THE Edinburgh Festival may finish today, but there’s still reason to head north of the border. Richard Paterson, Master Blender for the past 40 years at Glasgow-based whisky producer Whyte & Mackay (makers of Jura whisky), is a third generation whisky man who has worked in the business since his teens.
His longevity is down to his greatest asset; a slightly bigger than average, moustachioed nose that is insured by Lloyd’s of London for more than £1.5m. Indeed, many in the spirits industry refer to Paterson simply as The Nose.
I had travelled from London to attend the Jura’s annual Whisky Festival, which had been grafted onto the week-long Feis Ile festivities on the neighbouring island of Islay. Islay, home to Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and a handful of other notable distilleries, is the reigning champion of all things single malt and peaty – and that’s about all it’s famous for. Compared to almost anywhere else in the world, Islay would seem a backwater. Next to Jura, it’s a bustling commercial centre.
The main draw of the festival was a series of exclusive tastings led by Whyte & Mackay reps such as Paterson, as well as a chance to have a taste of the recently launched Turas-Mara (a new blend of whiskies matured in a variety of casks).
Beyond the whisky, the festival presents an excuse as good as any to go somewhere removed and unordinary. Jura had one hotel, one pub (attached to the hotel), one community centre, one store, one restaurant (a recent addition only open during the summer), one church and, of course, one distillery.
Author George Orwell, who had lived at Jura’s Barnhill estate in the late 1940s while writing 1984, once described Jura as “the most un-get-able place”. These days to access it you needed to take the ferry from Port Askay on Islay or from Tayvallich on the mainland. Both are exceptionally scenic crossings and are fast, too (only a few minutes from Port Askay and about an hour from Tayvallich, conditions allowing.
In 2012, the Jura portion of the Feis Ile had to be rescheduled as the weather proved too inclement for normal ferry operations. Fortunately for all attending, this year’s festival saw only warm sunshine and the bluest of cloudless skies.
This year’s event was even more worthy of red letters on the Jura calendar than usual, as the occasion marked 50th anniversary of the island’s distillery. Although It was actually built and running as far back as 1801, it closed during the first World War and did not start production again until 1963, when two Jura estate owners, Robin Fletcher and Tony Riley-Smith, brought in architect William Delmé-Evans to rebuild it. Delmé-Evans introduced unusually tall stills resulting in a spirit more akin to a floral “Lowland lady” than a peaty island malt, as had been traditionally produced on Jura. These stills remain in use to this day, though the distillery now has developed ways to produce a range of peaty whiskies alongside its delicate Jura Origin.
For the whisky lovers gathered round him, Paterson graciously poured generous drams from a bottle of “39 and 3/4 year old” whisky that had been aged in amoroso sherry casks. When it is launched officially next year (at a yet to be determined price, but don’t be surprised to find four digits behind the pound sign), it will be a 40-year-old.
But for the time being, each dram was a special treat reserved for those who had taken the journey to see Jura. We swished and savoured each drop as Paterson, with his flared-nostril proboscis thrust deep inside his glass, instructed us on how to get the most from the tasting. It yielded a revelation of flavours, with every moment lingering. My tasting suggested a complex and deep profile of toffee, figs and marmalade with a light and lasting liquorice finish. The 39 and 3/4 year old whisky was a grandly intriguing drink, and I felt privileged to be sipping it.