Monday, December 30, 2013

Scotland 2013: Jura and Bunnahabhain Distillery Tours

The day once again dawned bright and sunny, though a bit cooler. After a full day and a good night's sleep, my stomach finally felt up to real food, so I ate as much as I could at breakfast to backfill the lost calories.

I had a fairly tight schedule to keep, since I was planning on visiting the distillery on the neighboring Isle of Jura in the morning as well as the nearby Bunnahabhain distillery later in the afternoon. The trick was the ferry between the two, which proved to be something of a stumbling block.

It was a short ride from the Ballygrant Inn to the ferry at Port Askaig. The last quarter to half a mile approaching the water is very steep and a little bit nerve-wracking on a bike, but I made it down without slipping, though my forearms were a bit sore from gripping the brake levers all the way down.

I got to the ferry just in time and slipped in beside the cars. Less than a mile of water separates the two islands, but the ferry is the only way for vehicles to get on and off the island. It was a fairly quick trip across, all of maybe five minutes, then up the ramp to Feolin where I started down the road towards Craighouse.

There were about ten miles to cover. While it wasn't particularly hard going, there were a few long hills that took some work to climb. It helped that the terrain was absolutely gorgeous - it's a shame that I was in a hurry because I missed getting any pictures along the way.

One indication that my stomach still wasn't quite in tip-top condition was how off the malty smells coming from the distillery hit me as I rolled into town - something about it just rubbed me the wrong way.

One of Jura's rack warehouses on the road into Craighouse
The upside was that I had managed to arrive early, so I locked up my bike and sat on a bench alongside the harbor soaking up the sun. While breakfast had been helpful, I was running such a deficit from the day before that I was already pretty tired again. A rest definitely helped, so I eventually wandered over to the distillery for my tour.

Jura is one of the few distilleries whose products I had not sampled before setting off for my trip, so I didn't know what to expect from the place.

The current iteration of the Jura distillery was rebuilt in the 1960s in an effort to bring money and jobs to the island, which is home to fewer than 200 people. While the distillery is the single biggest employer on the island, it is owned by Whyte & MacKay, which means that most of the profits end up in other hands.

The distillery buys all of its malt, both unpeated and peated, from commerical maltsters on the mainland. The peated malt is at 40 PPM phenol content, placing it above distilleries like Caol Ila or Lagavulin, but below Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Peated whisky is only produced for four weeks out of the year, with the rest of their schedule devoted to unpeated malt.

Jura uses a single mash tun, which is actually fairly small - it takes two mashes to fill a single one of their enormous washbacks. As many distilleries are moving to, all of the mashing and fermentation is carried out in stainless steel, which probably helps to improve consistency, though perhaps at the cost of complexity.

The fact that it takes two mashes to fill a single 48,000 liter washback produces a unique procedure for fermentation: a strain of short-acting yeast is added with the first half of the wash, then a long-acting yeast is added with the second half of the wash. In total, fermentation takes a relatively short 54 hours to produce wash at 9% alcohol, which is higher than the other distilleries I visited. The wash smelled very fruity and estery - compounds that are likely captured during the next step.

Jura has, as far as I can gather, the second tallest stills in Scotland, after Glenmorangie's. However, unlike the thin, delicate stills at Tain, Jura's are hulking beasts.

These were easily some of the biggest stills I saw on my trip - the wash stills have a capacity of 25K liters (only Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila's are bigger) and the spirit stills are 22K liters (only Caol Ila's spirit stills are bigger) they are clearly built to crank out vast quantities of spirit. Which Jura certainly does, putting out 2.2 million liters a year.

The contents of each washback will then be split evenly between the two wash stills, filling them almost to capacity. This will tend to reduce copper contact, pushing heavier compounds into the condenser. Balancing this, the lamp glass shape along with their extreme height should also increase reflux. Additionally, Jura tends to run their stills fairly slowly, with the wash stills taking eight hours to complete a stripping run and the spirit stills going for eleven hours before the last of the tails come off. On balance the end result of a relatively light spirit, emphasizing esters and other lower boiling compounds.

