The Diurach

The Diurach

An interview with former Jura distillery manager Willie Cochrane

People | 14 Jul 2017 | Issue 145 | By Christopher Coates

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Willie Cochrane took on his first role at the Isle of Jura Distillery in 1977 and eventually became manager in 2005. After nearly 40 years of service, he retired in late 2016 but not before completing a European tour to promote a special bottling released in his honour. Now that Willie has had a little while to enjoy some well-earned time off, I took the opportunity to catch up with him, ask about his life on Jura and find out how the distillery (and the island) has changed over the years.

How did you end up moving to Jura in the first place?
I first went to Jura to sell an old Ford Cortina Mark 1. Before that, I didn't even know Jura existed. A distant relative of mine was staying on the island and she happened to be at a christening that I was at in Glasgow. She turned up and said to me, "Are you the motor mechanic? I hear you've got an old car for sale?" I told her that was true, I'd been working as a mechanic and I did have a car -- but that it wasn't very good. She turned to me and said, "Oh that's fine, it's for Jura." Well I asked her what Jura had got to do with it and that's how I found out that you don't need an MOT on the island!

During the trip to drop off the car you were offered a job?
Pretty much! I was playing darts in the pub with the locals and the distillery manager came over and said to me, "I hear that you're an engineer and a mechanic and that?" So I told him that was right and he said, "There's no mechanics or engineers around Jura! How do you fancy a job here?" Well, I just looked at him and told him, 'no way!' I was a townie, you see, and being from Glasgow I thought that Jura was in the middle of nowhere. So I went back to the city and about three days later the postman delivered this envelope. It was two tickets for the old Logan Air that would fly out to Islay, for myself and my wife. So I thought, 'fine, free holiday!' We flew into Islay and the distillery manager picked us up and took us on our way through to Jura. Now remember, I had seen Jura but my wife had never seen it. Well, the minute we drove down to the distillery and the view opened up onto the bay she fell in love with it! It took us about two months to pack up from Glasgow and move.

Did it take long to settle in?
It was a culture shock. Coming from Glasgow, you can imagine that the first thing I wanted to do was play football, but there was no football team! So I started one. The other thing that was challenging was that there were a lot of people on the island who didn't like the 'incomers', you know? Most of the people that'd come to work in the distillery when it reopened in 1963 were incomers. But anyway, when I came I quickly changed that - I just went to them and started speaking to them. Of course, nowadays all the old Jura people have passed away and it's their children that are here now and most of them work in the distillery!

How about at the distillery? Did you find your feet quickly?
In those days, there were three men on every shift in the distillery and there was the still man, a mash man and a tun room man, which was the lowest rung. He was the chap that washed the floors and kept the distillery clean - that's what I got started as. But within six weeks I was a mash man and within another six weeks I was a still man.

That's an impressive rise up the ranks! How did you manage that?
It's because when I took the job at Jura I quickly discovered that there was more to the whisky than just turning the levers and all that. I wanted to learn about how the distillation actually worked and especially the maturation - I love maturation! So I got really involved in it, unlike the rest of the guys in the distillery who were just going through the motions because it was a job. I had seen more in the place than that and I think it was my engineering background, you know, that I wanted to know how the stills did their job. Then within about year the engineer retired and I became the engineer, and then within about another two years I became the brewer - and the brewer in a distillery is the under manager! So I just kept working my way up. I never ever asked for any of the jobs. Every time someone left I was just picked! They would say, "Willie, how do you fancy taking on the brewer's job?" or "How do you fancy taking on the engineer's job?" and then ultimately, "How do you fancy being the manager?"

That must've been nice!
Oh yeah, it was nice. But you know - and this is the truth - I never wanted to be manager of a distillery! I was really happy being the assistant manager and the engineer because my heart was always in working with my hands, getting dirty, and crawling underneath the stills… I often say that I think I have loosened and tightened every nut and bolt in Jura Distillery! I don't know how many suits I have ruined in my working life, but I have loved every minute of it.

Have things changed a lot at the distillery over the years?
Well, when I came to Jura there were only two stills and then in 1979 they installed a larger mash tun, huge fermentation vessels, and another two stills. So now Jura distillery has got four stills. From 1980 onwards we were able to get more control over the style of spirit we were making, because the system they put in was what they call a balanced system - it gave us a continuity of spirit. Then in 1999 we did something completely different and made Jura's first peated whisky!

