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Friday 1 June 2012

Islay Odyssey - Day Four: Too Much Goats Cheese, Not Enough Cow Bell

Wherever you are in the world, if the label on your bottle reads ‘Scotch Whisky’ then it must have been made and matured in some part of this wonderful country we call Scotland. Blended or Single Malt Scotch, the spirit in the bottle has made its way from, usually, a remote distillery, via a maturing cask and warehouse, all the way to your glass. From Manchester (UK or NH, USA) to Mumbai, this drink has been on journey and there are fewer places in Scotland where this journey is harder and longer than from the Isle of Jura.  

Just across the Sound of Jura, a fast-flowing strait which separates Islay from its next-door-neighbour, and opposite Caol Ila and Bunnahabain, Jura is home to less than 200 people, boasting one hotel, one pub and one distillery, which makes the unsurprisingly named Jura single malt whisky and was going to be our main destination for the day.

As we set off in the wagon which has become our home, from our base on the southern side of Islay, we weaved through Bowmore and onwards towards Port Askaig to the Jura ferry. As is tradition on Islay, especially during the festival, three empty seats in car can usually be filled with any waif-and-stray who has the gumption to wave their thumb at you as you pass. Last year, this bought Neil a dose of good luck after kissing a German chimney sweep (read about it here) we had given a lift to, along with her boyfriend, sporting the now famous Ardbeg tattoo.

Well, blow me down (which literally happened last year) if, as we passed up the road from Bridgend towards the ferry, did we see two thumbs waving in the air, looking for a lift to Jura. As we slammed on the breaks of our ‘Japanese Mercedes’, it was only the bloody chimney sweep and her partner whom we picked up almost one year ago, to the day. It seem the good luck isn’t just with the giver of the kiss, but the recipient, too... either that, or Neil’s kisses are magical. Certainly something the soon-to-be mum, Mrs. Ridley can testify too, no-doubt!

Arriving at Port Askaig we joined the queue for the ferry, nestled up behind Jim from The Whisky Boys blog (one of our favs) the ferry over to Jura is, well, small at best. Squeezing on (at the first attempt) we took the 14 min ride across the Sound to head over to the distillery. The road is long and winding, scattered with wildlife such as deer and long-horned Highland cattle which, along with the views back to Islay, make this one of the most stunning drives I’ve ever done; the rolling Paps of Jura to one side, cloud clinging to them like dust on old bottles of wine while the beautiful whisky isle sits proudly on the other.

As we pulled up at the distillery, honking crowds out of the way who were gathered around Master Blender Richard Paterson, delivering what seemed, judging by his passionate body language and the undivided attention of the gathered masses, yet another of his wonderful presentations on the subject of Scotch, we eventually found a cheeky parking space, ready to go and explore.

The island was buzzing with people and, having visited a couple of times before but never taken a tour of the facilities, we jumped at the chance to look around, not least to get away from the elephant-sized midges, devouring us with more relish than Heinz.

After a recent make-over, the place looks fantastic, especially the Still House with four large stills working away, churning out what will become either one of the core range (Original 10 Years Old, Superstition, Diurachs Own 16 Years Old , Prophecy) or something a little more boutique / vintage.

As you tour the facility, it is hard to not forget the journey taken to get here. Not only does one have to get to Islay, but onward on a tiny car ferry to Jura itself and then a long, winding road down to the distillery. This is the very same adventure by which all the constituent parts (except the water) have taken to allow the chaps at Jura distillery to make their spirit. Once every drop of the liquid is produced, matured on the island or otherwise, it too must take this long journey back, before it ends up bottled, sealed and shipped off around the world.

This is one of the great things about single malt Scotch whisky; it is not some clear, flavourless hooch, claiming to be made by some Russian or Polish distiller, when really it was churned out of a factory-grade column still at high speed in a location deemed easy for (inter)national distribution by the brand-owner, probably in the country your sitting in right now, or at least one adjacent to it. Of course, every single malt for sale has had a magnifying glass held over its heritage and story by some marketing executive somewhere but, at the end of the day, the facts still remain the same: hidden away in rural Speyside or located on an island off the coast of Scotland, the whisky in your glass has a genuine and real story to tell. It has worked as hard as you have to get to you, so should make the perfect companion to your down-time at home.

Having taken some time to look around the distillery, we found ourselves in the filling store as our group was given a lesson in maturation from the man himself, Richard Paterson. Those of you who have been privileged enough to see @the_nose speak on whisky will know how passionate and enthusiastic he is about the industry in which he has spent over 40 years working (for the same company, no less). Holding court to an audience of around forty or so (and that was just one ‘batch’ in a long line that day), Richard brilliantly explained the different regions of whisky production in Scotland (at one point commenting how the Mull of Kintyreprobably looks a lot like Joel’s penis”) before moving on to cask development and maturation.
At the end of the presentation, three cask samples were presented for nosing; a 1999, 2003 and 2004. Richard requested that everyone on a Jura tour over the open day vote on which cask they liked the best. The winning cask will then go on to be bottled. We were split on our choice with Neil going for the 2004 and myself, the 1999.

Heading back to Islay, the evening was taken up with a fabulous dinner cooked for us by the chaps (and chapesse) at Master Of Malt, who themselves had been around the island all week visiting distilleries and keeping a blog of their own about their exploits. One of the many bottles they had managed to pick up during the week was the very limited edition Bowmore festival offering from 1985.

Bowmore – 1985 – Feis Ile bottling – 200 bottles only - 53% abv

Nose: Strong sherry with elements of some tropic fruit (classic Bowmore) but a greater element of stewed prunes and dates with a dusting of sugar.

Palate: Rich fruit cake, strong rum and sugars is underpinned with a delicate smoky bite and then those classic Bowmore tropical fruits again, followed by coffee crèmes.

Finish: Strong and Long with delicate smoke.

Overall: This was universally liked in the room but for the price we all seemed to feel it was a touch expensive at £350.

The evening drew to a close with some wonderful drams (both from Islay and other areas of Scotland) while watching the sunset over the western coast of the island. All-in-all, a really wonderful day.