After a damp few days spent crabbing, the sun was shining as we made our way towards the pier at Tayvallich, the starting point for our trip to Jura.
The bay (Loch a Bhealaich) was as still as a millpond and we were looking forward to a smooth crossing along Loch Sween, across the Sound of Jura to Craighouse.
The Jura Passenger Ferry provides a daily service between Tayvallich and Jura. It's a popular summer service, so it's advisable to book in advance. The ferry's deep hull, with seating for 12 passengers, and wrap around windows, make for a comfortable and enjoyable crossing, with great views of the passing landscape, wildlife and historical sites, which include Castle Sween, one of the earliest stone castles built in Scotland, and Stevenson's Skervuile Lighthouse, just outside Lowlandman's Bay.
Part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago, Jura is an inhospitable, mountainous island, largely covered by vast areas of peat land. Perhaps unsurprisingly the island is extremely sparsely populated. The main centre of population is the village of Craighouse on the east coast of the island. Craighouse is home to the Jura distillery as well as a number of shops, the island's only hotel and church.
Of course, you can't go to Jura and not sample the local liquor. After a brisk walk along the coastline we return to the distillery for a short tour of the facilities. Unfortunately there is no distillation taking place today, but the massive copper stills still exude the intoxicating foamy wort that they contained. Compared to the sterile cleanliness of other distilleries I've visited, the Jura distillery is delightfully unwashed - there is even a family of swallows nesting in the spirit tank warehouse.
After a wee dram we retire to the hotel for a delightful lunch in the company of another family visiting the island from Italy!
Well fed and watered, the late afternoon boat trip back to Tayvallich is a relaxing affair. With the light breeze, quiet buzz of the engine and gently undulating waves, it isn't long before everyone (including the skipper) is nodding off.
A final thought.
In 1946, following the death of his wife, a 42 year-old writer named Eric Blair came to Jura in search of some peace and quiet in which to write a book. Tall, gaunt and sad looking, he pretty much kept himself to himself, despite suffering some serious bouts of ill-health. He lived in a remote farmhouse called Barnhill on the north of the island. His next-door neighbour lived 6 miles away. By and large, he lived off the land, farming, fishing and shooting the occasional rabbit. Visitors to the farm would hear him pounding away at his typewriter in the upstairs bedroom.
He finally finished writing his book in 1948, but was soon forced by ill-health to leave the island. He died in 1950.
He came upon the title of his book by inverting the last two numbers of the year in which it was completed. It was a huge success, spawning concepts such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101 and, of course, that much used adjective, Orwellian.
The reclusive writer is better known by his pen-name George Orwell.
Tasting notes - Jura Prophecy
A smooth, easy-drinking, nicely peated little number, the ideal companion for mulling over Orwell's dystopian society.
On a recent trip home to Scotland I took the opportunity to discover an icon of Scottish Whisky - Dewar's White Label.
I have to admit that when I was planning my trip to Perthshire, the Aberfeldy distillery wasn't top of my list.
From traditional small independents like Eradour and Tullibardine, to iconic brands like Glenturret, (Scotland's oldest distillery and spiritual home of the Famous Grouse, Scotland's best selling whisky), and Blair Athol (one of oldest working distilleries in Scotland), as well as the exciting new micro-distillery at Strathearn, which also brews its own gin, not to mention Dalwhinnie in the north, which draws its water from the famous River Spey, and Deanston in the south, whose water source, the River Teith, also powers the distillery, in Perthshire whisky enthusiasts really are spoiled for choice.
As we were based in Aberfeldy for a couple of days, Dewar's, conveniently located just beyond the town centre, turned out to be a good choice.
Aberfeldy is a small market town located in highland Perthshire, about 70 miles north of Edinburgh. Having flown in from Verona that morning, it was a convenient destination, offering a hint of the more dramatic highland region that lies just beyond.
On this occasion, it was as far north as we were planning to go, but for those who wish to explore the more remote highland region, Aberfeldy is a worthy staging post. Points of interest include the memorial to the famous Black Watch regiment, an 18-hole golf course, a children's park and a thriving town centre, which includes a vibrant cinema, boutique shops, such as Haggart's, a tweed outfitter with a hipster twist, and The Three Lemons, a cafe, bar, grill that wouldn't be out of place in Glasgow's trendy Merchant City. For a town the size of Aberfeldy (population barely 2,000) , the presence of such enterprise is a positive sign of a vibrant town. A hint perhaps of the entrepreneurial spirit that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in the heart of rural Perthshire.
In 1846, John Dewar, Sr, the son of a local farmer, opened a wine and spirits shop in Perth. In the 1860s he begun blending his own whiskies. When he died in 1880, the popular and thriving spirits company that he had created passed on to his two sons, John Alexander and Tommy.
Aged just 24 and 16 when they inherited the small family business, what the brothers achieved was truly remarkable.
Over the next 50 years, Dewar's would become a truly global brand and the brothers high-profile public figures.
Whisky was little known, let alone drunk outside Scotland at this time. In order to make it more palatable to the global market, the Dewar brothers pioneered the magical world of blending.
