Whisky Advocate

Guest blog #2: Jura and Orkney

March 30th, 2010

Islay is considered a mecca for peat freaks and with its eight working distilleries is a wonderful way to spend time.  Less traveled islands host distilleries including Mull and Arran.  Our trip took us to two others:  Jura and Orkney.  Our trip to the Isle of Jura is a literal “jump” from Islay, a seven minute ferry ride.  “Any time someone travels all the way to Jura, I’d be happy to show them ‘round!” Even on a Saturday morning, we found out. Distillery Manager Willie Cochrane loves to show off the distillery. This was the first time that we’d had the opportunity to get to Jura; sometimes the water is too rough, more often, time runs too short. A truly unique experience and one which gives you a great idea of how the climate affects the maturation of the whisky.    

Orkney is a totally different experience. To experience the wind and see the barren, treeless landscape are a must! It’s a bit of a drive and a ferry ride, but there are incredible non-whisky field trips as well.

We were fortunate to get a tour of Scapa thanks to our friend Ian of Chivas Brothers who met us there to show us around.  Scapa is not open to visitors and it is rare to see inside.  (Stills on left.) There has been some modernization but it remains a very traditional distillery.  The Scapa 16 YO reflects a movement from the 12 and 14 YO in an attempt to produce a standard product while they build up more stocks.  The distillery was mothballed from 1997 to 2004 and no whisky was being produced.  It will take till 2014 to see significant stocks of 10 YO whisky again. 

Highland Park is always a pleasure to visit.  They have the largest traditional floor maltings of any distillery (peat-fired kiln on left) and Edrington Group clearly wants to move Highland Park into a top selling single malt.  Gerry Tosh gave us the tour and he believes peat type and levels and quality of casks are the drivers for what you finally taste in the whisky.  While lots of people focus on water source, shape of the stills, barley and so forth, Gerry sees that those make up a very small part of the overall distinctiveness of the whisky.  Met a number of the key marketing staff during the visit and expect to see aggressive promotion of Highland Park and new expressions in the future.  They will maintain true to their core 12 and 18 YO, but you will see other vintages as well.  — B. J. Reed

33 Responses to “Guest blog #2: Jura and Orkney”

  1. Red_Arremer says:

    Thanks for the update, BJ. It’s really nice that you got to visit Scapa! Could you give a few more specifics on what Jura, the island and the distillery are like?

  2. B.;J. Reed says:

    Red as noted its only about a 7 minute ferry ride from Islay and Jura only has one road so it not easy to get lost. We only got to the Distillery location and that area has the hotel and gas station – Not really much there. Distillery represents just a small set of buildings all painted white with a small shop facing the road. One of the interesting tidbits we picked up there was that they use dry yeast shipped in from South Africa because its easily stored in rectangular packages. The challenge is that mixing the yeast with the worts is very tricky and it has to be done at just the right temp or either the yeast dies or it doesn’t interact. Willie said it took six weeks to get it right and they have a mixing vessel that actually regulates the temp going into the wash backs. Monique took better notes so hoping she will pipe in here.

    • John Hansell says:

      The hotel across the street from the distlillery also has a pub. The last time I was on Jura (three years ago) I enjoyed a really nice lunch there with Willie Tait and my wife Amy.

      • B.;J. Reed says:

        We miss Willie – He is now at Fettercairn and I know Monique was there in 2008 – We actually went into the pub to call Willie Cochran to come down and let us in! 🙂

      • bgulien says:

        And when you are at the hotel/restaurant/pub you have to sample the venison burger. Fingerlicking good!!

      • butephoto says:

        The venison burgers were superb!

    • Monique at the Dell says:

      Willie noted that Jura arguably has the largest stills in Scotland (27.5′ from top to bottom), they are huge in diameter, lantern-shaped… this helps to soften the whisky. He was quite proud of those stills, and noted the importance of working with a balanced system from washback to wash still to spirit still. The condensers are outside, taking further advantage of any increased copper contact that the cooler weather will promote. They had some very tasty older casks on site, we noted some nice balanced sherry and nuttiness, and you could definitely get the Jura coming through, Old Bay spice and brine.

