The Isle of Jura Distillery stands in the centre of Jura's only village, Craighouse. Indeed, in many ways the village is defined by its distillery, which stands overlooking the main (arguably the only) road junction in the village with views of Small Isles Bay and its islands and the more distant Scottish mainland. This really is an idyllic spot, all the more so if you arrive as we did to find the distillery and village bathed in morning sunlight.
Your first experience of the distillery will be in the beautifully laid out little shop and reception area. The distillery itself has many features that visitors will find familiar from elsewhere, plus, as with any distillery, a number that help stamp its individuality on the product it produces. By the time you get to the distillery, however, you will probably already have realised that there is one thing that particularly sets Jura apart. Scottish islands tend to be friendly and welcoming places, but we have never encountered anywhere quite so warn hearted as Jura, and the quality of the welcome on the island extends to visitors arriving at the distillery.
As you tour the distillery you pick up the process at the milling stage: like most modern distilleries, the Isle of Jura Distillery brings in barley that has been malted elsewhere. This part of the process, as in many distilleries, is looked after by a Porteus malt mill, made in Leeds. The mash tun is large and stainless steel. The very large washbacks are also, unusually, of stainless steel. The absence of Oregon pine removes one of the more photogenic elements found in many distilleries, but there is no getting away from the greater practicality of stainless steel.
There are those who disagree, but for us the heart of any distillery is the stillroom. At the Isle of Jura Distillery there are four stills. Each is unusually tall, standing over 25ft high. This height can be appreciated to the full from a vantage point close to one of the doors which allows you to see the bases of the stills as well as their upper parts. The lyne arms from the tops of the stills lead to condensers on the outside wall of the stillhouse, while the whole operation is overseen from a spirit safe placed beside a high level walkway. Your tour will conclude in one of the bonded warehouses in which spirit very slowly turns into Scotch whisky. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
For anyone wanting a rather different experience of the Isle of Jura Distillery, the old manager's house towards the northern end of the site has been converted into The Lodge. Stylish and luxurious accommodation for up to eight guests has been created over two floors. The decor is remarkable, and reminded us of the interior of a Scots baronial grand house such as Kinloch Castle on Rum. Add in some hints of the modern boutique hotel and absolutely magnificent views over the village of Craighouse and Small Isles Bay, and you have what can only be described as accommodation to remember. The Lodge is available for private rental at certain times of the year: see the distillery website, link on the right.
The history of distilling at Craighouse dates back to the 1700s or possibly earlier: though as those distilling illegally tend not to keep detailed records, evidence for this rests on oral history of secret stills set up in caves. The first legal distillery was established here in 1810 by the laird, Archibald Campbell of Jura. From the start Jura's remote location and problematic transport links made distilling here more difficult than elsewhere, and the distillery changed hands a number of times during the 1800s. In the 1850s it was nearly demolished after the brass and copper of the equipment was valued at £400.
In 1876 James Ferguson and Sons of Glasgow took over the operation of the distillery, and in 1884 they agreed to a 34 year lease from the Campbells that tied them to improving the distillery, and the harbour at Craighouse, at their own expense. By some accounts they subsequently invested over £25,000 in the distillery, but during the 1890s the relationship between the Fergusons and the Campbells deteriorated. When a new Campbell laird inherited the estate in 1901 the Fergusons stripped the distillery of everything they could and ceased operations, though they paid rent until 1918 while they ran down the accumulated stocks of bonded whisky. Jura Distillery had effectively ceased to exist.
By the late 1950s, Jura's population, which had stood at 1,312 in 1831, had diminished to around 250. Two of the island's landowners, Robin Fletcher and Tony Riley-Smith, decided that one way to improve the economy would be to rebuild Jura Distillery. They employed William Delme Evans to undertake the design, and distilling recommenced in 1963. The unusually tall stills were part of a design intended to allow Jura Distillery to produce a whisky more akin to a Highland malt than the typically high peated Islay malts. In 1978 capacity was doubled when the number of stills was increased from two to four, with the new pair of stills closely matching the existing pair to ensure the character of the product did not change.
In 1994 the Jura Distillery Company Ltd was taken over by Whyte & Mackay, and today it remains part of their portfolio: and like their other Scottish distilleries it continues to operate in a charming and friendly manner that utterly belies its being part of a large multinational company.