Distillery Focus

Worth rediscovering (Jura)

Jura makes no economic sense. But when it comes to putting quality before profit it stands like a beacon. Ian Buxton made the long journey
By Ian Buxton
Burning money is boring. Official.Famously (or should that be notoriously?), musicians and art pranksters the KLF burnt a million quid on Jura in August 1994. In cash. There were bundles of 50,000 stuffed into the flames like a guilty confession.Journalist Jim Reid watched the whole thing for The Observer and confessed that it got rather dull. They passed around a bottle of whisky (distillery not recorded) and poked the fire from time to time to make sure all the cash was gone.A little survived, of course. One bemused islander handed in £1,500 to the police. It was never claimed, and he got it back. Was it art by then, or just hot money?Making whisky on Jura is a little like burning money. It’s “an extremely ungetable place,” as George Orwell remarked, far from ‘’noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating, ‘modern’ furniture.’’ And, for that matter, barley fields, maltings, bottling lines and other helpful whiskymaking accessories.So, to keep the Isle of Jura distillery running a fleet of heavy lorries is required – 22 a week just to remove by-products. Malt is delivered in 40 tonne juggernauts, spirit hauled away in giant tankers. There’s nothing so very exceptional in that, except that the distillery is eight miles up a single track road that you reach on a tiny ferry that only takes one lorry at a time.Then another ferry journey, around two hours this time, is needed to get to and from the mainland. And the terminal is another three and a half hours from Glasgow. So why bother?Well, once you’ve started, it’s hard to stop.Given that the distillery employs around one third of the island’s working population, not to mention the spin-off from the 5,000 distillery visitors, it would be a particularly hard-hearted accountant who shut the place down.It did, after all, start as something of a job creation scheme. In the manner of so much of Highland Scotland, Jura is divided into grand estates and, in 1963, two of the landed families got together with Donald Mackinlay (then head of Scottish & Newcastle’s distilling interests) to found the distillery that we know today.Alarmed by a rapidly declining population, they called in renowned distillery architect William Delmé-Evans (see Whisky Magazine issue 28) who, sensing at once the remoteness of the place, learned how to fly. Then, after buying a plane and recruiting a temporary labour force, he set about building a new distillery.Except, of course, with a commendable sense of economy and heritage the proprietors put it where the old one had been. So that solved those tedious ‘where shall we put it?’ discussions, at any rate.It also helps explain references to ‘founded 1810’ on the stylish new packaging that Jura have just launched. I struggle more than somewhat with some distillers’ heritage marketing. This one strains credulity a little bit: after all, the 1810 distillery was stripped bare by a departing tenant, the landlord ripped the roof off and, by the time Delmé-Evans got here, the place was derelict.Still, the walls of the filling store can be dated to 1810 so I suppose that’s a tangible link: the spirit lives on, as you might say.And today’s marketing folks can be excused for wanting to make this romantic, if rather far-fetched connection, because for a good while after 1963 Jura wasn’t making the most interesting whisky in the world.Quite sensibly the management decided that their future lay in blending. So the stills were designed to produce a light spirit that was destined for blended whisky, with little thought for a single malt market that simply didn’t exist back then.As Delmé-Evans recalled in his interview for Whisky Magazine: “It was our intention to produce a Highland-type malt differing from the typically peaty stuff last produced at the turn of the century. I therefore designed the stills to give spirit of a Highland character, and we ordered malt which was only lightly peated.” This great whisky pioneer went on as managing director of the Jura distillery until 1975, after which the distillery was expanded from the original two to the current four stills.In 1985 the distillery was acquired by Invergordon Distillers, which begat Jim Beam Brands, which begat Invergordon, which begat Kyndal International, which begat Whyte & Mackay which owns it today.Don’t ask: you can lose the power of speech trying to follow this corporate stuff.What counts is that, today, Jura is in the hands of whisky people who care about what they are doing and understand why they are doing it. Right now distillery manager Michael Heads (that’s his Sunday name, he answers happily enough to ‘Mickey’) is quite deliberately running the plant a little below capacity to ensure the quality of the new spirit.After all, around a third of it is reserved for eventual sale as single malt, and that’s a remarkable gesture of confidence by a firm that hasn’t had its troubles to seek in recent years, what with management and ownership changes.Those seem to have settled down and Mickey, who has been