Poles apart

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The six weeks leading up to Christmas traditionally account for about a third of all scotch whisky sales. Here, Ben McFarland and Phil Mellows...

The six weeks leading up to Christmas traditionally account for about a third of all scotch whisky sales. Here, Ben McFarland and Phil Mellows examine two brands at opposite ends of the scale.

Isle of Jura

Five thousand deer, 200 humans and a distillery, the Isle of Jura is one of the less accessible destinations on the scotch whisky trail.

There are no flights to Jura and no direct ferry from the mainland. The only way to get there is on a juddering scheduled boat service from Islay. When the ferry is taken out for annual maintenance, its replacement is too small for the lorry that takes Isle of Jura single malt on the first leg of its journey to export markets around the world. So the whisky must wait until the paint is dry.

Such quirks are the stuff that drams are made of, to steal an old Grants slogan. The charm of eccentricity in the era of global markets is part of the international success of single malts - and the Isle of Jura distillery is determined to fuel the mystique.

At Hallowe'en, Kyndal, the management buy-out that acquired the distillery from JBB, launched a new expression of the malt, called Superstition.

The elegant bottle displays, in relief, an ankh, one of those crosses with a loop at the top that hippies used to wear. It looks vaguely Celtic but is in fact an Egyptian hieroglyph symbolising eternal life, an allusion to the root of the word whisky in the Gaelic for "water of life".

According to distillery manager Micky Heads, the name Superstition refers to the superstition that it is unlucky to cut peat before May. An unusually sensible superstition because in April the peat is likely to be too damp to burn - now that would be unlucky.

As well as weaving intriguing stories into the branding of the malt, Kyndal has attempted in Superstition to create a unique liquid - a blend of two sharply different whiskies from the same distillery.

Isle of Jura malts are distinguished by their lightness - in contrast to the pungent whiskies of Islay a five-minute ferry ride away. This is achieved by using a very lightly peated malt, a particular yeast and 25-feet high stills, some of the tallest in Scotland.

Superstition breaks from this by combining a typical aged Jura spirit with a heavy, peat-laden whisky - another story to tell. It is also bottled at 45 per cent ABV to push the flavours through.

"This is not just another malt extension," claimed Chris Conway, Kyndal's international marketing manager. "We want to exploit the enthusiasm for new products in the malt whisky category that, for example, Glenmorangie has taken advantage of with its cask finishes."

While Superstition would certainly look good in a style bar and may attract the curiosity of adventurous drinkers of all stripes as well as malt enthusiasts, its main aim is to enhance the status of Isle of Jura 10-year-old, a fairly common sight on pub back-bars.

It won't be the last innovation from the distillery. Next year will see at least one new expression, possibly linked to the fact that George Orwell used a remote farmhouse on the island as a bolt-hole where he could get a bit of peace to write 1984.

Chris is bullish about the prospects for Isle of Jura. "The global malt whisky has been growing for the past 10 years at the rate of five per cent each year and that is forecast to continue for at least the next five years," he said. "But it is still a fragmented market and that means that smaller brands can get in there. But you have to innovate. Offer people something totally new and they will buy it."

Superstition carries no age statement, relying on its point of difference, as do the Glenmorangie cask finishes. It will be priced about 20 per cent above the 10-year-old.

It is initially targeted at "renowned whisky bars" and will be supported by barstaff training in what makes it original as well as benefiting from advertising for the 10-year-old which kicks off this month.

Chris sees the main market for Superstition, production of which will be limited to 2,000 cases in the first year, to existing malt whisky enthusiasts. But the design of the bottle may have an appeal beyond that.

"The big challenge is to get younger consumers in, like cognac has done recently by linking up with rap stars," Chris said. "Perhaps there's an opportunity here for an Eminem malt!"

Johnnie Walker

One hundred and 20 million bottles sold in 200 countries, a £100m global advertising budget and 27 distilleries, it's safe to say that the Isle of Jura and Johnnie Walker are more than a short, choppy ferry ride apart.

As well as the disparity in scale and sales, Johnnie Walker is a blend and the Isle of Jura is a single malt - although it is a blend which claims to be one with a difference.

More than 40 malts make up each bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and they are sourced from individual distilleries, not dissimilar to the one in Jura, situated all over Scotland. Johnnie Walker Black Label is aged for 12 years which differentiates it from the standard Red Label brand.

There is no single recipe for making Johnnie Walker.

Different single malts have come and gone from the whisky over the years and will, undoubtedly, continue to do so.

Owner Diageo relies on the noses and experience of its blending teams (it's a hard job but someone has to do it) to ensure a high level of consistency.

At Diageo's Brand Technical Centre, situated 40 minutes outside Edinburgh, Dr Jim Beveridge, one of five masters of blending, is charged with the envious task of sniffing more than one hundred drams a week.

A blender will always work using his nose. Tasting is sadly not an option - the spirit is too strong and would deaden the tastebuds even after a few samples. Jim relies on a wide "vocabulary" of smells to recognise the various characteristics in the whiskies.

Not easy when you consider that no single cask of malt is the same as another - even if it originates from the same batch and the same distillery. Jim and his blending team must monitor and classify every spirit from the moment it leaves the still.

He said: "We have got to get it right from day one at the distillery because you don't want to wait 12 years to find out that you've got it completely wrong."

The Johnnie Walker range, which consists of more than half a dozen lines, boasts whiskies from the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Islands and Speyside but there are a number of distilleries and malt whiskies that once featured, that are now not available.

However, with more than two dozen distilleries at his disposable, Jim is well placed to replicate the absent flavour.

Blended whisky still commands the lion's share of the global market with single malts boasting a mere five per cent share. For a long time, malts have been regarded as the aficionado or connoisseur's choice and are generally perceived as the high price end of whisky drinking.

Blends, which first emerged in the 1860s following the invention of the continuous still, are often dismissed by whisky buffs that resent the inclusion of grain whisky.

Jim begs to differ. "There's a misconception that blends are inferior to single malts because you're using cheap grain whisky," he said. "But grain whiskies are extremely important and if they happened to be much more expensive we'd still be using them.

"The grain makes the flavours more accessible and reveals the attributes of malts that you won't get in single malts."

While Johnnie Walker is renowned overseas, in particular in the Far East, the brand has up until now not been at the forefront of Diageo's UK strategy with Bell's taking centre stage.

However, the spirits giant has set its sights on the UK sector with a "Keep Walking" TV advertising campaign featuring act

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