Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Little Brother is watching you. March 8th. Jura

On a clear day you can see it wherever you go on Islay. More specifically you can see the Paps; higher than any Islay peak, formidable and granite-gray and dusted this week with snow. There are actually 3 Paps (the mark of a witch if you're superstitious) though from where we wait at the Port Askaig jetty you can only see two, rising from the sound. By size it's Scotland's eighth island, but by population it ranks thirty-first, with less than two hundred people to accompany its four thousand deer. Wild, beautiful and desolate - so desolate that when Orwell sought absolute tranquillity in which to write his disturbing masterpiece 1984 is was this island that drew him in. Jura.

We've made our way across from Port Charlotte, and mill around at the jetty, quiet in the morning with a light smattering of rain. We've 55 minutes to wait until the next crossing, so we take a few photos, walk a little way up the hill and watch the boats and the clouds and
the flow of the Sound. Pilgrim senior finds a scallop shell, which he gives me. I'm slightly confused until he explains that historically scallop shells were the mark of the pilgrim. We've never beaten my father at trivial pursuit. He would be an extraordinarily handy person to have on your pub quiz team.

Eventually the ferry (far smaller than that in which we came to Islay from Kennacraig - more along the lines of the boat I crossed to Arran from Claonaig in for the first distillery of the pilgrimage) is ready to depart, so we drive on board, and five minutes later we're ashore again on Jura. The ferry that crosses the Sound moves in an odd, crab-like fashion, since the water in the Sound of Islay is some of the fastest in the British Isles, and is very quick to change direction.

The A846 continues on Jura from where it leaves off at Port Askaig, but this isn't an A road as you'd normally picture one. Single track for the most part, with passing places where appropriate. But then Jura's not the sort of place you can imagine having some huge, tarmac dual carriageway. It would also be completely unnecessary! It's not long before we spot deer - bizarrely the first I've come across on the pilgrimage despite having covered the vast majority of the highlands. They really are everywhere on Jura though, herds of them covering the scrub. After about half an hour of driving we reach Craighouse, Jura's biggest settlement and the home of the Jura distillery.

It's another stunning location, as you'd expect. The white buildings of Craighouse hug the enclosed bay. I remember thinking that it had a feel of a pirate's or smuggler's cove in a way; appropriate, since
that's exactly what it was once, and what the distillery was built upon the site of. There are even a couple of out-of-place palm trees, their trunks blackened by the fungus that feeds on the angels' share. Most importantly, besides the distillery, there is a pub. I approve of this. All distilleries should have a pub across the road - and yet so few of them do. Those who become 'honorary Diurachs' are entitled to a dram a month in this pub for life. (Though sadly they don't accumulate if you're away for a few years.) In fact the 16 year old Diurach's Choice expression made by the distillery is so called because it is the most popular dram selected under this commendable arrangement.

We enter the visitor's centre to discover it empty, but a few moments later our guide Rachael appears, and the tour (again populated solely by the two of us) begins.

It's a thought-provoking distillery, is Jura. Despite being a (quite long) stone's throw away from its Islay cousins the spirit it distils is nothing alike them. Designed to suit the '60s blends-only market it is traditionally very light and unpeated, though these days they do make whiskies with various different levels of peat. It is also, if you comb the whiskynet, not a distillery that tends to make much noise amongst some of the louder connoisseurs. A quote that I remember reading - though I forget who wrote it - was 'I just can't get excited about this distillery.' And yet in terms of Single Malt sales in the UK it is surpassed only by Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie. In fact a friend and former colleague of mine cited it as one of his two favourite distilleries. I can also distinctly remember tasting it for the first time at University and rating it as the easiest drinking whisky I had come across. Part of that will be due to its lightness, and an ABV of the minimum 40% for its flagship expression, the 10 year old origin. There is also, as there is with its sister distillery Dalmore, another
owned by Whyte & Mackay, an unmistakeable caramel colouring presence. With that being said, caramel colouring and chill filtration is hardly unique to this company - or indeed to Scotland. Would I like to see them reconsidered as practices? Yes. Is that likely to happen? Not whilst they serve their role in giving the average consumer what they want. It's also difficult to argue with 'third best selling in the UK'; it's a reckless person who sneers at popular opinion! The upshot of all this is that I'm properly looking forward to this tour, and have been since we booked the Islay trip back in January.