You said you were very interested in maturation. Has the wood policy at Jura changed over the years too?
When I started in the business you made single malt mainly for blended whisky. But the big change came in 1999, when we said to ourselves, "We make a really good spirit, why is our single malt whisky not one of the best sellers?" The reason was that we didn't use the best quality wood that money could buy. So in 1999 the company decided that what we would do is remove 29,500 barrels of whisky from the warehouses at Jura Distillery and re-rack it all into first-fill American White Oak casks. It took us 10 years to do it all! We were doing maybe 100 or, if we were lucky, 150 per week.

That's a big job! Were there particular casks you pulled out first?
Not individual casks, we were taking them out in batches of years. You would start off with one year and re-rack all of them, then move on to the next year and you would just keep doing that until you had finished. Meanwhile, all the new spirit that we were filling was going into the first-fill American White Oak as well. It was a massive task but, to be fair, it was the best decision that we ever made. Within six months of being in those casks, Jura single malt went from being a run of the mill single malt to where you see it now.

Jura Distillery has been bought and sold many times over the years. Have the multiple changes in ownership had a big knock-on effect?
Living in a place like Jura you don't notice a lot of this. In all that time the distillery kept working. I know other distilleries were maybe paying the price - in the 1980s people were working three day weeks! But Jura distillery always kept working through all of that and the guy that owns it now [Dr Andrew Tan, CEO Alliance Global Group] is fantastic! I met him when he was buying the place and the very first thing he said to me was, "You have been here a long time Willie, I like your enthusiasm! I've got the same enthusiasm as you have and don't you worry - Jura distillery is in safe hands, as is the whole of Whyte & Mackay." He really loves the fact that he's got really good whiskies now. So I see a really great future for Jura and I am glad that we have got someone in charge who is a genuine lover of Scotch!

What has been your favourite thing about working in the industry?
The thing I've loved the most is meeting people. Over the years there have been a lot of people who came to Jura and when they arrive at the distillery they would sometimes ask to see the manager. The girls would come in rolling their eyes and say, "There's a guy out there wanting to speak to you." In a lot of places the manager isn't available but I always made myself available! So I would end up spending maybe an hour and a half talking. I think that's why when I went on the European tour [for the One For The Road commemorative release] so many people knew me already, it was kind of surreal! But you see, if people come to Jura Distillery it's a pilgrimage and rightfully I should be getting up off my backside and going to speak to them, because they did well getting here.

The number of visitors must have increased a lot since the 1970s!
This is the God's honest truth - in 1978, I think it was, a chap knocked on the office door, he was a holidaymaker, and he said, "Any chance of looking round the distillery?" Well, I went to the then manager and told him there was a strange man out there wanting to know if he could look around the distillery! Because nobody wanted to go look around distilleries in those days, but after that it all changed. The next year there were maybe two or three people, the year after that there was a dozen. Now we have roughly 5,000 people coming to visit the distillery each year!

Do you have a favourite place to visit on the island?
There are lovely beaches on Jura. There's the Corran Sands, which is just about three miles from my home and, you know, if you get there and see someone else on the beach then you're upset! Most of the time it's like a private beach. That is the place to go on Jura. Of course, if you're young, you should go over the west coast to the rugged side or even go up the Paps, they're beautiful! Jura has got a lot going for it now. When I came here it had absolutely nothing!

Any plans for your retirement?
I will be doing some work for the distillery when I am called upon to do it, but my plan now is to spend more time with my children and my grandchildren on the mainland. Working on an island, that's the kind of thing that you miss. I'm sure you can imagine that it's difficult to work here and get back and forward to see your children. It's easier for us now that we're not working. We've got a caravan down in Ayrshire, so we can go down there and visit the grandkids and bring them to the van. It's good!

Will you keep living on Jura?
Oh yes. My home is on Jura. In fact, I'm going out to cut the grass in about 10 minutes! It hasn't been cut for seven weeks because I haven't been here. At times like this you're glad that there are so many deer on the island because they come over, hop your fence and eat your grass for you! But seriously, I'll be staying on Jura. My heart is in Jura!

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