Jura and George Orwell

Jura and George Orwell

Two stories running in tandem

Places | 06 Jun 2014 | Issue 120 | By Hans Offringa

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Picture this: beautiful natural surroundings, undisturbed by mass tourism; one distillery; approximately 180 inhabitants and 5,000 red deer. Welcome to the Isle of Jura, only separated by a relatively small strip of water from its larger sister Islay, but producing an entirely different type of whisky, largely underestimated. The cause might partly be the fame of its neighbours on the adjacent island, or partly the truly chequered history of the distillery. The operation even started under another name: Small Isles Distillery. When the license changed hands in 1831, the new lessee, William Abercrombie, introduced the name Isle of Jura. Up to 1901 that license would change hands five times and the distillery narrowly escaped bankruptcy.

As if that were not enough, in 1901 license holder Ferguson entered an apparently unsolvable dispute with his landlord, one of the mighty Campbells. He closed the distillery and shortly thereafter removed the roofs of the buildings, leaving them to be destroyed by the elements.

End of story? By no means, an entirely different story would be written in the 1940s. This time by famous novelist and social commentator George Orwell, who allegedly wrote his sombre scenario for the future in a cottage on the island, between 1946 and 1949. London was too busy for him at the time, and he confessed to wanting to be in an "unget-at-able" place. Looking at Jura's geographical position, the working title for his novel The Last Man In Europe seems well chosen, but Orwell finally decided to name it 1984.

In 1960 white knight Mackinlay & Co started to build an entirely new distillery, using the talents of the famous Scottish architect William Delmé-Evans. Three years later the first spirit would run from the two new stills.

Seventy three years after the demolition of the first distillery, the new owners launched an 11-year-old single malt - apparently successfully, since a couple of years later, in 1978, the still capacity was doubled. However, there was to be no rest for the arisen phoenix. The ownership of the distillery

continued to change hands: first through an acquisition made by Invergordon Distillers in 1985, who themselves would be bought by Whyte & Mackay (W&M) a mere eight years later. Although owning the Jura distillery since 1993, W&M was bought and sold several times, even having an American owner for a while named Fortune Brands. Finally in 2007, after much speculation W&M was acquired by United Spirits, a company from India.

Throughout the years various bottlings were launched, not all being noticed at large, partly because they were limited editions. The current range consists of Origin 10-year-old, Elixir 12-year-old, lightly peated Superstition, heavily peated Prophecy, Diurach's Own 16-year-old, a 21-year-old, a 30-year-old and several boutique bottlings. One of the memorable limited bottlings is the 19-year-old "1984" from 2003, to celebrate the 100th birthday of Eric Arthur Blair, better known as the aforementioned George Orwell.

The Isle of Jura continued to honour the famous English author by running an international Writer Retreat Programme on the island for several years, in close cooperation with Scottish Book Trust, the national agency for literature in Scotland. In 2010 they revived the Jura Lodge as a writer's retreat for one weekend, inviting the winner of a competition to pen a short story in 1,984 minutes. In 2013 Jura launched a new competition searching for the world's best story. Every fortnight a new theme was announced

and people could submit a story of up to 1,000 characters. Six favourites from each theme were to have an illustration created of their writing. The competition has run its course and was won by Leanne Crossley with her short story Newborn.

She won a three-night trip for two, to Jura. Part of the included entertainment on the rugged Hebridean Island is a VIP tour, a stay at the Jura Hunting Lodge, a trip by speedboat to the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan and the selection of the 2015 special edition for the Whisky Festival that takes place in May.

The other five finalists were Reflection on a Tomb (Glenn Whitfield), The Ill-fated Letter (Adam Goldie), 100 Feet Up (Barry Greenberry), My Story (Tony Marshall) and Before Enduring (Neil Kenning). All illustrations can be seen on Jura's website.

When on Islay, it pays to take the five-minute ferry trip from Port Askaig to Jura, followed by a good 15-minute drive to Craighouse. Visit here not only to see and taste Jura's latest expressions, but also to observe Orwell's temporary hide-out Barnhill, a solitary farmhouse. Over the years it has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for the true Orwellian.

With only a minor edit, Orwell's original working title The Last Man in Europe could easily be transformed into The Last Malt in Europe. And that is what no whisky lover ever wants to read. Luckily Orwell changed the title of his most famous novel.

In my writing den I have created a special bookshelf, containing a copy of 1984, an old Remington typewriter and a bottle of the famed 19-year-old "Orwell" bottling, in remembrance of a visionary writer and a subtle single malt that deserves to be explored and... written about!
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