Part of the beauty of scotch, other than that it tastes great and makes you much more confident in your opinions, is that it comes with a free lesson on the people and place that produce it. This aspect of the beverage isn’t necessarily limited to scotch, of course. Learning about any spirit is inevitably a crash course in a few other departments — history, geography, culture, some cursory science, maybe even language (see: rum vs. rhum; whiskey vs. whisky). That’s part of the fun. But while American whiskey certainly has a few regional variations, with Scotch, it goes deeper than that. Flavor is tied to region more closely than with just about any other drink but wine.
So it is that if you’ve read the labels of single malt behind the bar you’ll already be familiar with half the names on a map of Scotland. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Oban. The brands and their origin are often synonymous.
I got the chance to go behind the label recently on the Isle of Jura, and for all I saw and learned and drank, perhaps the most telling moment came when I tried to leave.
Jura sits in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, an island shaped like two teardrops stacked vertically, about 142 square miles, dominated by three conical quartzite mountains (still glazed with snow when I saw them) called “The Paps,” yet another example of the ever-popular “mountains named after breasts” phenomenon.
Aside from being famous as the place where George Orwell wrote 1984 — that a guy with tuberculosis chose such a permanently damp and chilly isle as the site of his health retreat seems insane, but I also don’t have pre-clean air act London to compare it to — Jura is the birthplace and current home, naturally enough, of Jura Whisky (no ‘E’, that’s how the Scots spell it. Canadians too. One easy mnemonic I’ve heard is that countries without ‘E’ in the name spell whisky without it).
Anyway, about my departure: I was in a car with Jura’s communication manager and two Scottish photographers, all of us invited to cover a Jura (the scotch) “relaunch,” of sorts, including a takeover of Jura’s (the island) tiny (but charming) pub by a few New York mixologists the night before. Jura had a total of 196 residents as of the last census, and getting there from California took one trans-Atlantic flight to London, an intra-UK connection to Glasgow, a puddle jumper from Glasgow to Islay, and a rustic ferry from Islay to Jura. On the day’s third flight I learned from pre-flight announcement that I’d been saying “Islay” wrong my entire life, and that it’s actually pronounced “EYE-luh.”
Jura’s 196 or so residents are connected by just one road, which we were careening down on our way off the island when the car bounced over a pothole. We soon heard the tell-tale flatulations of a blown tire.
It’s always an adventure when a group of arts majors are forced to change a tire the morning after a pub takeover, but especially so on Jura, which, as previously noted, has only one road. One road that leads to the ferry connecting it to Islay (a comparative metropolis of 3,000 residents). Which is to say, one road, one lane, and one ferry port that, on this particular Sunday, would launch just one ferry. One ferry that we needed to get us to the one flight leaving from Islay to Glasgow that day.
As we struggled with the crappy little jack that we had dug from underneath the floor compartment of the UK-sized Chevy hatchback, another car pulled up behind us. Driving it was a flinty islander named Maggie Boyle (come to think of it, most of the islanders I met were pretty flinty), who was also attempting to catch the noon ferry and was also delayed by the flat, considering the one road to the one ferry to the one plane that day had just one lane, and no shoulder to pull onto, but rather a creek running along one side and an ancient stone wall on the other. (I found a hubcap in the creek, seeming to indicate that ours hadn’t been the only vehicle disabled by this particular pothole.)
Maggie was none too happy with the delay (I didn’t catch her exact words, but they were staccato and grumbly), but we did manage to call ahead to the ferry to tell them to wait, which is apparently something you can do on Jura (provided you have enough cellular reception to make calls — not exactly a given).
(Jura has more deer than people, and its name is believed to have come from the Old Norse “Dyrøy,” meaning deer island.)
Ah, Scotland. There’s a sort of natural dissonance here, between the ancientness of the landscape, the jagged rocks and rugged scrub and decomposing bogs, the landmarks that sound like something out of a medieval text — one of my favorites being “the Whirlpool of Corryvreckan,” at the north end of the island, which sounds like it should be guarded by John Cleese wearing a helmet made of ram’s horns — and the realities of the here and now. Like needing cell phone reception to catch a ferry. I suspect it’s this dissonance that helps produce the Scottish character, or at least the island character, a particular kind of plainspokenness and good-natured fatalism.