Bruichladdich (and Islay): A Tribute (Part 3)

When we had reached the offices on the 2nd floor, we made our way down the corridor and searched for the one which was inhabited by the great man himself, Mr Jim McEwan. It was then that we came across this:

Mr Jim McEwan's nameplate on the door. Simple, yet elegant.
Mr Jim McEwan’s nameplate on the door. Simple, yet elegant.

We looked in the office and there was no one there. But then we heard a familiar voice calling out to us and Jim appeared from down the hall and told us that he’d be with us in a few minutes and to make ourselves comfortable in his office. We took the opportunity to take in as many details as possible in those few minutes and even took a few pictures. While that was rather sneaky of us, I’m pretty sure that Jim wouldn’t mind (that much).

The desk of Mr Jim McEwan.
The desk of Mr Jim McEwan.
The various cask samples on Mr Jim McEwan's desk.
The various cask samples (and some new make spirit) on Mr Jim McEwan’s desk.

Before we could proceed further, the man himself walked into the office and greeted us. As he had not met one of my friends on the boat, he formally introduced himself and invited us to have a seat. He showed us some photos of his family, including his grandchildren, and also told us about his upbringing on Islay. He then proceeded to tell us about his journey over the years in the whisky industry and how he had progressed through the ranks.

Jim also told us about how he had started working at Bowmore distillery at the age of 15 as an apprentice cooper (barrel/cask maker) and how he had trained under the best cooper in the world at that time. He also spoke about his progression as Assistant to the Master Distiller before assuming the mantle himself a few years after. We also asked him about his transition from Bowmore to Bruichladdich and he told us that in late 2000, he was looking at moving on to new challenges and had heard about Mark Reynier’s interest in acquiring Bruichladdich.

He also told us about how Mark approached him to take over as Master Distillery and Distillery Manager, which he found enticing to say the least. In his own words, Jim mentioned that the opportunity to revive one of the “sleeping giants of Islay” was far too good to turn down and that he decided that after 38 years at Bowmore, now was the time to take the next step. And so he progressed to Bruichladdich and set about reviving the distillery to its former glory.

Jim mentioned that he was unhappy with the way distilleries were being run in general and said that he absolutely despised the use of E150a or caramel colouring in whiskies as it detracted from the actual product and by extension was dishonest. He said that there were only a handful of distilleries which refused to use colouring in their whiskies and named three of them: Bruichladdich, Kilchoman and Springbank.

We also asked him about his opinion on the wave of whisky literature that was apparent these days and he bristled when we mentioned the name of a particular author (whose name we will not mention for obvious reasons) whose opinions are taken very seriously by readers. He mentioned that the author in question was not fit to pass judgment on whiskies and that he was not averse to being persuaded to lean one way or another.

All in all, it was an eye-opening, insightful and illuminating discussion and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Jim even showed us the award he had received for the work he had done in designing and operating a whisky distillery in Gunsan, South Korea back in the 1980s. It was then that he remembered that he had promised to share a dram with us. Now bear in mind that when Jim had told us this on the ferry to Islay, we figured that it would be something from the core range or something unconventional from the warehouse.

What happened next is something that my friends and I will hopefully never forget for the rest of our lives. Jim grabbed a bottle from his table and went to get some glasses for us. We had no idea what he had selected, but we were getting rather excited. He then returned with four glasses and poured a good measure of whisky from the bottle into each of the glasses, which he then handed over to us.

The whisky sample.
The whisky sample.

He told us to nose it first, which we did. It was honestly one of the best whiskies I had ever smelt, and it wasn’t even a sherried whisky but one from an ex-bourbon cask. Jim mentioned the nose contained Demerara sugar, creme brulee, wood tannins, old leather and just a hint of mint leaves. I was astounded to be able to discern all those smells, which made me even more excited.

He then held up the bottle from which the whisky came from and shook it. Jim explained that whiskies which were unadulterated with colouring would exhibit their quality through the appearance of the entire spectrum of the rainbow in the bubbles which formed. Sure enough, this particular bottle exhibited just that. He then told us to take a sip and swish it around our mouths for a few seconds before swallowing.

We did just that and the silence which filled the room was deafening. My eyes grew wide at the taste and I realised that much of what I had discerned from the nose had filtered through to the palate. It was one of the best whiskies I had ever nosed, and now tasted. In fact, I believe it is the best I’ve ever nosed and tasted. Jim took our stunned silence as a sign of approval and asked us to guess how old the whisky was. We took a stab and our guesses were between 15-21 years old.

Jim then told us this: “What you have just tried is approximately 50.2% abv, taken from an ex-bourbon cask in one of our warehouses. We used to have three casks but two were sold to private collectors to raise funds for the distillery while it was closed. We have tried to get them back from the collectors but so far we have been unsuccessful. The only cask we have left is only half full because of the Angel’s Share, and it was distilled in 1985.”

The silence that followed was even more deafening than the previous one. We had just been presented with a whisky sample from a 30 year old cask (although it was technically 29 years old as the sample was drawn from the cask in July 2014). Jim then proceeded to say that the distillery was unsure if they were intending to release it as an official bottling or something from the Micro-Provenance range.

The sample bottle.
The sample bottle.
The whisky sample and the bottle it came from.
The whisky sample and the bottle it came from.

We were still trying to process the fact that we had just tried a 30 year old whisky right from the cask and were still speechless. But eventually we regained the ability to speak and thanked him profusely for allowing us to partake in this amazing experience. He told us it was nothing and said that it was a proper welcome to Islay.

He then ushered us to the room next to his office, which contained cupboard filled with whisky samples. It was there that we met another distillery employee, who proceeded to give us a 500ml bottle filled with a 10 year old vatting of Port Charlotte, free of charge. How amazing is that?!

We then asked Jim if we could take a group photo with him, and he happily obliged. If anything, we knew that Bruichladdich had just set the benchmark for distillery tours. And you know what was the best part? That was only the beginning of what turned out to be an epic day.

Our group picture with Mr Jim McEwan in the Bruichladdich
Our group picture with Mr Jim McEwan in the Bruichladdich “laboratory”.

Part 4:

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