Bowmore Distillery Bunnahabhain Distillery Distillery tours Island of Islay News Scotland

Scotland’s tour in 5 distilleries: Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and surroundings

Final stop on the trip with the last tour of the Islay distilleries

Last day on Islay and last stop on this short whisky tour, with two dates: Bowmore in the morning, Bunnahabhain in the early afternoon.

The village from which the distillery takes its name is truly delightful and, as on previous days, bright thanks to the sunshine that illuminates these Scottish views.

The visitor centre with the shop at the entrance is rather small but well stocked, giving the opportunity to buy a few souvenirs while waiting for the tour we booked, the Bowmore Signature Tour and Tasting.

The tour with our guide Evie starts from the malting floor (which covers a small part of their production), one of the few still active in Scotland, where as already seen at Springbank and Kilchoman the barley is turned by hand six to seven days after spending 27 hours soaking in water.

After having had a chance to put your nose into the large room next door where the barley is dried, you move on to the kiln, where for the first 18 hours the peat is burned for this purpose, then the process is completed only with hot air created by recycling the energy produced by the distillery. The ecological aspect of the massive use of peat for whisky production is not overlooked, Bowmore in particular has fields allocated for this purpose, but the quantity present in the area is such that it does not cause concern, so much so that Evie explains how, for example, her family also has its own peat field, where she herself has gone to cut (with much effort) some sod.

Once again, it is the mill made by Porteus (we talked about it for Springbank) that grinds the barley, preparing the grist that will then end up in the mash tun, immersed in hot water for several hours and then moved to the six vats (washbacks) for fermentation. When Japanese ownership took over several years ago, metal vats were introduced, but not being satisfied with the yield, they reverted to the pinewood ones still used today, with each one named after different Bowmore owners throughout history.
We then come to the four stills that produce the approximately 2 million litres of distillate, which unfortunately can only be visited from the top of a ladder for safety reasons, but the sight of these huge pots is always exciting, even from a distance.

A tour of Bowmore cannot fail to include a visit to the No. 1 Vaults, Scotland’s oldest cask warehouse that sits below sea level. Unfortunately, here you are only allowed to enter a glass-walled inner room to look inside the warehouse, with a few (empty) casks to sniff and historical tools hanging on the walls.
In spite of this, you can still manage to feel the atmosphere of a place so soaked (literally) in history and aromas, with a constantly low temperature and with the excitement of seeing, albeit behind glass, casks as old as those allocated to the British monarchy.

We return to the visitors’ centre, to a small room for the tasting of three drams: the 18 year old part of the core range and two single casks, ex bourbon (11322 at 54.3%ABV) and ex sherry (11262 at 54.6%ABV) with an undeclared age, an excellent way to try the different shades of whisky produced by Bowmore.
Moving on upstairs, where some historic bottles are on display, and where you can try different drams at the small bar overlooking the ocean.

It is an essential but well-constructed tour, which also thanks to the preparedness and ease of our guide (who was young and really very good) is able to offer a complete view of the distillery: what I have noticed in each of these ‘basic’ tours is that they always manage, despite their inevitable brevity, to give something unique and different compared to other distilleries.

After lunch, the move to Bunnahabhain begins, where on the way with a short diversions you can pass by the brand new Ardnahoe, which does not yet offer its own whisky but has a very large and rich visitors’ centre, thanks to all the bottlings of the Hunter Laing property, with a bar (needless to say) with a magnificent view.

Bunnahabhain is reached after a long and scenic drive, first passing the warehouses and finally arriving at the distillery on a bay. The visitors’ centre is tiny but has a small terrace from which you can enjoy the view from the comfort of a deckchair.

The Distillery Production Tour starts with the exteriors, built in full industrial style, whose somewhat dark and unwelcoming appearance led the owners to decide to give it heavy coats of white plaster to brighten up its appearance, in my opinion distorting what was a peculiarity of the distillery that can still be enjoyed in the archway of the entrance to the production parts.

Since there is no malting floor, the visit starts directly at the mill (obviously Porteus branded) and then moves on to the various production stages: a single, huge 12 ½ tonne mash tun in which the grist mulls for about twelve hours, six beautifully lived-looking pine washbacks, up to the four stills, which again can only be viewed from a distance.
A final visit to the warehouse, where a peculiarity of Bunnahabhain is expressed: by custom, distilleries lower the alcohol content of the new make to 63.5%ABV before filling the casks, while here they choose 64%ABV, considering it more suitable for their distillate.

Tasting of two NAS at the end of the tour (the peated Toiteach A Dhà and the unpeated Stiùireadair), in what I admit was the least exciting visit of the five made in these few days: admittedly, being a basic tour not that much could be expected, but perhaps also because it was done last it turned out to be a little too basic.

Being in the area but now being beyond distillery opening hours (which rarely go beyond five in the afternoon), it is worth taking a tour of the trio of distilleries near Port Ellen, where if of Lagavulin you can only look at the entrance, of Laphroaig and especially Ardbeg you can explore the inner yards.
The latter in particular stands out for the distinctly pop atmosphere that has been the distillery’s signature in recent years, with Planet Ardbeg themed decorations clearly visible.

Just follow the long road after Ardbeg to enjoy more spectacular scenery, passing a few locals, until you reach the exciting cross that all Ardbeg fans know: Kildalton.

There is so much more that could be added about the places and people encountered on this short trip between Campbeltown and Islay, about the food (which can be excellent even for demanding Italian palates), the deers, hares and other wildlife, the views as far as the eye can see, the kindness and conversation with the locals, the endless journeys between places with the navigator giving an hour for routes that take twice as long, but which reward with uniquely beautiful and exciting terrain.

Because if it is beuatiful to visit the distilleries we hold in our hearts, even more so is to visit the places to which they are inextricably linked by history and the communities that inhabit them.
Because, as Dave Broom says, whisky is culture, it is society, it is territory, it is what gives us a sense of place.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: