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The Ninth Distillery
I’ve been running this site for more than two years now and in that time I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic experiences in my pursuit of great whisky. One of the recent highlights came during my visit to Islay when I was invited to have a sneak peek at the location of the island’s ninth distillery.
In 2016, Glasgow-based independent bottler, Hunter Laing announced that they intended to build a new distillery on Islay, the first since Kilchoman appeared in 2005. Following some confusion over their involvement in the distillery project at Gartbreck, south of Bowmore, it was announced that Laing’s new distillery was to be situated near Loch Ardnahoe, on the island’s north-east coast.
Thus it came to pass on one breezy September morning, that I found myself arriving at a building site, somewhere between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. Anyone who has visited the latter of these two island distilleries will be aware that the access road leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, the drive to Ardnahoe is less than that of its neighbour and the stunning views across the Sound of Islay to Jura make the journey more than worthwhile.
During my visit, the site was little more than a foundation, though we were informed by our welcoming and passionate host Bryony, that the concrete under our feet would eventually form the floor of the distillery itself, once it had been subjected to a little spit and polish. I confess to being more than a little chuffed with myself as I stood on the spot upon which the pot stills would come to rest; on the very floor where a brand new chapter of Islay’s story will come into being. Already a little giddy, the icing was put on the cake when I stepped into the future and, with the aid of a Virtual Reality kit, toured the distillery as though it had already been completed. I suspect anyone’s first experience of VR would leave a lasting impression and it was certainly the case for me as I wandered between the washbacks and the stills, then lurched into a state of panic and disorientation as I somehow found myself atop a cask some 12 feet above the warehouse floor. As impressive as the technology was, however, it remained firmly in the shadow of that staggeringly beautiful view that will bewitch distillery visitors for many years and decades to come.
These are exciting times on Islay and while Ardnahoe’s product may remain a mystery for some time yet the early signs suggest that we can look forward with enthusiasm. For one thing, the decision to tempt the legendary figure of Jim McEwan out of retirement will surely prove to be a masterstroke, given his success in guiding the rebirth of Bruichladdich.
In any case, a distillery built by an independent bottler has a significant advantage over similar projects due to their stocks of whisky that can be sold while waiting for their new product. Hunter Laing made the very astute decision to open a shop in Islay House Square, giving them a presence on the island and the means with which to show whisky lovers what they can offer. For my part, I was intrigued by this 8-year-old Jura, bottled under the Hepburn’s Choice range. Jura is a dram that often disappoints when I taste official bottlings but I was quite keen to try out this independently bottled one, given that it was 46% abv and un-chill-filtered.
Smell: Lemon and Vanilla, Biscuit & Pastry, Peanuts, Custard and Grass with Wood and a slight Earthiness.
Taste: Light bodied with Lemon, Apple, Honey and Vanilla Cream, Cereal, Sponge Cake and a touch of Spicy Oak.
Thoughts: I find it really difficult to pinpoint my issue with Jura. I used to think it was the low bottling strength, or the tons of colouring that’s been poured into it. Here we have a more natural presentation, however, yet it still feels a wee bit inconsequential to me.
In many ways, Jura is more like Speyside whiskies than it is to its near neighbours on Islay. It’s remarkably light and delicate and even at 46%, it lacks weight on the palate. I think perhaps it’s this absence of natural oils that leaves me cold. I do tend to prefer a heavier dram.
In fairness, this bottle was reasonably priced and there are some nice, gentle bourbon notes from the cask that seems to work well with the softness of the whisky. It’s not a total let down but neither has it changed my opinion on Jura.