  3. Mark says:

    Thanks for taking the time for this, BJ. Anything about the Scapa visit prompt Monique to reevaluate the 16?
    I had some of the remaining 14 last week, at a restaurant in my neighborhood.

    I think the differences in peat from Islay to Highland to Orkney are interesting. And, Gerry’s obviously correct about the casks (he says with a smile).

    • B.;J. Reed says:

      Mark there was a lot of debate among our group regarding Scapa moving from 12, to 14 to now 16. Many preferred the 12 YO to either the 14 or 16 but Scapa is in a bind regarding stocks. They simply cannot produce enough without going into to much older stock – They made the decision to raise the age statement (and the profile of the whisky) and also raise the price accordingly. From a consumer standpoint you wish they didn’t have to do it but from a business standpoint they have to bring in revenue to keep Scapa afloat. It was very close to closing for good so we have to give Chivas some props for investing back into a distillery that really needed work to reopen.

      As to the peat issue – absolutely different since there are no trees on Orkney (well, maybe two or three) all their peat is from heather and other plant material – Islay has much different makeup.

      • Mark says:

        On the peat: yep, and the differences seem significant to me.

        On Scapa: I don’t blame them for anything; genuine inability to continue is an excellent reason to make a change. Here’s to them for not closing, and to their patient craft and care yielding great results in years to come!

    • Monique at the Dell says:

      I’ll always take the time to reevaluate the 16 🙂 But that visit definitely helped!
      I honestly still prefer the 12 to the 14 and the 14 to the 16. For me, Scapa is just at its best younger.With a 130 hour fermentation working towards a much softer product, and majority of the barrels sourced as bourbon, I simply love the balance of honeyed sweetness with brine. Don’t get me wrong, the 16 is a great whisky. Especially for those who’ve never had younger, but I can’t wait for the 10!

      • bgulien says:

        I am not particular fond of the 14 as well. I found it unremarkable. Not a dram, that gets you excited.

  4. brian bradley (brian47126) says:

    After reading these last two guest entries, I must say, I want to go dram with the Dell people.

  5. Scribe says:

    Nice work, BJ…and great to hear the owners are looking to breathe some life into Highland Park. I’ve always enjoyed the 18, but the “marketing” behind some of the special offers from, say, Ardbeg (SuperNova, Corryvreckan) would be nice to see coming from HP with such a strong foundation!

    • Monique at the Dell says:

      Scribe, I second you there. The marketing team at Ardbeg and some of Mickey’s fresh stewardship, certainly make Ardbegs seems fresh and exciting.
      I admire Highland Park for keeping the core brands consistent, why wouldn’t they? The Dell especially loves the 18, which we pour more of by the dram than about anything (never change!), but the Magnus (Edition 1 of 3) and the Hjarta, especially bottled at cask strength are stellar!
      Gerry is one of those marketing guys who straddles the line between production side and marketing fluff well. He knows his stuff; he let us know that trials would begin in May concerning peating levels, barley types, and barrel useage… we are expecting fantastic things!

      • Scribe says:

        Monique, then I expect great things from Gerry and HP! 🙂 It’s those guys who don’t veer too far into the “hype,” and match exciting, creative marketing with a great product, who usually come out on top! Thanks for the reply!

  6. B.;J. Reed says:

    HP is really trying to balance the new expressions with the core 12 & 18 – They also want to bring something to the U.S. market that is different but haven’t made a decision on that yet. A number of us picked up the Earl Magnus and the Hjarta Limited and if those aren’t gone by now they certainly will be soon.

    • John Hansell says:

      Both Earl Magnus (which I haven’t formally reviewed yet but have a review sample) and Hjarta are both really nice whiskies. Now if we could only get these kinds here in the U.S….

      • B.;J. Reed says:

        Trust me Gerry is trying!

        • Scribe says:

          John, thanks for your reply on the Hjarta — I was going to say, “Gee, I’ll have to look that up!” but you saved me from embarrassing myself by letting us know it’s not yet available in the U.S.! While I respect HP trying to stay true to the 12 and 18 — and any distiller, for that matter — there is something to be learned from the vast over-funded marketing that goes on for sodas. Coca-Cola stays true to its original “Coke” and “Diet Coke” brands, while having whacky commercials for sub-brands (Coke Zero) that purposefully do everything possible to not only thwart existing branding, but even poke fun at their counterparts in the “classic” side of the shop. I’m not suggesting any distiller has that kind of $$…but that kind of *irreverence* can be refreshing, especially within a single shop!

