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. 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 surprisingly good 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, quite 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 bedroom upstairs.
He finally finished writing his book in 1948, but was 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. The book was a huge success and spawned 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.
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!
Organic wine is becoming increasingly visible on the supermarket shelves these days. Even Italy, a country slower than most to jump on the organic bandwagon, is now embracing this potentially lucrative lifestyle trend. In recent years I've stumbled across a number of organic vineyards and many bars and restaurants here in Verona now showcase a 'vino biologico' on their wine list.
No hangover - the benefits of going bio
Organic wines are made from organically grown grapes. This means that they are cultivated in accordance with certain country-specific rules which exclude the use of artificial chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides. Perhaps because of less intensive production techniques that use fewer synthetic chemicals, organic wine tastes good. So, while vino biologico satisfies the twin consumer impulses of healthy eating and environmental sustainability, it also contains less sulphur dioxide, which might just reduce the risk of a hangover!
As a recent Guardian article pointed out, the rise in the number of environmentally conscious consumers has led to a boom in sales of organic wines, beers and spirits. The growing importance of organic wine is reflected in increased sales (by as much as 20% in countries like Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands). In Germany, almost a quarter of under 30s regularly buy organic produce.
In order to meet this increased demand, the number of vineyards with organic status has also exploded. Between 2004 and 2011, the number of organic vineyards tripled (from 88,000 to 256,000 hectares). And it's not just small independent producers who are going organic. Today, many big wine brands are adapting their production techniques to meet the green demand.
According to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Spain is currently the largest producer of organic wine, with some 80,000 hectares of organic vineyards (Italy is thought to have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 hectares).
In Italy, regions like Sicily, Puglia and Tuscany are leading the way in organic wine production. But domestic demand for organic wine remains underdeveloped and organic wine producers rely heavily on the export market.
In fact, some producers I spoke to at Vinitaly (Verona's annual wine fair) export as much as 75% of their overall output. The primary export destination for these organic products are the lucrative markets of northern Europe - German and Denmark were mentioned time and time again. The UK market, it seems, is not quite so well-developed, although many producers would love to get a foothold on this potentially rewarding marketplace.
But, amongst all the talk of ethical production techniques and saving the planet, there is a darker side to the Italian agricultural economy. According to a recent New York Times article, the 40,000 Italian women, as well as migrant and seasonal labourers, who constitute the agricultural workforce in Italy, are employed in appalling conditions for scant financial reward. So bad, in fact, that they, have been likened to a system of modern day slavery. In one tragic case a couple of years ago, a cruelly exploited grape picker died in the field while sorting grapes. Such practices have no place in an industry that aspires to be 'ethical'.
Vinitaly goes bio
For a number of years now, Vinitaly has recognised the importance of the booming organic sector. In collaboration with the Italian Federation of Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture, it has launched Vinitalybio, an area dedicated to certified organic wine from Italy and beyond.
Organic wine was not limited to this area though, as throughout the fair there were plenty of organic, vegan, ethical and biodynamic wines to choose from.
For my tastes, these brands, with their simple designs and natural themes, were amongst the most attractive on show. Emerging from the inevitable fog of a four-day wine fair, a few spring to mind.
Le Carline (a family-run organic/vegan vinery just outside Venice), Perlage Winery (an organic/vegan prosecco producer with innovative visuals) and Tenuta Bastonaca (a Sicilian vinery that is currently converting to organic status). These are just a few of the many talented and passionate producers I spoke to.
A final mention for Tenuta San Pietro, an organic producer from Piedmont. Informative front of house staff, an engaging sommelier and a delightful wine, including an innovative "talking label". Here the philosophy is that discerning customers like to know exactly what they are consuming so all the technical information goes on the front label rather than hidden away on the back.
And so, after a day spent enjoying so much organic wine, there was only one way for me to get home.
And no, I didn't have a hangover the next morning!