They also showed extraordinary skills in marketing and self-promotion, travelling the world to sell their product, boldly exploiting romantic images of Scotland. With his charismatic personality, Tommy set off on a world tour. In 2 years he visited 26 different countries. He kept a journal of his travels which were consolidated and published in a book titled "Ramble Round the Globe", which was published in 1894.
The tour was a remarkable success and Dewar's brand became known as one of the premier Scotch whiskies on the market.
In 1893 the company was granted a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria. The small Tullymet distillery leased by the family could no longer meet demand so in 1898 the brothers built the Aberfeldy Distillery. The following year they released the flagship White Label expression. With Aberfeldy at its heart, Dewar's White Label is in fact a blend of 40 different whiskies expertly blended by Dewar’s first Master Blender, A.J. Cameron.
Despite difficult times, including war and prohibition, Dewar's of Aberfeldy continued to thrive as the brothers' interests expanded beyond the world of whisky.
From 1900 to 1917 John Alexander represented Inverness-shire in the House of Commons. He became a Baronet in 1907 and in 1917 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Forteviot of Dupplin in the Count of Perth.
In 1900 Tommy Dewar, who subsequently became 1st Baron Dewar, was elected as the MP for Tower Hamlets in London. Amongst other things he was involved in the controversial campaign to introduce immigration controls for the first time in the UK (the Aliens Act 1905).
Dewar’s White Label remains one of the most enduring, most highly-awarded whisky brands in the world. For generations, it has been among the top five best-selling brands globally and the number one brand in America.
Pale amber in colour, with a rich honey sweetness that is the hallmark of the Aberfeldy distillery, it also offers hints of heather and a touch of peaty smokiness. It's no limited edition single malt, but after a couple of drams it's easy to see why it has become one of the best selling whiskies ever produced.
While purists tend to favour single malt, it should be remembered that blends like Jonny Walker, Dewar's White Label and Chivas Regal are the foundations upon which the whisky industry is built. Without ambitious pioneers like the Dewar brothers and Jonny Walker, whose vision, enterprise and determination ensured that Scotch Whisky is a drink sold and revered all over the world, the whisky industry would not be the global success story it is today.
An introduction to the magical world of independent bottling
It was the week before the start of the festival and I was enjoying the last couple of days of a family holiday in Edinburgh when an old friend called to ask if I wanted to join him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) to celebrate his new job.
Quicker than you can say "I'll have a Bunnahabhain 11yo Pedro Ximénez Finish", I was crossing the murky Water of Leith, dashing past Martin Wishart's Michelin starred restaurant and, with a spring in my step and a flutter in my chest, making my way across the high-walled courtyard of the Vaults.
The Vaults in Leith, a building whose cavernous wine cellars are said to date back to 12th century, is home to the SMWS in Edinburgh. Grand yet snug, decadent yet clubbable, it's like stepping into an Edwardian gentleman's club (at least I imagine it is, never having done so). Membership will set you back £122 for the first year (plus an annual renewal fee thereafter), but included in the price is a welcome pack that contains 3 sample bottles of Society whisky. Members, as I was fortunate enough to discover, can also invite guests to join them for a dram. Knowledgeable and well-informed sommeliers are always on hand to make recommendations based on your personal tastes.
After what is, by all accounts, a vigorous vetting procedure shrouded in secrecy, the SMWS carefully selects its whisky directly from distillery castoffs. When a distillery produces a whisky that it doesn't want to bottle (perhaps it doesn't quite match its unique flavour criteria), rather than simply discarding the unbottled whisky, these casks are instead released to independent whisky bottlers, such as the SMWS. The SMWS Tasting Panel then gives each bottle a mischievous set of tasting notes and a quirky but descriptive name - the bottle I took home with me was called "Eureka Moment".
So as not to identify the distillery from which it originates, whiskies at SMWS are all given a unique, two-part numerical identifier. They are then bottled at cask-strength (upwards of 45%), rather than at the typical industry standard of around 40%. "Eureka Moment" came in at robust 58.6%, so a wee splash of water was necessary to fully appreciate this punchy wee dram.
All told, a visit to the Vaults in Leith is a singular, if not unique, experience.
In fact, there are an ever increasing number of independent whisky bottlers, although few can boast such sumptuous premises as the SMWS. Some, like Berry Brothers and Rudd, which has been supplying gin to the royal family since the reign of George III, and the iconic Gordon & MacPhail, which started out as a grocer in Elgin in 1895, have long histories of selecting and bottling whisky. These veterans have been joined by exciting newcomers like Hidden Spirits, an independent Italian bottler founded in 2013, Rest and Be Thankful, another bold new independent bottler that is producing some outstanding single malts and Chapter 7, which is leading the way with its clean modern branding.
These independent whisky bottlers offer high quality products often at seriously competitive prices.
So, while you're waiting for that elusive invitation to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, why not seek out a single malt from an independent bottler?
As for me, it's nearly midnight and I've got an important deadline to meet.
It's time for another Eureka Moment!