Visiting the Isle of Jura distillery–Part I of II
Almost two months ago I received an invitation from the guys at W&M , the father company of Jura distillery to come and visit the Island for a day or two. I didn’t take me too long to accept as you can imagine, and after a few weeks I found myself on a plane headed to the UK. In order to get to Jura you need to first to transfer via Heathrow, then take a connecting flight to Glasgow and then by air, to Islay Airport, and yes, That inevitable ferry from Port Askaig to Jura across the sound of Islay. Quite a journey, but it’s well worth it.
I arrived to Glasgow the night before, crashed in the hotel, and woke up early to catch the flight to Islay, and meet some of the guys who were accompanying us there. It’s like a beginning of a joke : An Israeli, three Scots , a Swede , German, and an Irish walk into a bar, and that was really what it was, leading us was Rob, head of PR for W&M and a jolly good bloke , great sense of humour too. After getting to know everybody, we hopped on the plane. I remember looking at the morning Glasgow skies, which were blue, no clouds, and asking myself : “This is Scotland”? I’ve been around a couple of times, and I do not recall such a stunning day especially at this time of year. Wow.
We arrived at Islay, and were picked up by our lovely Jura bus driver, for a short ride to Port Askaig. Looking through the windows, and admiring Islay in this sunny day. The ferry ride across is short, and the view is stunning : Paps (three mountains) of Jura on one side, and the coast of Islay with Caol Ila distillery and it’s glass windows, sun is shining. Can one ask for more? I was in heaven.
Now jura is really a little island, with a small community. 200 people, and over 5000 deer. Taking the bus on the narrow roads (narrow meaning, two cars can not drive side by side) we arrived to Craig House, which is the only village on the Island. If you are looking for something besides whisky and nature, you will not find it here. As Rob notes: it’s a one shop, one hotel, one pub and one distillery community. That’s it. I was thinking about how thought and different living in such an island is. Islay seems like a huge metro compared to Craig House. It’s only logical that the distillery is one of the main buildings in the village , just across the road from the pub/hotel. As I’ve mentioned before it was a glorious day and the distillery was being repainted, hence the scaffolding.
Jura Distillery being renovated
Luckily our hosts put us in the “Jura Lodge”, which was once the distillery manager’s lodge, and now is a luxury eclectically designed , well, lodge. It’s really bizarre and beautiful at the same time, all decorated in old fashioned style with deer antlers all around, you need to see it to understand. I was told the lodge is haunted and Rob kindly pointed out that the ghost likes my room. Cool! I thought. With two little kids at home, I was sure I was going to sleep like a log, with no one (but the ghost) to keep me awake.
It was high noon, and we went down to meet our host Willie Cochrane , distillery manager, who was to show us around the distillery (That’s why we all came for right!?). Willie is a very nice man, with a heavy Scottish accent, and when I say heavy, I mean HEAVY. There were a few scots among us but when he speaks, it’s just well, poetry. he has been on the Island for 35 years now, and loves it.
We started our tour at the entrance where you see a stone from the original distillery which was ruined and now bares a plaque to commemorate those who rebuilt it :
The Jura Distillery Stone
As it seems Jura distillery was build quite a way back in 1810, only to be dismantled in 1901 by proprietor James Ferguson and reconstructed in 1963 by Robin Fletcher and Tony Riley-Smith, whisky blenders and merchants Charles Mackinlay & Co. and the architect William Delmé-Evans. The distillery was rebuilt to provide the islanders with a place of work, since there were not many sustainable jobs on the small island. in 1993 the distillery was acquired by W&M who are the current owners. Willie himself came to the island some 35 years ago, and had been working in the distillery ever since. Currently there are about 8 workers in the distillery who work in shifts of 2, and production goes on 24/7 except for a 6 week break during summer in which the distillery workers go on vacation. Willie also told us that summer vacation is historically linked to the facts that eater supply during summer is more limited and water temperature is higher. a lot of water is needed to cool down the spirit, and condense it, and also needed for the production of the whisky, which is partly water part spirit.
We started out journey looking at the big mash tun, asking about the barley, Willie told us that all barley is malted elsewhere and not on the island, as many distilleries nowadays do. Surprising is the fact that it’s cheaper to buy it from the main land rather than from Port Ellen maltings which nearby on the isle of Islay (and indeed, looking from the lodge kitchen in the morning,the next day, we were able to see the truck hauling all the malted barley reverse into the little distillery yard, and unloading tons of malted barley).
from left to right clock wise: Low wines still,spirit still, me and wash tuns, distillery control, mash tun, still, mash tuns.
