You have to feel sorry for Jura. In terms of Scotch whisky’s regions, it is officially classified as Highland (sub set – Island), but when you think of the Island distilleries, names like Highland Park or Talisker seem to get most of the limelight and romance. Geographically, Jura may as well be Islay – and yet it isn’t, and it can’t claim or borrow Islay’s appeal. It therefore sits as a peculiar distillery, often off people’s radar. Until you taste it. And once you have, it won’t fly under your radar any more.
Of course, I write this as an Australian, in a market where Jura has a relatively lower profile. Its biggest market is the UK, where it is the fastest growing malt whisky brand. And, courtesy of my time spent with Willie Cochrane, the distillery manager, I now see it’s no mystery why this distillery is kicking goals.
For the unaware, Jura is an island off the west coast of Scotland, sitting immediately north-east of Islay. In fact, the two islands are separated by just 600m, via a body of water known as the Sound of Islay. (The gaelic for this is Caol Ila, which is a name you might already be familiar with!) No one seems to be able to describe Jura without mentioning that it was where George Orwell lived for two years whilst writing 1984, or that the island’s population of just over 200 people are outnumbered by an estimated 6,000 deer! (The name itself is believed to come from the old Norse name for “Deer Island”, so it would seem things haven’t changed much for a millennia.) The fact that every writer – including yours truly now – trots out these two pieces of insignificant trivia suggests that there isn’t much else noteworthy about the island. However, the distillery is fast changing that perception.
It is not being unkind to describe Jura (the island) as being remote, barren, and bleak. Driving from the Feolin ferry terminal (a 5 minute jaunt across the water from Port Askaig on Islay), I was struck by the barren and lonely nature of the place. It says something that the main road is single lane and barely wide enough to accommodate a wide van! From a farming perspective, it is largely infertile and in stark contrast to its close neighbour, Islay, which has enjoyed a much healthier population and a more-than-respectable agricultural industry. Interestingly, in a list of the Scottish islands, Jura ranks 8th largest for its size, yet 31st for its population. And yet it was precisely these concerns about the island’s dwindling population that led to the establishment of the distillery we enjoy today.
The original distillery was founded in 1810 and had a fairly typical history for the era until it was closed and dismantled in 1901, subsequently falling into ruins. By the late 1950’s the local community was concerned about the island’s lack of employment prospects and the ability of the island to retain the next generation. A whisky distillery was seen as a passport to improving the island’s economy and prospects, and the new distillery was subsequently built at the site of the original distillery at Craighouse. When the first spirit flowed from the stills in 1963, it’s said that the distillery alone provided employment for a quarter of the island’s male workforce! Willie tells me that whilst the distillery certainly created employment to the island, it didn’t necessarily fulfil its intention to re-generate the population. (He jokes that he was brought to the island for that very task in 1977!)
Although the original distillery’s whisky was said to be heavily peated, the spirit flowing since 1963 has been entirely unpeated and blend friendly. Of course, such statements are never absolute, and modern Jura undertook its first peated campaign in 1999. It continues to make heavily peated whisky (peated to 48-55ppm) for one month each year. As such, the various OB single malt expressions of Jura available can vary significantly in their peating levels, and it is a distillery whose style is difficult to pigeonhole today. (But then the same could be said of many other distilleries). The “Superstition” expression for example, readily available and popular in Australia, is a vatting of around 85% older unpeated Jura casks ranging from 13 to 21 years old, with 15% casks of seven year old heavily peated Jura. In contrast, the “Origin” release is unpeated. One of the more interesting expressions is “Prophecy”, a creation using entirely heavily peated spirit that is matured first in 1st fill bourbon casks, then transferred to amoroso sherry butts, and then finally finished in cognac casks. With a range of styles available from the one distillery alone, it’s a brand with many fans and broad appeal. And perhaps this leads me back to where I started – it’s a distillery that is neither Islay nor typically Island/Highland. These days, it rather successfully plays both sides!
One of the things that struck me during this visit was how small the production house is, and yet how HUGE the stills are. The mashhouse, turn room, stillhouse, and filling store take up a relatively tiny footprint in building area, compared with many other distilleries of similar production size, but the stills are arguably amongst the biggest in Scotland. Glenmorangie’s stills are famed for their height, and whilst Jura’s stop just a few inches shorter than this, their shape and girth makes Glenmorangie’s stills look like toothpicks! But, of course, it’s all about flavour, and there’s no doubt these four massive lantern stills play a huge role in shaping Jura’s character.
