It might seem like an odd thing to say about a distillery that’s just celebrated 200 years of whisky making, but we may look back at 2010 as the year Isle of Jura distillery finally came of age.
Sure, the distillery’s been making grown up whisky for generations, the name’s both well established and well known, and the malt sells in big quantities.
But Jura, particularly the standard 10 Years Old, was to whisky what Bob Monkhouse was to comedy: immensely popular with the general public but considered by many as a bit bland, oily, and without the respect and genuine affection of its peers.
But that was then, and there’s been a dramatic turn around. Owners Whyte & Mackay changed the act, completed a distillery makeover, and made sure Jura got all its ducks lined up in a long and neat row.
Last year was the year that Jura not only stepped into the limelight as it celebrated the end of its second century making malt, but it did so in livery as sharp as a Plan B suit and with a portfolio which all but defined the term ‘good taste.’ It’s something that distillery manager Willie Cochrane is happy to acknowledge.
“A lot of people didn’t like the old 10 Years Old and there may well be people who haven’t been aware of the change,” he says.
“But I was talking to the man who does the ferry from Islay and Jura and he’s an Ileach. He was saying ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to your 10 Years Old, Willie, but I drink nothing else now’. We use all bourbon wood now and it’s made it a much better whisky.”
It’s not just the 10 Years Old, either. The delightful 16 Years Old and the halfway house which is the lightly peated Superstition have been joined by a 200th anniversary 21 Years Old that is a delight, a range of cask strength offerings known as Boutique Barrels, and the wonderful Prophecy, which out-Islays several Islay malts.
Throw in some wonderful and sophisticated packaging and Cinderella is well and truly wowing them at the Ball.
“People on Jura drink the 16 Years Old by choice,” says Cochrane. “But the 10 Years Old has been doing fantastically well and the new Prophecy has won over a lot of people, even on the island where they don’t normally drink peated whisky. It makes for a very strong portfolio.”
It’s all great news for those of us who love the island, the distillery and its staff. To help keep up with demand the distillery will close for just two weeks this year, instead of the normal four, and Cochrane and his team are expecting another bumper year for visitors. Last year 6,500 people came over – not a figure to trouble Glenfiddich admittedly, but it’s an amazing number of people when you consider the distance involved, the inaccessibility of the distillery and the limited number of crossings on the tiny car ferry from Islay.
“It’s remarkable but we make an asset of our remoteness,” says Cochrane. “It’s why we make such an effort for people who make the pilgrimages. We don’t charge for a tour and there’s a whisky here for everyone who comes.
“If you become a Duirach you can enjoy a dram on us over at the hotel.”
Cochrane, who has worked at the distillery ever since he left Glasgow as a 26 year old 35 years ago, shares the view that the 200 year celebrations last year raised the bar for the distillery and it was perfectly placed to take advantage. And as we move out of winter there’s a sense of expectation about the distillery’s fortunes going forward. He’s hopeful that more will make the effort to come the extra distance.
“This is a very special place,” he says. “It can be a little bleak in winter but I wake up to see the sun rising across the sea and watch it set behind the Paps. In the morning there is no traffic, just the sound of the birds singing. My son’s a journalist in Glasgow and he says that’s what he misses. He talks about writing a book about Jura and I hope he does it. It’s a magical place.”
Indeed it is, and it’s making some magnificent whisky. At this year’s festival another single cask will be bottled and will move the distillery’s reputation on again.
Two hundred and one years and counting. And Isle of Jura’s never been in better shape.
Isle of Jura 16 Years Old
The nose is delicate and not particularly assertive. But on the palate this is a zingy delight. The fruit at the heart is remarkably vibrant and rounded, the oak making it clear that it’s lurking in the background without ever over asserting itself, and overall the taste is full, balanced and rounded.
Isle of Jura Prophecy
Anything you can do... this doesn’t so much nod to the island next door as nuts it. Big and rich in peat and salt but having stamped on to the beach at Port Askaig it then heads off in its own direction, plucking its way through citrus fruit and dainty floral notes. It’s a woozy, bluesy delight.
Isle of Jura Boutique Barrels
Jura’s peacock collection, this is a selection of cask strength whiskies showing off the diversity to be found in the distillery’s casks. The range includes a heavily sherried, a heavily peated and a big bourbon whisky and they almost demand investigation. If you’ve got any doubts about the pedigree of Jura, these will kick them into touch. A revelation.
Isle of Jura Distillery celebrated its 200th anniversary last year, but the anniversary only reflects part of the story. The distillery was originally founded in 1810 under the name Small Isles Distillery and it wasn’t until 21 years later that it took on the name of Isle of Jura. Furthermore, the distillery closed and dismantled in 1901. No whisky spirit was produced on the site again until 1963.
The distillery is capable of producing about 2.2 million litres a year from its four stills, and after a chequered past, is probably enjoying its richest and most sustained spell in the spotlight, with smart new packaging, some excellent special bottlings including four vintages, and an outstanding peated version under the name Prophecy.
Jura is physical testament to the commitment of the Scotch industry to producing a diverse range of malt whiskies. The island is accessed only by a small vehicle ferry which fights its way across the fast flowing Sound of Jura. Bringing in lorry loads of malt and taking away waste products and malt spirit is a logistical nightmare but a headache which its owners are prepared to cope with to keep the whisky flowing.
Isle of Jura Distillery
Owners: Whyte & Mackay
Capacity: 2.2 million litres. Two pairs of stills
Six stainless steel washbacks
One semi lauter mash tun Five racked warehouses
Core range: 10, 16, 18, 21, Superstition, Prophect, Boutique Barrels