I asked Willie about the water in Jura, and does the peat in the water (which are quite peaty) affect the flavor of the spirit. There is always a debate regarding the actual effect the peat in the water has on the final product, some claiming none is left after distillation, and some claim the opposite. Willie holds that the peat from the water does affect the flavor of the spirit, he explains that during distillation we do not “boil” the spirit, but evaporate it, and the peaty flavors do stay intact. As for peated malt, it’s used only one month per year, and the ret of the time, Jura uses unpeated malt, which account for most of it’s spirit.
We then continued to the wash tuns. I am used to seeing wash tuns made of oak, and seeing the iron cast tuns, was rather a surprise. I asked Willie about that too, if this does not affect the flavors or the fermentation process, and he replied that it really does not. The oak can only add flavor for a few years, and the wood after so many washes is pretty neutral. It’s also easier to clean metal tuns. If the tuns were replaced with wood tuns every few years, that would indeed contribute to the sprit profile, but no distillery replaced those that often. Always nice to learn new things…
We then continued to the lower floor where you can find the spirit vats, where there distilled liquid is gathered , and quantities of liquid are easier to measure. As it seems the casks are filled with the spirit which is reduced to about 60% , according to Willie this is done to prevent excessive evaporation of the spirit from the casks after the initial fill. Angel’s share is indeed inevitable , but filling the casks with lower percentage of alcohol to begin with, is a common practice.
The next station was as you can imagine, the warehouse where Jura spirit sits for many a year, and just ages, thanks to the angels. What is really interesting is that the barrels are stacked really high, unlike dunnage warehouses, this one is a few stories high, and it holds a lot of casks. Most of the casks are Bourbon casks, but we did spot a weird looking cask on the floor: This was was a French Limousine oak cask, which was used to age a very special jura which later we were to taste (and one I finally bought in the shop).
The smell is lovely, as you can imagine, and it’s fairly cold in the warehouse. Nowadays the key to the warehoue is kept in the distillery, but years ago, there were two keys to each warehouse : one was kept in the distillery, and the other one by the excise man. Unless two keys were present you could not open the warehouse, and that could only have happened if the excise man was around, and agreed to open the warehouse. Willie was not very fond of those excise men, and told me about how awful they were, and how they mistreated the distillery.
too many casks, and tuns and vats, it was time to taste some of that liquid right? we went into the wee Jura store where there are several bottles waiting to be tasted. I really was interested in trying that Limousine cask as well the 16 I have not tried before, and always nice to come back to the lovely one I’ve tried before: the prophecy,Superstition and the Boutique barrels… The shop itself is small and cozy, but looks very nice. While we were there. a glass fell off the table without any reason, and we all joked about it being the ghost… It was really very bizarre. I could swear it just fell down without anyone being nearby or knocking it off. Jura! there you have it.
Inside the shop We wondered about the unique shape of the Jura bottles , and thus Willie Explained that this design makes it easier to pack, and at the same time because of the shoulders, it makes the bottles less breakable. Very nice.
After finishing our wee tasting session (and me getting a distillery only bottling) we were heading for a wee picnic and tour of the island, and we were in for a real treat. but more on this in Part II.
A whisky tour post without notes? It can’t be. Let’s dive in , and sample some of one of my favourite Jura : the 16 year old.
This one is maybe the best Jura to start with if you are new to Jura. I find the 10 a tad too coarse and not very interesting, but i know a lot of people are fans of the 10 year old. This one was new to me, though i tried most OB Jura in the past , for some odd reason i never got to try this. and it was great to remedy that.
Nose: A rich backbone of malty goodness, with some fruity elements (ripe oranges, Nectarine) , and a tiny whiff of smoke too, but don’t look for peat or more than those hints. this one is not peated.
Palate: A bit of spice on top of malt, fruit, citrus (orange, or lemon rind) with hints of wee smoke, earth , and maybe brine, a touch of sultana and sherry effects are there too.
Finish:Malt, more wood, and distant memories of smoke and sea brine.
All in all this is a solid dram, very nice to drink after a nice meal (as opposed to the 10 which is best consumed before the meal IMHO). Solid stuff, from Jura.
Many thanks to the chaps from W&M especially Rob Bruce for putting up with us for two whole days …
Part II coming soon…