Willie is one of those great distillery managers who offers a touch of everything: Plant management, production controller, and brand ambassador & raconteur. A warm and engaging man with a great sense of humour, his passion for the distillery is instantly obvious. He came to the distillery from Glasgow as an engineer in 1977, but shortly afterwards moved into production, before eventually becoming manager. He was offered the gig at Arran Distillery when the opportunity arose, but turned it down due to concerns about the international travel that might be involved in promoting the brand. The result is another wonderful story that is so common in the industry: Someone spending over 37 years with the one distillery.
Up until recently, roughly 40% of Jura’s production was bottled as the brand’s own single malt, which is impressive for the distillery’s scale and corporate background. (The other 60% was destined for blending). However, with the brand growing so quickly, it’s thought as much as 100% of all maturing casks may need to be reserved for distillery bottlings in the near future. It’s on the record that the distillery embarked on a strategic plan in 1999 to improve quality and increase market share. Your whisky is only as good as the wood you put it in, and significant investment went into ensuring quality casks were sourced. In fact, for most of the year 2000, thousands of already-maturing casks were re-racked into better quality oak, and sales have increased threefold in the last four years alone as the whisky and its marketing gain traction. The distillery has been operating 24/7 since 2007, running close to its maximum capacity of 2.3M litres per annum. Its five warehouses on the island are full, and new fillings are being transferred to Invergordon on the mainland for maturation. Such is the price of success.
At the conclusion of my time with Willie, I was left in the capable hands of Danielle, who led me through a tasting of some of the core-range, plus a number of very special bottlings. I was privileged to taste:
– Elixir (10 years in 1st fill bourbon, followed by 2 years in sherry)
– Diurach’s Own (14 years in 1st fill bourbon, followed by 2 years in sherry)
– Prophecy (around 14 years old, from a regime involving bourbon, sherry, and cognac casks)
– Feis Ile 2013 (As a 14yo, it was originally filled into 1st fill bourbon casks, then re-racked in a burgundy barrique, and then given a second finishing period in a vintage 1963 sherry butt. One of only 663 bottles at 52.4%, this was a truly amazing and incredible whisky, winning my vote as best bottling in what was already a very impressive line up.
– Feis Ile 2014 “Tastival” (Okay, I was lucky to taste this a few days before it was officially launched. I’m sworn to secrecy until the actual release, so come back in a few days and I’ll spill the beans regarding its details and creation).
– Turas Mara (Meaning “Sea Journey”, this was a particularly coastal whisky, with a touch of brininess, and another fascinating cask regime that involved bourbon, burgundy, and ruby port casks.
– Air (This very left-of-centre bottling was incredibly salty and dry, thanks chiefly to being matured in European oak that had been seasoned outdoors by the coast.)
– 30yo (Most 30yo expressions can start to get weighed down by oak, but this was still vibrant and full of life. It offered glorious dark chocolate and coffee notes.)
I scribbled tasting notes as we went through each of these, but I won’t indulge myself or bore you by reproducing them here. And whilst each whisky offered a different shade of colour on the spectrum, one thing they all had in common was a wonderfully rich, oily mouthfeel. Regardless of whether the whisky was 40% or 52%, each had a warm and velvety texture that scored extra points.
My exposure to Jura prior to this visit was limited only to the Origin and Superstition expressions available in Australia. And, despite four previous visits to Islay, I’d never taken the time to cross the water and get to Jura. On a whirlwind journey that saw me go from Sydney to Glasgow to Islay (by car!!!) to Jura to Oban all in less than 48 hours (before subsequently heading up to Speyside), I’m so glad I made the effort to get to Jura – I feel I’ve finally come to know the distillery, and turned it from being an acquaintance into a friend.
My sincere thanks go to Jill Inglis at Whyte & Mackay for facilitating this visit; to Willie Cochrane for his generosity and time (on what was a very busy day for the distillery!) and to Danielle for sharing her passion and some drams with me.
(For those interested, my visit to Jura was at 10.30am on 26th May 2014, and this was written up in its entirety whilst catching the 3.30pm ferry from Islay back to the mainland that same afternoon!)