Going native on Deer Island

Going native on Deer Island

John Lamond visits one of the most charming and laid-back of the Scottish islands, Jura-home to one of the country's most remote distilleries.

Distillery Focus | 16 Dec 2000 | Issue 13 | By John Lamond

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Distillery management talk about their staff going island crazy when they have spent too long on Islay or Jura. I suppose the same is true of any island or remote distillery – there’s a risk that prized employees may go native. Those used to city life might find the idea of being located a 130 mile drive and two ferry journeys away from head office for several years is too much like heaven to give up without a fight. Is this what the mandarins at head office are worried about?On a recent visit to Jura, I took a photograph of the view out towards the bay from between the cooperage and the warehouses. As you can see (above right), there is a palm tree very conveniently situated between the distillery and the sea. I was aware, on that day in late spring, what beautiful weather we were having for the time of year – what I had not realised was just how blue the sea and sky were against the dazzling white of the warehouse walls. On having the photographs developed this one stood out as quite conceivably being a picture of a sherry bodega in Sanlucar de Barrameda, the home of Manzanilla, and not a picture of a remote island off the rather wet west coast of Scotland.The Isle of Jura is a rather petite 29 miles long and 7 miles wide (approximately). The name ‘Jura’ comes from the Norse word meaning ‘Deer Island’ and, today, over 6,500 deer live on the island. These four-legged creatures vastly outnumber the two-legged variety – the human population numbering approximately 200. The local telephone directory lists a mere 97 numbers although there were over 1,000 inhabitants at the end of the 19th century. The first manager of a rebuilt and fully operational Jura distillery in 1963 was Murdo McIver, who later moved in 1969 to William Delmé-Evans’ next project – the development and construction of Glenallachie. Don Raitt, from the Islay distilling family, took over the reins from 1969 to 1980.Willie Tait was the manager at Jura for 15 years, having been mashman, stillman and assistant manager over the preceeding 10 years – almost an entire working life on the island. He saw the move from private ownership to control by Scottish Brewers (now Scottish Courage) and then to Invergordon Distillers, a small, almost family, firm. He cajoled and persuaded his fellow workers into buying shares in
Invergordon when it was floated on the stock exchange and it is thanks to him that many of Jura’s islanders are now, largely,
comfortably well-off. He saw through the move from Invergordon to J.B.B. (Greater Europe) plc and ultimate ownership by an
American company.Distillery managers on the neighbouring island of Islay moved on and around. Some, like James McEwan or Evan Cattanach, became roving international brand ambassadors for their respective distilleries. But Willie seemed to be ‘in with the bricks’ as it were, a constant in an ever-changing scene. Willie has now been transferred to the softer climate and the midge-free (relatively) skies of Fettercairn. He has explained to me that he is happier on the mainland, closer to services and facilities – as well as to his family. No more will he have to negotiate the snow-clad A83, or even the A82 and A85, in the dead of winter just to attend a business meeting in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, or have to fight the elements in order to spend Christmas with his loved ones at home in Perth.The present manager-cum-guardian is Michael Heads, an Ileach (an Islay man) from Port Ellen who has spent the past 20 years at Laphroaig. He comes from distilling stock: his grandfather and father having worked at the now closed Port Ellen. One of Michael’s hobbies is hill walking. When the trials and tribulations of distilling get too much for him all he has to do is step out of his back door and he has the Paps of Jura, the three peaks which dominate the island, on which to take out his frustrations.Alfred Barnard, in The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom published in 1887, wrote: “Upon these majestic heights no trees strike root, and here and there beetling crags project with no shadow to break their
terrible ruggedness, whilst at their base are everywhere strewn gigantic boulders. The principal denizens of these weird rocks are eagles, red deer and grouse.” The Ileachs are more down to earth – they say that “if you can’t see the Paps, then it is raining and if you can see the Paps, then it is about to rain.”The Stone Age residents of Islay erected marker stones. These are in line with the Paps and were used to tell the time and season. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancient Ileachs worshipped the Paps of Jura, a fact which their modern day
counterparts would not like to broadcast. The three peaks, over which hardy (or should that be foolhardy?) souls run every May in the Isle of Jura Fell Race, are known as Beinn a’Chaolais (The Mountain of the Sound), Beinn-an-Oir (The Mountain of Gold) and Beinn Shiantaidh (The Sacred Mountain) respectively. With such wonderfully named mountains watching over the distillery is it any wonder that it should produce such a wonderful spirit?As the sober crow flies, the distillery at Craighouse is roughly 66 miles from J.B.B.’s towering offices in the centre of Glasgow. The journey by road to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig is a distance of 104.5 miles – twisted and tortuous miles at that. Then follows a 27 mile (2 hours) ferry journey either to Port Ellen or to Port Askaig. If the ferry docks at Port Ellen there is a further drive of 15 miles across Islay before the five minute Jura ferry is reached at Port Askaig. Finally there is an eight mile drive to Craighouse. An