After leaving the stillhouse, we went over to the filling station, which casks are filled with new make spirit. Jura, like almost all distilleries, primarily uses ex-bourbon casks, with a smaller number of ex-sherry, French oak, and ex-wine casks.

There is also an on-site cooperage for repairing damaged casks.

At this point the tour wrapped up and we went back to the visitor center. There were complimentary drams of our choosing - I tried a bit of Jura 10 Year, but my stomach wasn't on board at that point. I will give the distillery major points for one thing - it was the only one I visited that didn't charge a thing for their tour.

I finally wandered back into the sunshine. At this point I had to make a decision - it was around lunchtime and I had to be at Bunnahabhain around 2 PM. That meant that I had to catch one of two ferries. The question was whether to make a dash for the next ferry, which would be close, but would get me back to Islay early with enough time to grab lunch in Port Askaig, or stay in Craighouse for lunch and try to catch the one after. Though breakfast was a fading memory, I decided that I had enough juice to make it back to Feolin and cared more about ensuring that I got back to Islay with time to spare.

There was a brief freakout when I realized that I had lost my bike helmet. After searching around, I finally managed to find it on the bench where I had sat in the sun only a few hours before. I don't think I'll ever get used to how low the chances are of something being stolen in the more remote bits of Scotland. Reequipped, I headed back towards the ferry terminal.

The ride was something of a mad dash, as I was cutting it a bit close. When I reached the southern bit of the island, I could actually see the ferry starting to come in, which made it a race to get there before it departed. I cranked hard, burning my last reserves in an effort to make it on time.

Wonder of wonders, I actually got there right as the last car rolled off. However, my joy was short lived. An oil tanker truck was being loaded onto the ferry, which meant that no other passengers could be taken. So I had to wait.

Normally, when this happens, the ferry is supposed to swing back and pick up the passengers who have been left on Jura. However, because there were only a handful of people waiting, the ferry lingered in Port Askaig for an entire hour. This left me stuck staring across the short expanse of water, bitterly cursing my decision to ride hard instead of staying in Craighouse for lunch. I wasn't completely dead, as I had a granola bar in my pannier, but it was thin fare under the circumstances.

Port Askaig on the left, Caol Ila is visible on the right
The ferry finally made its way back across the water and I was finally able to get on. It was a quick trip to Port Askaig, but I had lost a critical hour. So I had a new decision to make - stay in Port Askaig so I could eat or push on to Bunnahabhain for my scheduled tour? Being the stubborn sort and because the Manager's Tours are only offered once a week, I ended up going with the latter.

The climb out of Port Askaig was a bit rough on an almost empty stomach, as was the rolling route to Bunnahabhain. Thankfully it was only a few miles, so it didn't take too long to find myself on the pretty little bay where the distillery is situated.

The dock that used to serve as Bunnahabhain's main connection to the outside world
I managed to arrive just in time for Andrew Brown, the distillery manager, to gather everyone around for the tour.

Mr. Brown has been working at Bunnahabhain since 1988 and slowly risen through the ranks, working in just about all areas of the distillery during the course of his career, becoming manager in 2011. This was good for me as he has a detailed knowledge of the inner workings at Bunnahabhain and how they have changed over time.

