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Journey to Jura, Scotland’s far-away whisky distillery

MARK JONES makes a pilgrimage through rough seas, hard lands and disapproving clouds to taste some of Scotland’s finest whisky on one of its most ‘ungetatable’ rocky outcrops: Jura. Photography by KONRAD BORKOWSKI

I scramble down a rough, boggy path and pick my way into a small clearing carpeted with velvety grass and yellow daisies. There’s a low, dark opening in the mossy rock and, in front, a small sign:

ST CORMAC’S CAVE
A cave or retreat such as this is characteristic of the Celtic church, and used by a monk of even greater austerity than his community provided.

This is ridiculous. We are on the tiny island of Eilean Mòr in the middle of the Sound of Jura, 270 kilometres northwest of Edinburgh. Eilean Mòr’s only residents these days are seabird colonies. (If you’re looking for a British Shag, this is the place.) The Isle of Jura was described as ‘extremely ungetatable’ by the writer George Orwell. How much more solitude, isolation and austerity did your average eighth-century monk need?

Adherents of the early Christian church were famously competitive when it came to out-austering each other. I suppose St Cormac’s Cave was the Scottish equivalent to, say, a fourth-century monk living on top of a pole for 10 years. And maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on St Cormac. This spot feels like the edge of the known world – but that’s today. Cast back 1,200 years and you’d be in one of the busiest trading hubs on the planet, a true maritime Silk Road. Trading and military vessels sped to and fro between the power centres of the Viking lands to Ireland, Scotland and far south into England.

We are in deceptive waters here. As we chug over to Craighouse, the main – okay, only – village on Jura, inky masses of cloud scud across the skies admonishing the sun like a disapproving church elder. The congregation of whitewashed buildings huddle together in the shadow of the place we’ve come to see: the Jura distillery.

Nowhere could seem more formidably local. Yet this distillery recently passed from the hands of an Indian entrepreneur into those of a Chinese drinks magnate based in the Philippines. An Australian hedge fund manager is building a US$50 million (HK$390 million) luxury resort and golf course a few kilometres down the coast. The voices in the bar are Russian, South African, Swedish and South Korean.
For an extremely ungetatable place, Jura is a rocky little epicentre of cosmopolitanism.

Credit: Mark Jones

I’ve always yearned to visit Jura – writers, especially writers who like whisky, always do. But since I moved to Hong Kong that desire has intensified. Whisky is having quite a fashionable moment in the city, and it’s huge fun seeking the ever more surprising and delicious malts from Taiwan and Japan, not to mention Australia and Wales, in the swanky bars and secret speakeasies. But you (okay, I) return always to Scotch; and especially to something that’s produced on this island: the Jura Superstition, a zingy, lightly peated malt that’s better suited to a subtropical climate than the tumblers full of smoke, bog and fire from neighbouring Islay.

So it’s with the devotion of a pilgrim that I spend the next days touring the distillery, from the sepulchral calm of the stills room to the hallowed ranks of casks dreaming away the years in the warehouse. Tasting the whiskies is a solemn affair, too, helped by the Game of Thrones nomenclature of the range: Superstition, Elixir, Origin, Prophecy.

For the first few hundred years of their existence, Scotland’s distilleries brought out a single malt with a few iterations of age and strength. Since the great malt whisky revival of the 1980s and ’90s, they’ve been bitten by the branding bug in a big way. Every year, the whisky houses produce a new, poetically packaged variation – based less on ageing and more on the wood of those casks: bourbon or sherry, cognac or red wine – all imparting subtle tastes from faraway lands to the unmitigated Scottishness of the base liquor.

Like with tweed, the once endangered cloth that now adorns everything from Nike trainers to my iPad case, Scottish whisky producers are marrying local integrity with international marketing savvy.

It’s a happy, reviving blend for an island like Jura which for centuries, and like so many of these remote islands, endured a slow, painful decline as its people emigrated – to the Scottish mainland and other mainlands, notably Canada; worn down by the hard earth, the temperamental sea and the callousness of aristocratic landlords. Now the population is finally, slightly, gradually, increasing.

So disapproving clouds aside, it’s a pretty sunny outlook for Jura. Contrast that cheerful picture with the bleak vision of humanity committed to words on the island 70 years ago.

