Hugh Smith’s letter from Islay
BUNNAHABHAIN is Islay’s most northerly distillery, situated some eight miles from Port Askaig and sits on the shore of the Sound of Islay with views to the west coast of Jura and the isle of Colonsay.
Its Gaelic name means the mouth of the river and refers to the Margadale waterway, whose clear spring water is an important ingredient in the distilling process.
The distillery was built in 1881 by William Robertson who, along with brothers William and James Greenlees, established the Islay Distillers’ Company.
Production began in 1883 and the surrounding housing was provided to accommodate the workforce.
When brewing and distilling historian Alfred Barnard visited the sprawling Victorian distillery he referred to the workforce as numbering between 40 and 50 employees and was impressed at the provision of a reading room and school where the workers’ children could receive an elementary education.
The provision of an approach road and distillery pier at a cost of £ 3,500 was also a plus, although the workers must have regarded a board of directors’ instruction to the management to discontinue the practice of doling out a free dram as a decided minus.
In 1887, the company merged with William Grant and Son to form Highland Distillers, which held sway until 1999 when control passed to the Edrington Group.
This was a time of expectation and development with the rapid growth in Scotch whisky during the 1960s.
The number of stills doubled in 1963, malting floors were removed, but the good times were not to last. In 1982, the distillery was mothballed for two years and, when it re- opened, production levels were kept low.
Bunnahabhain had always played a vital role in the whisky blending industry and its products became an integral part of the Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and eventually Black Bottle portfolio. By the end of the 1980s, it began to emerge as a single malt which was advertised with the memorable tagline ‘ the unpronounceable malt’.
It now enjoys great popularity in a number of African countries and goes down a treat in Taiwan.
In 2003, the Edrington Group sold the distillery to Burn Stewart Distillers who were owned by the Trinidad conglomerate C L Financial. When they crashed, the receivers sold Burn Stewart four years ago to the African multinational drinks group Distell, which is now Bunnahabhain’s parent company.
Like most others, the island distillery has had its ups and downs but it now happily continues to operate successfully under the banner of the Bunnahabhain Distillery Company.
THE untimely death in May 2015 of piper, whistle player and composer Fraser Shaw saddened all who knew this skilled musician and cast a gloom over those involved in the world of traditional Scottish music.
Following Fraser’s passing, his family and musical friends set up a trust in his memory with the sole aim of raising money for and heightening the awareness of the relief of multiple sclerosis in general and in the Argyll region in particular.
Before his death he planned to release a compilation of his compositions with the proceeds going to the MC Care facility at Lochgilphead. Sadly, his progressive illness prevented him from doing so.
Over the past year the trust members have been working flat out to make Fraser’s dream come true and are now happy to announce that a book and album featuring Fraser’s playing and compositions are shortly to be released under the title Mac Ìle – The Music of Fraser Shaw.
This will be officially launched at a tribute concert in the Bruichladdich village hall in June which will feature a number of the musicians participating on the album. A similar launch will take place in Glasgow in August as part of the city’s Piping Live! celebration.
Bunnahabhain Distillery has views of Jura and Colonsay.