in charge for the past few years, works closely with Whyte & Mackay’s ebullient master blender Richard Paterson to select casks for maturation and experimentation. As a result, Jura is now producing some rather more interesting and engaging whiskies that demand a second look.We’ll come to them in a moment, but the island also demands a second look.After all, anywhere with 200 people and 5,000 red deer; one road and the third largest whirlpool in the world just has to be interesting.The whirlpool at Corryvreckan, at the northern end of the island, is best known for nearly drowning George Orwell. Unlike the fearsomely-named Maelstrom, near Norway, and Charybdis, near Sicily, which are subjects of legend and myth, Corryvreckan isn’t really famous. If Orwell hadn’t managed to right his little boat it might be better known, but then the world wouldn’t have Nineteen Eighty-Four.Orwell traded his life to write that book. “I am anxious to get out of London for my own sake because I am constantly smothered under journalism,” he wrote to a friend. “I want to write another book which is impossible unless I can get six months’ quiet… somewhere where I cannot be telephoned to.” But he knew he was a sick man, even as he travelled through a war-shattered Britain to a damp cottage with no electricity, where the twice-weekly mail took 24 extra hours to reach his end of the island, even candles were scarce and the nearest doctor 25 miles away.He wrote the novel in longhand. His friends desperately tried to find a secretary to go to Jura. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one would help the distinguished author type his extraordinary manuscript – even at two or three times the going rate.He had to sit up in bed typing the final copy of the 150,000-word novel, finally collapsed, and went into hospital.‘’A ghastly mess now, a good idea ruined,’’ he wrote of the work that would make him world famous. A year later he was dead.Dead, but not forgotten. It may be trite but they named a whisky after his most famous work.1984 was a special Jura edition to mark the centenary of Orwell’s birth (2003), using Palo Cortado Oloroso sherry casks and 19 year old whisky, naturally enough, from 1984’s distillation. Only 800 cases were created. The distillery has sold out, but poke about on independent retailers’ websites and you might just find a bottle.The sherry finishing is interesting. I tasted some experimental barrels with Mickey that ranged from a rich, dark Methusalem cask finish to an Oloroso finish that was at once dry, fresh and stimulating.There’s French oak wood in the system somewhere, alongside some stonking great peated spirit at 54 ppm of phenol and more sherry experiments.Meanwhile, you can start with the signature 10 year old and then progress through 16, 21 and 30 year old releases. In addition, there’s Superstition, in which peated and unpeated spirit are vatted to give a more delicate peat experience. I think I preferred the 21 year old out of all these, but then Mickey Heads had told me that it was his favourite and suggestion is a powerful thing.At least I ignored the opinion of one of my whisky writing friends when I told him I was off to Jura (he’d better be nameless).“Suffers from the retsina effect,” he opined grandly. “Tastes great when you’re there but when you get home you wonder why you’d bothered.” He’s wrong. Jura is a hugely improved whisky, offering an exciting range of innovation and capable of standing in distinguished company. If you haven’t tried it recently, you should. If you haven’t been there, you should go.And there’s more to come. Whyte & Mackay have been investing in the distillery. There’s a small but welcoming visitor centre that doubles as a shop and, later this year, there will be The Lodge.Once upon a time you could stay at the distillery in some apartments overlooking Craighouse Bay. You could watch the sun set, look out for the otters that play on the shore and stroll over to the hotel for your dinner. Then time took its toll and the apartments were closed up.They’re soon to be reborn. At The Lodge, Jura is going to offer an experience in über-luxury. Want to fly in by seaplane?They’ll fix it. Want lobster barbecued by a personal chef, right on the beach?Shellfish will die. Want to see the fearful Corryvreckan? Sorted.A top Parisian interior designer has been hired to remodel the apartments with the latest in consumer toys. Look out for state-ofthe- art sound systems and plasma televisions (though the scenery is so stunning I can’t imagine you’ll want a telly); wallow in power shower luxury; spend languid hours dreaming up ever more hedonistic indulgences that your personal concierge will leap to obey.The Lodge is aimed at the very top of the market. Richard Paterson will host master classes there in his inimitable style, and the whole objective is to offer a unique and unrepeatable whisky experience.You deserve it. After all, all drinkers are equal, but some drinkers are more equal than others. And, whilst all the KLF got for burning money was a rather boring bonfire, the folks at Jura are making some seriously exciting whisky. Isle of Jura Distillery
Craighouse, Jura.
Tel: +44 (0)1496 820 240