George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in the most ungetatable part of this ungetatable island, wheezing away (Orwell died seven months after the book was published in 1949) in Barnhill, a gloomy house on the northern tip. In the future world he created, megalithic global powers called Oceania, Eurasia (which included the British isles, also referred to as Airstrip One) and Eastasia fight endless wars with each other and against the individual wills of their inhabitants. I took a boat up to Barnhill – much faster than the single-track road – and beyond, to the area of water that nearly swallowed up its author and his unfinished book with it. The Corryvreckan is one of the planet’s most treacherous whirlpools. In the summer of 1947, Orwell and his son very nearly drowned when they ventured too close to its mysterious, chopping, swirling centre and their dinghy capsized.

Today we, too, are venturing into the Corryvreckan. The skipper, Nicol, sits stoically at the wheel as he pushes against the tide, speeding us along at 11 knots. As we cross the pinnacle, the undersea rock that creates the whirlpool, the sturdy little boat strains and pitches against the manic water. If you’ve encountered turbulence on your flight today, multiply that by 10. It’s not a place to serve hot drinks. I go outside to have a closer look, and Nicol loses a bit of his stoicism. What would happen if I slipped overboard? I ask. ‘Straight down,’ he says. As a test, marine scientists threw a crash test dummy into the Corryvreckan. It eventually surfaced kilometres away, beyond Scarba Island.

Orwell survived his encounter with the whirlpool, and so did his book. The Jura distillery, inevitably, produced a 1984 whisky in 2014, a 30-year-old vintage dating to the year of the book’s title. It is a rather more invigorating experience than the novel. We had a wee dram over dinner in the slightly mad, spooky guesthouse adjoining the distillery. Dinner was cooked by the thoroughly jolly, irrepressibly Edinburghian and unmistakeably Sikh celebrity chef Tony Singh, who’d sailed in for the evening to meet us. Over oysters, venison and chanterelle mushrooms we raised our glasses of 1984 and toasted Orwell and the fact that in this far corner
of Eurasia at least, life is far from bleak.

Meet the maker

Master distiller Richard Paterson sits in the lobby of the Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong and passes over a small vial of amber fluid.

I’m holding some of the most precious seven millilitres of liquid in Hong Kong. It’s the Dalmore 50, produced to mark Paterson’s 50 years in the industry. Keeping the figures nice and round, the bottle (made of Baccarat glass inside a David Linley presentation case) retails for £50,000 (HK$483,500).

He’s in Hong Kong to meet the island’s most dedicated whisky enthusiasts to chat about the latest releases and maybe, just maybe, shift a bottle or two of the 50.

If whisky making were golf or tennis, Paterson would be a multiple Grand Slam winner. He’s known as The Nose in the industry and was recognised with an Icons of Whisky Lifetime Achievement award at the 2013 World Whisky Awards.

Since his employers, Glasgow-based, Philippine-owned Whyte & Mackay, acquired Jura in 1993, he’s presided over the island’s whiskies, as well as the Dalmore distillery in the Highlands of northern Scotland.

A visit to both Dalmore and Jura offers a useful shortcut for anyone exploring the complex landscape of Scottish whisky for the first time. Jura, and the Islay distilleries on the neighbouring island, are pragmatic, whitewashed little forts braving the wild Atlantic. The Dalmore is a Highlander, an aristocrat of the spirit, housed in fine, granite buildings near Alness, where elegant fairway-length lawns overlook the Cromarty Firth.

People from all over the world come to see how this distinguished dram is made. They’re part of a surging interest in whisky: according to the Scotch Whisky Association a record 1.6 million people visited Scotland’s distilleries in 2015, spending £50 million (HK$484 million).

Like the Jura, like all the big malts these days, there’s a fine lineage of Dalmores to choose from, with names like King Alexander III, Valour, Trinitas – more Braveheart than Game of Thrones.

For me, the most extraordinary creation is really a recreation. In 2007, polar scientists discovered several cases of Mackinlay whisky buried in the Antarctic permafrost. It was taken there exactly 100 years before by the great polar explorer Ernest Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition.

With an alcohol content of 47.3 per cent, it had remained liquid. A bottle was taken to New Zealand (and returned: nothing may be removed from the living museum that is the Antarctic) and a sample of the liquor extracted.

Mackinlay was long ago absorbed by Whyte & Mackay. So it fell to Richard Paterson to recreate the blended malt that Shackleton’s hardy crew drank. They recreated the original straw and cardboard packaging, too. Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Whisky is on sale in the Dalmore shop. I’m waiting for an especially freezing, stormy night to open mine. At £100 (HK$970) a bottle, the price is a little easier on the financial palate than the Dalmore 50.

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