"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 31 January 2011

Isle of Jura Distillery

I mentioned in my first Islay post that my ferry crossing had been delayed as one of the two regular ferries from Kennacraig had clipped the pier at Port Askaig the day before.  It turns out this was a bit more serious and the linkspan that you drive across from the shore to the ferry was out of action for 9 weeks in total.  The day before my crossing to Jura I heard someone comment that they had seen the ferry parked up nicely, then as it was straightening up that last wee bit it ‘skelped’ the pier with a bang.  Brilliant word, skelped; never heard it used before about a 3,300 tonne ferry though!

Cancelled sailings due to adverse weather or repairs are perhaps common enough for the islands.  What was a minor inconvenience to me is something to factor into everyday life for the people living and working here who rely on the ferries to support their livelihood.  Port Ellen is sometimes closed in bad weather and with both ferries operating out of there for a long period there may have been a few more disruptions than normal.  Still, the Islay folk are laid back and stoic so you just get on and adapt to it I guess.

Port Askaig to Feolin ferry crossing
In earlier comments on the Sound of Islay Barnard had noted that the waters “rush between the two islands with a frightful rapidity” and how the current is so rapid that “a boat manned by four powerful Islesmen can make no headway against it”.  The ferry to Jura, the MV Eilean Dhiura, adapts to it by sometimes sailing against the current at first and then drifting on the tide into the opposite port.  The ferry only holds around 6/8 cars but the crossing to Feolin on Jura only takes about 5 minutes and there is a regular turnaround service throughout the day.

The Jura ferry uses a separate slipway to the linkspan and so my desire to include Jura Distillery on this leg of my journey was still on track.  So here I was, on my final day in the isles, waiting to drive across the ramp onto the ferry, when a strong swell comes down the Caol and the boat starts rocking from side to side in front of me!  “Just wait a moment until she settles” the boatman advised, just in case I was working out the angle for a two wheeled stunt entry, as the ramp jumped a foot off the ground alternately at either side for about a minute.

Jura Highland Coo
Thankfully the short crossing passed calmly without further incident and I was soon deposited on another island, one of the most sparsely populated areas of Scotland with only around 190 people, most living in the capital Craighouse on the east coast and home to the Distillery.  Jura is also home to over 5,000 deer and 2,000 sheep that enjoy the freedom of the uninhabited interior.  From Feolin there is a single track road to Craighouse that takes you around the southern tip of the island and the scenic 8 mile drive takes around 15-20 minutes, unless your way is blocked by a herd of hairy Highland Coos that are happy to stand and stare at you through their mop of hair.

MV Fingal, Barnard's transport to Jura (picture from Museum of Islay Life)
Barnard’s journey to Jura provides a conundrum here.  He doesn’t narrate his departure from Islay at any time but he arrives directly at Craighouse on one of MacBrayne’s steamers travelling from Tarbert on the mainland “which leaves the mails every Monday”.  There was a ferry crossing from Port Askaig to Feolin back then, and the Jura side is actually called ‘Faolin Ferry’ on the old maps, the pier designed by none other than Thomas Telford, and a track round the south tip of Jura all the way to Craighouse is marked so it is unclear why he didn’t travel that way directly from Islay.

Craighouse piers and the Small Isles
He begins his report with a memory of seeing the Paps of Jura for the first time from Caol Ila “the mountains rising precipitately from the sea…with no shadow to break their terrible ruggedness”.  Of the island he declares a population of nearly 1,000, bays that “possess all the charms of Oban in miniature” and mountain lochs teaming with trout.  He arrived at the pier which had been recently built by the distillery owner to allow larger vessels to drop off supplies in deeper water; an existing stone pier by the village having also been built by Telford in 1814.

Old corn mill in Craighouse, once known as Milltown
Barnard describes Craighouse as the only place on the island that could be called a village and the village that he saw appears to have been built in the preceding ten years alongside the redevelopment of the distillery, the houses here being the homes of the workmen.  Maps dated even as late as 1882 have the location named as Milltown after the corn mill that stood on the opposite bank of the Abhainn a’Mhuilinn (River of the Mill) from the distillery which was then much smaller.  There was a Craighouse Inn marked beside the distillery on the map, later extended and now the Jura Hotel, so a change in land feu may have accompanied the redevelopment and renaming of the town?

Craighouse village and cloud topped Paps on a dreich day
With a few hours to spare before sunset Barnard’s party ascended the hill behind the distillery and followed the river for an hour to reach the largest of three lochs that feed the river.  He is struck by the brightness and purity of the water and by the extreme contrasts between fertile crofter’s land on the lower slopes and the barren, desolate mountains above.  They returned by a different path to the house that the distillery owner had provided for them and enjoyed a meal before retiring.  Barnard comments on the limited diet available in this remote spot but is “quite content with the repast provided”.

Jura Distillery 'castle'
Their distillery visit began early the next morning when Barnard first notes the appearance being more like a castle than a distillery.  The main buildings have changed since then but the etching in Barnard shows a single turreted window on one building that may have inspired his comment, and is still in place today, although I’m not sure what else was castle like about the place.