Just about everything about Bunnahabhain is big. The distillery was built in 1881 during the late-19th century whisky boom (which also saw the creation of Bruichladdich on the other side of the island) to provide whisky for blends. The site was selected for three things: water, peat, and ease of access. Bunnahabhain gets its water piped in from a spring in the hills above the bay, which means that, unlike most other distilleries on Islay, its water is not particularly peaty. However, from its creation in 1881 until 1963, it produced all peated whisky, in keeping with its focus on providing malt whisky for blends. At that point there was a radical change - peat was out, unpeated whisky was in. With one exception, Bunnahabhain produced exclusively unpeated whisky for 40 years. Last, but not least, Bunnahabhain's location was picked for ease of access. It is located on a very pretty bay just north of Caol Ila (which was built a few decades before), which meant that it was very easy to bring in malt and caol, then take out malt whisky. Andrew explained to us how malt used to be delivered by puffers - small ships that plied the Hebrides. Malt, 500 tons per boat, would essentially be hoovered out of the holds and into the distillery's malt barns. The puffer fleet folded in 1993 when subsidies were removed and they were unable to compete with the roll-on ferries that were by then servicing the islands. This has had the effect of turning one of Bunnahabhain's original assets into something of a liability, as large trucks now have to navigate the narrow, steep, and twisty roads down to the distillery - much to the locals' chagrin as it has the effect of wearing down the roads very quickly.

Bunnahabhain is first and foremost a distillery for blends - this means that everything is done on a huge scale and with an eye towards efficiency. They crank out 2.1 million liters per year, which isn't even running the distillery at its full capacity. The distillery consumes 300,000 liters of water a day, both that which goes into the whisky and for cooling the wort and condensers. There is space for 900 tons of malt in their barns, which is necessary because deliveries can be delayed by weather and the distillery consumes an average of 160 tons per week. The distillery now produces both peated and unpeated spirit, with a roughly 20:80 split. The experimental run of 38 PPM peated spirit in 1997, the first since the distillery switched over to unpeated malt in 1963, was revisited after the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart in 2003 and use of peated malt has expanded since then. As a side note, I was told that, contrary to what I have read elsewhere, there was no peated malt produced in 1992. So any independent bottlings of Bunnahabhain from 1992 with a distinctive peat flavor was not something that came from the distillery itself - some of their spirit may have been racked into casks that previously held peated whisky.

The distillery's malt is ground differently than others I saw, with a higher proportion of husk and less grist and flour. Husks help to strain the mash, filtering out the residual grist and flour, which should help to produce a cleaner wort after mashing. They use 12.5 tons of barley per mash, running four waters of increasing temperature over the course of 12 hours, recycling the third and fourth waters to become the next first and second - one way in which the distillery seeks to increase efficiency. There are ten mashes run per week, stopping every fifth to clean out the tun.

Bunnahabhain, like Bruichladdich and Springbank, used to have a cast iron mash tun. However, it cracked some years ago and had to be replaced with a stainless steel tun. The copper top, however, is original. Andrew told us a story about the new tun - the bottom plates from the old tun were used in the new tun. However, they didn't fit properly, which left a two inch gap. The distillery staff complained to the head office for years that it was going to cause trouble someday, but they were ignored until one day the rake caught in the gap and ripped it up. So what could have been an easy fix turned into an expensive problem, shutting down production for a significant amount of time. Just goes to show that when you're in a capital and time-dependent business, it doesn't pay to ignore the little things.

After leaving the mash tun, the wort is piped to the underback to settle, then on to the wort chiller, where it is cooled to 2º C less than the optimum temperature for fermentation, to allow the liquid to have some capacity to absorb the heat that will be generated by the yeast.

The underback, with wort from peated malt - the liquid was almost black
The wort chiller, basically a large radiator that is run on the same spring water used in the rest of the distillery
The wort is piped to the distillery's six Oregon pine wash backs. Each has a capacity of 62,500 liters and is filled ~2/3 full. M and MH strain yeast is added to the unpeated wort, which is fermented from anywhere between 48 hours on weekdays to 110 hours over the weekend, producing wash a 7.5-8% ABV. The wash backs are filled and drained on a 12 hour rotation, to allow for time to wash them thoroughly in between every other fill.

