Jura: a brand history

26th November, 2019 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

While neighbouring island Islay may have almost a dozen distilleries, Jura only has the one and locals are dependent on its success for their employment. Luckily, the eponymous brand is forging a clear path.

*This feature was originally published in the September 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

If you mistake Jura whisky’s website for that of the island’s tourist board, Kirsteen Beeston, Whyte & Mackay’s head of international malts, is unfazed. Being responsible for Jura she’s secretly delighted. “Quite selfishly we want to attract people to our distillery,” she says. “To know the island story is to know the distillery, and vice versa. The two are completely inseparable and we want to put this brilliant island on the map. To do so will only benefit the whiskies and the brand.”

Drag the most hard‐bitten supermarket buyer to this remote corner of the Inner Hebrides and it’s job done for Beeston and her team. Once the buyer has given up on their futile quest for mobile reception or Wi‐Fi, they will succumb to this magical isle. In the capital, Craighouse, dubbed ‘downtown Jura’, you will find all you need, as she explains: “The pier is just a stone’s throw from the distillery. The pub and hotel are across the road, and the shop is two doors down.”

George Orwell, who stayed on Jura to finish his dystopian novel 1984, described it as an “extremely ungettable place”. That may have been great for an author seeking solitude, but not for the many islanders who left, never to return, slashing the population from a mid‐ 19th‐century peak of 1,312 to around 212 today. The first distillery was founded in 1810 by Jura’s then owner, Archibald Campbell, and closed in 1901. At some point the roof was ripped off to avoid paying rent, and as the rain poured in it seemed to be the end of whisky‐making on the island.

FROM THE ASHES

Against the odds, in 1963, a new Jura distillery rose from the ashes. It was a joint venture by blender Charles Mackinlay & Co of Leith and two of the island’s landowners, who “wanted to create a way for the island to have a long‐term future”, says Beeston. “They fitted tall stills to produce a lighter spirit that was better suited to the blended market.” And, unlike the neighbouring whiskies from Islay, it was unpeated. “I don’t believe they started to create peated whiskies until the early 1990s, and even then they were only using peat for one or two weeks a year,” she says.

The distillery began bottling an Isle of Jura single malt in 1974 “but I don’t think it was keeping the lights on”, says Beeston. She reckons the real commitment to creating a brand began with the launch of Jura expressions such as Superstition, which appeared in 2002. By this stage, the bottle had acquired its curved middle, and the distillery was part of Whyte & Mackay, which acquired its previous owner, Invergordon Distillers, in 1994. A year later Whyte & Mackay closed Bruichladdich on Islay and maintained production at Jura – a decision that may well have saved the distillery.

Jura Distillery during the Jura Whisky Festival

Bruichladdich bounced back as an independently‐owned distillery that is now with Rémy Cointreau, while Jura has gone on to become a 150,000‐case malt brand that has done extremely well at home. “The UK is by far and away our largest single market,” says Beeston. “We’re number four by value on a MAT basis, and in the past 12 weeks we’ve become number two.”

Across the Channel, Jura is a reasonably substantial single malt in France, with sales of around 17,000 cases a year, followed by Germany then markets such as Sweden, Italy and Spain. Further afield, she admits that “we haven’t cracked the US”, while there seems to be plenty of potential in Asia now that Whyte & Mackay is owned by Philippines‐ based Emperador Distillers.

BUILDING AWARENESS

In the US, the focus is on distributor E&J Gallo. “We need to build awareness of the story, and we need to build belief and confidence in the brand,” she says. “For the past two years we’ve brought 150 of our US colleagues to Jura in May and June.” At which point it’s job done, like the cynical buyer we met earlier, and the same goes for the 8,000 tourists who visit the distillery each year. “Once there you can’t help but take it to your heart,” says Beeston, who fell under its spell eight years ago while working for Bowmore.

Her issue is simply this: “The further you get away from the island, the more difficult it is to tell that story of ‘made in Scotland by a tiny island community’,” she explains. The solution was to let the locals tell it in their own words in the current Say Hello to Jura campaign. Not every islander features in the 90‐second film that hit cinema screens in May, but an awful lot do – and happily so, given the importance of the distillery that is the island’s biggest single employer. But it’s more than that because somehow those twin stills pumping out whisky is what keeps the whole place ticking over.

Beeston’s job was hampered by the sheer number of Jura malts she inherited. “We had this fragmented portfolio of smoky whiskies and sweet whiskies,” she recalls. “I don’t think we’d ever really told the story of Jura because we were purely focused on unlocking the range.”

Last year, this was trimmed back and relaunched with a new house style that she describes as “sweet, with a whisper of smoke”. Jura now starts with Journey and a 10‐year‐old, leading to 12‐ and 18‐year‐olds, Seven Woods, and now Time and Tide – two 21‐year‐olds for travel retail and domestic markets, respectively.

Jura has been helped yet overshadowed by the great whisky boom on Islay next door, where there may be a dozen distilleries before long. But Jura is starting to forge its own path with a different style of whisky that’s more Highland in character. Those who taste it may one day visit to find an island the size of Inner London with barely enough people to fill a single street, and where the deer outnumber the locals by 35 to one.

Click though the following pages to see a timeline of Jura.

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