  7. Texas says:

    I hope HP keeps the 12 year at a really attractive price. Upping the price $10 or $15 sure isn’t going to help sales in the environment.

  8. Thanks for the update – all three sound fantastic! I’d like to see more things from Scapa. I especially like the Scapa Cask Strength Edition 14-year-old, 60.6% 50 cl distilled 1992, bottled 2006 Batch SC 14001. These 50cl cask strength bottlings from Chivas are good to superb.
    Anything in the works at Jura? Are they retiring Superstition?
    The more I drink & learn about Highland Park, the more I appreciate & enjoy it. Perhaps they’ll bring back the single cask bottlings. I like the 18, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg!

    • B.;J. Reed says:

      No real word on Jura that I recall- Scapa likely to focus on 16 YO while trying to build stocks toward release of a younger single malt in the future. At least that is my sense during the trip. I do agree those 50cl bottlings are really good – They are still available and actually they are adding new ones – I think they had a Longmorn at the Chivas distilleries.

      • Monique at the Dell says:

        They’re retiring two of those Chivas 50 cl’s a year and adding new ones. This year’s are the Longmorn and Miltonduff 18 at 51.3%.
        All are very consistent, unique and tasty. Also well-priced. Chivas distilleries only.

  9. sam k says:

    From the For What It’s Worth Department:

    What struck me most about this posting are those stills at Scapa. They are virtually identical in appearance to the stills that ran both before and after Prohibition in tiny Ruffs Dale, Pennsylvania at the Dillinger Distillery. I’ve always wondered what the rye whiskey tasted like from those stills, so I guess I’ve got to get me a Scapa to taste the Scottish equivalent. Thanks for the revelation!

    • John Hansell says:

      It’s a small world, Sam.

      • sam k says:

        Ain’t it, though?

        • Monique at the Dell says:

          That is really fascinating. I love that you know those Dillinger Stills well enough to have made the connection. Sounds about as nerdy as me! Just a bit more info, their wash still is a former Lomond still, the outside part still intact, no plates with a 13000 L charge, the spirit still has a 9000 L charge. The wash still has a purifier about halfway down the lyne arm, the lyne arm on the spirit sill is the same length as the wash lyne, but without the purifier (it’s got an intestesting almost right angle kink in it though).

          • B.;J. Reed says:

            Well, I think we know who took detailed notes on our trip don’t we? 🙂

          • sam k says:

            Monique, I now notice the vertical neck of that converted Lomond wash still in the foreground. So, the Dillinger stills were much like the spirit still with the horizontal lyne arm that is the focus of the shot. Does the Lomond’s lyne also follow a horizontal track?

  10. sam k says:

    Monique, irrational obsession knows no international boundaries! The Dillinger wash still had a capacity of 15,263 liters per charge, while their spirit still held 13,324 liters, both slightly larger that the Scapa stills. To my knowledge, these were the only dedicated pot stills in the U.S. distilling whiskey after Prohibition, and they have fascinated me for years. They were also connected to a more “modern” continuous distillery that contained a column still, a rectifying column, and doubler, making them possibly the most versatile distilling operation, worldwide, ever. Distilling there probably ended in the late 1940s.

    Both lyne arms in Ruffs Dale appear to have been the same length, though I’m not sure exactly what that was (I can do some calculations), and ended at shell-and -tube condensers. I need to know more about that damned “kink” at Scapa.

    I’m all tingly that you’re this wrapped up in weird distillery details! Though Omaha has not been on my travel itinerary in the past, it sure as hell is now!

  11. […] has been going strong with some great guest blog posts from B.J. Reed.  Check out his trips to Jura and Orkney, Clynelish Glenmorangie and Dalmore, Tormore Glenlivet and Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Balvenie, […]

  12. butephoto says:

    That’s a great read. Just recently back from Jura myself and have started writing it up here:

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