The wash backs are about 15-20 feet tall, with a false floor most of the way up. Andrew mentioned that this wasn't always the case - years ago one could only move around at ground level. This was hazardous because of the huge quantities of carbon dioxide given off during fermentation and the lack of good ventilation. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and tends to settle near the ground, which meant that anyone entering the room had to get in and out before they ran out of breath. At least one person died because they spent too long inside. This is also why falling into one of the wash backs was almost a guarantee of death - while it might be possible to tread water in the wash, the carbon dioxide would quickly lead to asphyxiation. Thankfully health and safety standards are much higher now, so the carbon dioxide is mostly vented outside.

The wash stills are the tallest on the island and some of the tallest in Scotland, at a towering 25 feet, 10 inches tall. The pear shape is reminiscent of the stills at Lagavulin, but the lyne arms are flat, so the shape is relatively neutral in comparison to some of the wilder stills on the island. The height will give a lot of reflux, but there are no other tricks to increase copper contact. Each wash back has enough liquid in it for four charges of each wash still, which is filled to about half its 35k liter capacity (the largest on Islay). The wash is piped in and allowed 10 to 40 minutes to settled (more time for shorter fermentations, less for longer ones), then heated to 92.5º C for 3.5 hours. The wash stills are currently being run a bit harder to get them in sync with the wash backs - another example of hour much efficiency is prized in the distillery. Everything is run with an eye towards creating the minimum amount of down time.

For some reason they look like spaceships to me
The low wines are then piped over to the spirit stills, which are a fair bit shorter at 20 feet, 10 inches tall. The spirit still is run more slowly, taking five and a half hours to do a single run. They generally do ten runs, then let the still rest for eight hours, which lets the copper reoxidize so that it can more effectively remove sulfur compounds from the spirit. Each still is filled to 60% of its 15,546 liter capacity, which should help to increase copper contact. The foreshots are relatively short, going from between 10-30 minutes, which removes the toxic compounds while keeping some of the lighter fruity and floral esters that Bunnahabhain's unpeated whisky is known for. The stillman knows he has hit the hearts largely by the rate of flow, about 30-50 liters per minute. When the spirit gets down to 62.5% ABV, the flow is switched over to feints and run down.

The computer system used to monitor and control distillation
Once again in keeping with their focus on efficiency, the whole distillation process can be controlled from a single computer in the still room. This not only keeps track of what is going on from moment to moment, but also records previous runs so that consistency can be maintained and any deviations from the norm spotted. While there are certainly some advantages to doing things in a traditional, i.e. uncomputerized, fashion, the quality of the spirit coming out of Bunnahabhain these days it top-notch, so I can't say that their single malts suffer.

The new make spirit is proofed down to a standard 62.5% for filling into casks. While most of Bunnahabhain's spirit goes into first and second fill ex-bourbon barrels, about 10% go into first and second fill ex-sherry casks, alongside a smaller array of other casks like ex-port pipes.

Bunnahabhain has a mix of traditional dunnage and newer rack warehouses on site. While they primarily store their own spirit, there are also a fairly large number of casks from Tobermory, another distillery in the Burn Stewart portfolio that has very little of its own warehouse space.

The tour ended with a tasting of a Bunnahabhain's core range of whiskies, from their new NAS bottlings (Darach Ur and Toiteach) to the 12, 18, and 25 Year. Between being hungry and the lingering effects of being sick, I didn't get as much out of it as I would have liked, but it was still enlightening.

Fish swimming below the distillery pier

After poking around the distillery for a bit - and getting eaten alive by the midges on the stairs to the visitor's center - I finally got back on my bike for the ride to Ballygrant. Between the steep, narrow roads and the lack of blood sugar, it was somewhat hard going, but the gorgeous landscape helped to balance it out.

The Paps of Jura

After getting back to my room, I basically had an early dinner and crashed. It had been a long day, but thankfully the next one would be a lot quieter.

1 comment:

  1. Have you met Robin Morton the stillman? What a character! I could only understand 1/4 of the things he said, but his expressions and tattoos were priceless!