to any part of the Loft; the discharge being provided for by an adjustment of the openings of the case. The malt is likewise conveyed to the Kilns in a similar manner, and much waste of grain is thus prevented, as barrows are entirely dispensed with. We believe this is the only Distillery in Islay that has adopted this method of elevating the barley and loading the Kilns. At the eastern end of the Loft is the Steep, from which the moistened grain can be passed down to the Malt floors by simply raising same movable plates in the bottom. Two spacious Kilns occupy the angle of the building, and instead of the old fashioned close brick fire-places, they are furnished with open chauffeurs, from which the heated air ascends to the floor on which the malt is spread; this floor is of wire netting covered with hair-cloth. Nothing but peat is used in the Kilns, which is dug in the district, and is of exceptionally fine quality. A large quantity pf 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.
The western wing is of three storeys and contains Cooperage, Coal Shed, Mill Room, Malt Deposit, and Mash House. In the northern wing is situated the Engine House, Boilers and Still House; the latter a vast open building, containing the Cooler, into which the worts are forced by a centrifugal pump; the Refrigerator, one of Morton’s best; the six Backs, or Fermenting Tuns each capable of containing 6,000 gallons; the Wash Charger of similar capacity the Wash Still holding 6,000 gallons, and the Spirit Still, holding 3,000 gallons and other necessary utensils. The Spirit Store adjoins the Still House. All the plant is of the newest and most approved description, and is erected on the gravitation system. The water is such as delights the heart of a Distiller, being of a soft peaty nature; it is obtained from a stream which is fed by Loch Staoinsha, and is collected in a concrete Reservoir some little distance from the works, being thence conveyed by pipes.
And the Feu extends to fully 20 acres, and it has all been substantially fenced. Adjoining the works there are several large Warehouses, and commodious Offices, also Rooms for the Revenue Officers and the Company’s Clerks. Neat villas have been erected on the rising ground in the rear of the Distillery for the Excise Officers, and two large ranges of houses provide ample accommodation for the workmen. A Reading Room and School Room have likewise with praiseworthy liberality, been provided by the Company, and in the latter the children of the workmen receive an elementary education. There are fifty to seventy hands employed throughout the season.
The annual produce of Bunnahabhain Distillery is about 200,000 gallons and the registered Offices of the Company are in Glasgow.