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Hail to thee, blithe spirit

Hail to thee, blithe spirit
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First Published: Thu, Nov 11 2010. 07 06 PM IST

Myth maker: The distillery turned 200 earlier this year; and (far left) a bottle of Jura Superstition.
Myth maker: The distillery turned 200 earlier this year; and (far left) a bottle of Jura Superstition.
Updated: Thu, Nov 11 2010. 07 06 PM IST
This is the belief: When someone shakes his guest’s hand after caressing the Ankh on the bottle of Jura Superstition malt whisky and pours a glass, the guest may make a wish—and it will definitely come true,” said Richard Paterson, master blender of Whyte and Mackay in his plush office in Glasgow. I have little faith in such claims, so I laughed nervously. “I assure you, the last person who declared it true won the national lottery,” he said next.
I’ve never won more than £10 (around Rs700) on a lottery ticket so as Paterson held my hand all I could think of was a thistle bloom. Not the thistle seen on Waterford crystal or the one crafted often on pewter, but the beautiful purple blossom held up by a bulb and a thorny stalk. I made my wish and grabbed the whisky poured for a tasting. The Jura liquid was seductive, redolent with a light peaty taste and carrying overtones of the honey and spices of the island I was yet to visit, and I soon forgot my wish.
The next day, after a short flight from Glasgow to Islay and then a 5-minute ferry crossing to Jura, Paterson enquired if we could expect to see a thistle blossom anywhere on the island. “No chance, friend, it’s too early in the season,” was the response. No complaints there, for both Islay and Jura were awash in the bright yellow of gorse.
Myth maker: The distillery turned 200 earlier this year; and (far left) a bottle of Jura Superstition.
The island of Jura, located off the west coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides, has a population of less than 200, and everybody knows everybody else. It is an island ruled by nature, with the distillery sustaining most of its economy. On a facility tour that takes me past enormous active copper stills and hundreds of casks in the dark and damp stockroom, I taste whiskies in various stages of the maturation process, stored in different kinds of wooden barrels for varying numbers of years.
A tour of the island is as gratifying. In the graveyard of the local church, Templar knights are interred alongside more recent residents of the island. In the distance looms the property of a member of the British Parliament, a grand old house that still hosts the lords and ladies of the land in approved Edwardian fashion. The other noteworthy building here is Barnhill, where George Orwell retired in the mid-1940s to write his novel 1984.
In Jura to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the distillery earlier this year, though, my biggest takeaway was a promise. On the island, 180 of us sniffed, inhaled and tasted our way through a dozen casks of whisky before identifying our favourites. Based on our verdicts, Paterson will blend a limited-edition boutique barrel, which will find its way into only 500 bottles. While those of us who contributed to its creation get the first opportunity to buy, the rest will be on sale at the distillery shop—and nowhere else.
And what of my thistle bloom? Well, Paterson did spot one blossom. Disregarding his expensive suit, silk tie and polished shoes, he clambered up a 5ft-high wall and, with his spotless old-fashioned white handkerchief protecting his hand from the thorns, plucked me a perfect blossom—delicate and pretty yet stubborn.
Do I regret not asking for the lottery? Of course not. The dried thistle, and the photograph of the wall atop which it bloomed, take pride of place in my home, even as I look forward to sharing my personal limited-edition bottle with like-minded friends. After all, I think, how long would money last? And that realization is the real charm of the old-fashioned world of Jura.
Getting there
Distillery tours are open only to advance bookings between 1 April and 1 October. Email sue.pettit@whiteandmackay.com to book a tour.
Fly from Glasgow to Islay on British Airways, and take the ferry to Jura. Alternatively, stay at Islay and do a day-trip to Jura.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Nov 11 2010. 07 06 PM IST