Etching from Barnard, the original photo it was taken from is in the distillery
The distillery was first established in 1810 by the laird of the island, Archibald Campbell, on the site of an old smugglers cave.  The first known licence wasn’t recorded until 1831 and the licence then changed hands a few times until James Fergusson & Sons took over in 1876 and set about redeveloping the distillery after being granted a 34 year lease.  New buildings and equipment were provided as part of a £25,000 investment creating “one of the easiest worked distilleries in the district” where no steam power is used, all transportation done by water and gravitation.

The main buildings were all built around a courtyard which was entered through a gateway facing the sea.  A new maltings had recently been built on the slope behind the existing works, with both the old and new maltings the same size and with the common arrangement of barley loft above malting floor above warehouse.  Each one had a kiln attached and the process of malting and milling is fairly standard.  The mash tun is a substantial 20 feet across, one of the largest recorded by Barnard although his only comment is that it is driven by a water wheel.  He does note a secondary mash tun from where the final sparge and the draff are pumped to drain back into the heating tanks for the next run.

The Tun Room contained 4 washbacks at 13,000 gallons each (59,000 litres) and these in turn supply the three stills at 6,650 gallons (30,000 litres), 2,350 (10,700) and 1,200 (5,500) respectively in the traditional triple distillation pattern.  Barnard here describes the Still rummagers as being driven by a wheel 18 inches wide, 12 feet in diameter and placed below the worm tubs.  This sounds like they are powered by the water flowing out of the tubs, themselves elevated by 40 feet and fed direct from the nearby stream.

There were four warehouses containing over 3,500 casks/1 million litres of “pure Highland Malt”, from an annual production of around 285,000 litres, although the works had a capacity of almost three times this.  Barnard also mentions a turbine waterwheel “of simple construction, and yet wonderful power, and capable of flooding the whole place in ten minutes” which suggests a dual purpose of providing power and fire protection.

The company that owned Jura also built Ardlussa Distillery in Campbeltown in 1879 which they ran until it closed during the downturn there in 1923.  At Jura there appears to have been a falling out with the Campbells in the 1890s and after the laird that the Fergussons had dealt with passed away in 1901 they dismantled the operation and gradually removed the equipment and then the maturing whisky casks.  By the time the lease ended in 1910 the operation was long since finished and so it remained for over 60 years.  To avoid paying rates the roofs were removed from the buildings and they were left to ruin.

New distillery built 1960-63
In an effort to regenerate the village and again provide employment on the island work began to rebuild the distillery in 1960 and the new venture ran its first spirit in April 1963.  The current distillery is built on the ruins of the old but all the equipment was built to a new design.  The style of the whisky was also deliberately changed from the heavy, peated style of old and the new stills were designed to provide a lighter spirit from barley peated to just 2ppm.  Heavier peated batches are also run for a few weeks each year for the Prophecy and Superstition expressions, Prophecy in particular starting life at 60ppm and retaining 35ppm in the bottle.

Now owned by Whyte & Mackay, anyone who has made the effort to get to this remote distillery is rewarded with a friendly tour and dram at no cost.  My welcome began in the main street as I was taking photographs.  I was approached by an elderly resident and when asked what I was doing here I said I was working on a whisky project, to which the reply came “Ah, Americans!”, and seemingly satisfied with this he shuffled off to continue with whatever errand he was on.  This lightened my spirits on what had turned into rather a dreich day and I just managed to stop laughing in time to meet Sue for the tour.

Jura washbacks
We began with some of the history and then a tour round the current operation.  Barley is now sourced from the mainland and is malted at Baird’s near Inverness, arriving like most of their supplies via Islay and the Feolin Ferry.  Where the old maltings once stood are now warehouses.  The mash tun and the 6 x 50,000 litre washbacks are made from stainless steel.  Functional and purposeful are important here as any replacement supplies have to be brought in some distance, and if the ferries have skelped a pier or the weather is stormy then quick repairs have to be possible to keep operations going.

Sue introduced me to a new way of appreciating the wash.  Rather than diving your nose into the vapours inside the washback, if you cup your hands below an open hatch then you gather only the heavier, richer vapours that will drift down the outside of the washback and you can breathe in the wonderful grassy aroma from there.  No need to risk whiplash from the CO2 kickback and a different aroma to that inside.

Jura 'Lantern' style stills
There were originally only two stills in 1963 but another two were added in 1978.  The design is of a ‘Lantern’ style and they are among the largest stills in Scotland, 25,000 litres for the wash and 22,000 for the low-wines stills (Udo, 2005) and 25 feet tall.  The shape helps provide a smoothness to the spirit and only the light vapours reach the near vertical lyne arms creating a soft, fruity ‘Highland’ style whisky.

There are now five warehouses, four by the distillery and one on the approach road, now holding 25,000 casks from an annual production of around 1.7m litres.  When the new venture began in 1963 most of the whisky went for blending but they are now holding back around a third of their production for single malt bottling.

Jura celebrated the 200th anniversary of their first founding last year and I imagine that the 2013 celebrations may even surpass that, the distillery once more a focal point for the community.  I wish I had planned time for a walk up the river to the waterfalls and loch that Barnard visited but ferry times were against me as I had to make my way back home from Islay that afternoon.  Barnard too had to rush away, the steamer calling by special permission of Mr MacBrayne just as his tour ended, and he left with regret and hoping to return some day too.