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.