Rachael is another in the ever-growing list of absolutely brilliant tour guides. She's the Visitor Centre Manager at Jura, and she's apparently been on the island for about five years now. I ask her what it's like living in such a remote place. She admits that it's not without its initial challenges, but you get used to them inevitably. Same as anywhere I guess. Incredibly friendly; she rattles off the
history of the distillery, joking that she went into more depth having given it inside rather than outside in the rain and the cold. Fair enough - I'd be the same. We make our way through the distillery via a rather striking painting next to the mash tun whose paint gives it the impression of glowing.

One of Jura's idiosyncrasies - though understandable considering its island location - is that they are at the mercy of the elements so far as getting their barley is concerned. A stormy few days the week prior to our arrival have meant that at our time of visiting they have used up pretty much all their stock, so all is quiet and tranquil in the washbacks room. We move into the stillroom, and the stills are massive. Apparently they're the second tallest in Scotland behind
only Glenmorangie's, and given they are considerably wider, Rachael thinks that Jura's may be the most capacious. After going over the spirit safe process she is able to give us a smell of the foreshots, heart and feints of the run as well as the foreshots and heart of the peated spirit, which is distilled for a month at Jura to 45-55ppm. Rachael has a rather good trick when it comes to sniffing the new make. She pours a few drops into our hands, and after we have rubbed them together the alcohol has burned off, so you only get the aromas. It's a terrific idea, though I do subsequently need to give my hands a wash before I make my note for the sample at the end, as the peated spirit understandably lingers!

My father picks the Diurach's Choice as his dram at the end of the tour, which tasted nicely of fruit-and-nut chocolate, but as is my
purpose I go for the flagship; the 10yo unpeated Origin.

Jura 10yo Origin - Throughout the tour Rachael has focussed on the lightness of Jura spirit, and she's not kidding. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the likes of Ardbeg and Lagavulin, but in style this is right at the other end of the spectrum. Suspiciously similar in colour to the rest of the range, this is fragrant, floral and very easy drinking. Honeys, light toffee, bit of orchard fruit, salted caramel. I often see Jura sneered at by the whiskynet, and it may not be the most complex in the world, but I can see exactly why this is such a popular dram, and what keeps people coming back. 40%ABV

Thanking Rachael we leave the distillery and head to the pub for a
burger, via a particularly friendly grey cat, which takes to Pilgrim snr, but sets his asthma off for the duration of lunch. With no distillery tours on Islay booked this afternoon we headed north to explore a bit more of Jura - waste not to, and the A846 becomes less and less like an A-road as the deer herds thicken and the coastal views grow ever more spectacular.

We go for a rough-country ramble at the thinnest part of the island. Yet more deer; I startle a stag as I make my way over a small crest, and we wander down to a tiny pool bordered by startlingly green foliage - rather out of place surrounded by yellow and brown scrub. As we approach, the largest group of herons I've ever seen burst out of the bushes and flock squawking to the other side of the 'lake.'
The clouds are thick over the Paps at this point, and heading sluggishly towards us, so we don't linger long, but it's sufficient to give the profoundest sense yet of the untouched quiet and human emptiness of Jura. George Orwell made a wise choice.

Returning to the Corsa we drive back to the ferry and cross the Sound again before returning to Bunnahabhain, where the barman at our hotel has told us there's a chance of spotting an otter. We're in luck - as we walk down the slope that leads to the distillery I spot a small shape in the Sound, and my father, who has wisely come prepared with binoculars, is able to confirm that it is indeed an otter. After a quick change of footwear - smart-casual brown shoes
not brilliantly suited to scrambling and bogs - we make our way in the direction we had seen it head, and discover it playing around happily on some rocks. This is a bit of a tick in the personal life box for me - I've only seen an otter once before, when it dashed out in front of my car near the Dornoch Firth and disappeared. And that all happened too quickly to be worth counting. As it turns out it's also a first for Pilgrim snr, so we crouch quietly behind a rock and watch it until it slips back into the Sound and swims off again. In my crudely-taken iphone picture it's only come out as a bit of a black splodge in the centre of the rocks at the top, but if you look carefully you can see its tail pointing towards the left of the frame!

And then it's back to the hotel for dinner, drams and bed. Another fantastic day, and all too short a time to spend on such an excellent and admirable island. (A brownie point to anyone who gets the misquote.) I shall certainly have to make my way back to Jura for a more prolonged stay in the future - and another tour of its superb distillery. In the meantime thoughts point forward. Tomorrow will be a big day as we visit the first new distillery on the island in over a hundred years, as well as Pilgrim snr's favourite distillery, and the provenance of the first Islay malt I ever tasted.


1 comment:

  1. I really must make a tour of the Islands.. for the time being enjoying your chronicle will have to do - keep it up!