The opening weekend of the Islay Festival isn’t normally a time for sadness, but yesterday saw the end of an era: Jim McEwan hosted his final warehouse tasting at Bruichladdich. While we don’t expect Jim to disappear when he retires in July, it was his final tasting while still the distillery’s production director. However, he treated the occasion as he always does: as a time for celebration. Whisky was drunk, toasts were toasted and the crowd helped give him a roaring send-off. It’s all a long way from where he started his whisky journey, back in 1964.
Islay-born, at 15 years of age he was ‘just a skinny little guy’ and was taken on as an apprentice cooper at Bowmore. ‘I wanted to be one of those tough guys, and smoke a pipe and drink whisky,’ he told me at a recent tasting at The Whisky Exchange Shop. ‘I never smoked a pipe, but I acquired a taste for whisky.’ In those days there were more than 800 coopers in Scotland, and it was a lucrative business, ‘paid by result’, with apprentices doing the hard jobs that helped the journeymen make their bonuses.
Jim graduated to being a journeyman and later became cellar master at Bowmore, taking over from his mentor, David Bell – the oldest working cooper in Scotland, who retired aged 70 years old. ‘I’ll never forget the day,’ Jim recalled. ‘He came up to me with the keys in his pocket for all the warehouses, [put them in my hand] and said, “It’s your turn now, Jim.”‘
At 28 he moved to Glasgow to train as a blender for Morrison Bowmore, whose business was booming. He nosed up to a 1,000 casks a week, helping to build blended whiskies designed by the master blenders to be shipped around the world. He worked his way up to chief blender at Morrison Bowmore, but after eight years on the mainland he got the opportunity to return home.
‘I got the call to go back to Bowmore and take over as distillery manager. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. A boy from Bowmore, who started work with a hole in his trousers; a skinny little runt who’s returned home. I said yes immediately.’
Japanese drinks giant Suntory had just taken over, and with McEwan at the helm they invested heavily, creating the Bowmore we know today. Along with refurbishing the distillery, they made sure that they spent wisely on Jim’s passion: casks. ‘[Suntory] were very generous about buying casks. No holds barred. If you wanted sherry butts, you got sherry butts; if you wanted port pipes, you got port pipes.’
However, Jim was not to stay on the island, and became a roving ambassador for Bowmore. He travelled the world, teaching drinkers about whisky and ‘bringing Islay malt to people who had no idea what Islay malt was’. However, things were happening on the opposite side of Loch Indaal to Bowmore, and the next step of Jim McEwan’s career called.
‘At this stage I’d been 38 years at Bowmore and I loved working for Suntory, but it was a killer on the road. So I got this phone call from Gordon [Wright, of independent bottler Murray McDavid], and he said, “There’s some of us getting together and we’re going to buy Bruichladdich. Would you be interested?” Immediately my heart said yes.’
The purchase went through, and the revitalisation of Bruichladdich begun. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, as Jim recalls: ‘I remember walking through the gates on 6 January 2001. I couldn’t believe it: it was a bombsite. Derelict. Ghosts everywhere.’ However, the local community were behind them, and work began. Within a few months the distillery was on its way to being restored.
‘There was something about the guys, their attitude and their passion that said ‘you can move a mountain’. And we did. On 26 May that year, at 7.29 in the morning the first new spirit ran down the line. The rest of the distillery was a state, but we were making whisky again.’
One thing that makes Bruichladdich stand out from almost all other distilleries on Islay, is the lack of peat in their whisky. With six out of the island’s eight distillers producing heavily peated spirit, they picked up criticism for being against the regional style, which Jim wasn’t standing for: ‘I was tired of people saying that Bruichladdich wasn’t a true Islay as it wasn’t peated. From 1881 to 1960 it was peated. I resurrected a peated malt and called it Port Charlotte to stop those people. Then I decided to make Octomore to shut everyone up for ever.’
Jim McEwan retires on 23 July 2015, exactly 52 years since he started as a cooper’s apprentice. With their whisky range in place and new owners Rémy Martin allowing Bruichladdich to be ‘unafraid of the bankers’, as Jim puts it, they are stronger than ever and ready to start a McEwan-less existence. That said, we doubt they’ll get rid of him completely – he does live next door.