entire working day can be spent making this journey and even then that is only if the weather, which isn’t always the best, permits the ferry to sail!There is evidence that distilling was carried out in caves on the island prior to 1810, but the distillery was legally established at the hamlet of Craighouse in that year and has had a chequered existence, in terms of its operational state, over the past 190 years. During this period, the distillery has been known as ‘Small Isles’, ‘Isle of Jura’, ‘Jura’, ‘Craighouse’ or, in gaelic, ‘Caol ‘nan Eilean’. The premises were completely rebuilt in 1876 after their acquisition by James Ferguson & Sons who leased the buildings from the Campbell family – these are the buildings which Barnard must have seen when he visited. He describes the distillery as: “One of the handsomest we have seen, and from the bay looks more like a castle than a distillery.”Finding themselves in their dotage, the Fergusons were faced with a sudden doubling of their rent. Deciding that this was the time to retire from distilling on Jura, Ferguson, who also owned the Ardlussa Distillery in Campbeltown, left the island just prior to the First World War taking the plant and distilling equipment with him. In fact, the last casks of whisky were removed from the warehouses in 1913. The buildings quickly deteriorated in the damp, salt-laden atmosphere of Small Isles Bay, this quickened following the removal of the distillery roof by the Campbells in order to reduce their tax burden.At this time, as I have mentioned previously, the island supported a population of around 1,000 souls. An entire company of troops were raised to fight the Great War. Most of these men were killed in battle. By the end of the war in 1918 the population had been decimated to close to the present figure of 200.Work started on the regeneration of the distillery in 1955 and in 1963 it finally reopened. This refurbishment was entirely due to the vision of William Delmé-Evans, who, together with two of the island’s landowners, Riley-Smith and Fletcher, saw that the only way to keep the island alive was to introduce some form of industry. With the help of other landowners, the Astors and the Mackinlay distilling family, they started up a private company with the aim of rebuilding and developing the distillery.Other than the manager’s house and cooperage, nothing remains of James Ferguson’s castle – Delmé-Evans had to start from scratch. The Campbells’ roofless buildings were completely dilapidated,the original walls being of no use at all to the modern builders. With all materials having to be carried on to the island by puffer (or small ship) and offloaded at the Craighouse pier, and with a weight limit of 10 tons on all ferried materials, it took eight years to build the present distillery. The new building, despite being modern, blends well into the natural surroundings and sits easily with the village’s other homes and businesses.The modern distillery’s original shareholders were individuals and in 1961 Delmé-Evans persuaded Scottish & Newcastle Breweries to get involved in whisky production and that, at Craighouse, there was a site with a good history and a brand with immense future potential.The distillery now has a relatively small, five tonne semi-lauter mash tun. This means that the 48,000 litre washbacks are not filled by one mashing and that wort from a following mash is added to an already fermenting washback – this results in a form of double fermentation. The two large traditionally shaped wash stills each hold 24,000 litres, considerably larger than their neighbouring 14,000 litre spirit stills.Despite its proximity to Islay, the Isle of Jura’s whisky is classified as a Highland. The mica/quartzite rock structure from which the distillery’s water originates is similar to that of southern Islay – as are the strata of phyllites and greenstones beneath the peat over which it flows towards a dam near the distillery. Delmé-Evans advises: “Other than the original site, it was very difficult to find a suitable site to build on. There is either very hard mica or quartz – which, at that time, was almost impossible to excavate for foundations – or else deep, soft peat. The original builders really knew what they were doing when they sited the buildings where they did.” The difference between the whiskies of Jura and Islay is that the malt which Isle of Jura uses is not as heavily peated as that of the distilleries of southern Islay. On the other hand the distillery’s water character makes it stand out from its Highland peers giving it a wee bit of island quirkiness. There are currently four bottlings available from the distillers. Firstly there is the 10-Year-Old which is medium-bodied and quite dry, although richly toffeed and with a fresh aspect to its quite solid peatiness. The 16-Year-Old is more full-bodied and has lovely honey, citrus and floral notes with slight oregano and liquorice aromas, warm underlays of rich toffee-cum-vanilla and quite a belt of dry peat. The finish is rich, long and spicy with a reprise of the liquorice and toffee. The third bottling is the 21-Year-Old. This is rich, round and really quite full-bodied with a creamy vanilla character. It has aromas of melon, citrus and tobacco with a surprisingly tarry note. The palate is soft, rich and smooth with a decidedly fresh peppermint leaf flavour that is carried through to the complex finish. Finally there’s the 33-Year-Old, which is known as the ‘Stillman’s Dram’. It has a mature vanilla, toffee, beeswax, slight honey and marzipan aroma with a rather large palate of vanilla which has a dark, nutty quality with a slightly ethereal finish that is both rich and gently chewy.All in all, Delmé-Evans, Willie Tait and Michael Heads have done rather a good job. With more evenings like the one I captured on film in April the island’s population will rocket – no visitor will ever want to leave.
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