Welcome to the second instalment of our Bruichladdich adventure. In this article we interview Jim McEwan, Master Distiller at Bruichladdich and hear his views and stories from an amazing 52 years in the whisky business.
We’ve met Jim before on a few occasions, but it was just a passing hello as we went to his masterclass, or a quick few words as he signed my Feis Ile bottle. Today though was like going into the headmasters office, but in a good way. Mary showed us up the stairs and into the room and we were warmly greeted by Jim who to his credit recognised us from our previous encounters. His office was neat and tidy, with quotes on the walls depicting his philosophy [Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about the things that matter – Martin Luther King Jr] and bottles of new and unique Octomore samples on his desk. The office overlooks the front of the distally, over Loch Indaal and we could certainly see the weather on this blustery August morning. Jim had very kindly agreed to spend some time with us so without further ado we present a conversation with the Master Distiller.
Jim took up the review of Bruichladdich Day 2014: The Feis Ile was fabulous this year, the music was great and the courtyard was full. We also had an Old Creations bar selling off old whiskies from Celtic Heartlands and Murray McDavid. This years Feis Ile release was Octomore 1695 Discovery, a quadruple distilled Octomore. The festival was all based around discovery and I read that in 1695 a person called Martin Martin visited the Western Isles (probably Lewis or Harris) and he records in his journal how he came across a group of Holy Men who were distilling full time. They called their spirit ‘the perilous whisky’ and for 1695 had the best marketing trick ever. They said that if you had one spoonful you would live forever, if you had two you would instantly go blind, while three would cause you to drop down dead immediately. Therefore people travelled from all over just to try and sample a spoonful of this spirit.
Jim had the idea 7 years ago to quadruple distill Octomore. This is the first time it has been done since 1695. He noted that it was a courageous thing to do as the highest strength you can achieve in a pot still before it ‘blows up’ is 89.4%. The first three distillations passed without incident and then they started the fourth. The hydrometer was rising. It hit 85% and carried on rising. Jim comments that they ‘touched the void’ as they briefly hit 89.4%! In 1695 they must have dried the barley with peat so the spirit was probably heavily peated – at least initially anyway. Therefore by using Octomore barley this will be the closest thing to that whisky created all those years ago. He was pleased that the consumer ‘got it’ and understood the creation. The final result wasn’t a heavily peated Octomore as the peating levels reduce in each distillation, but what remains was a beautiful and tender spirit. Octomore Discovery retailed at £150 and sold out. A real shame as I think I’d have bought a bottle.
Jim commented that ‘Bruichladdich are still doing the crazy stuff’ but that the Remy takeover has been good. The Remy ethos is quality, quality and quality which matches Bruichladdich’s personality completely. Remy bought Bruichladdich as they like the ‘authentic old style production, not to change it’. The takeover has also seen a big cash injection to the distillery which is now allowing Jim to purchase the best casks around. He commented that this is important as ‘the spirit is the child, and the cask the mother. A good mother gives the child the best chance of becoming a good adult.’ Jim added that a good casks shapes the spirit well with 50-60% of the flavour coming from the cask.
Since the Remy takeover Bruichladdich are now in full production producing around 1.5 million litres of alcohol annually. Under the previous regime they managed 750,000 litres, about half of the current amount, but still up from 150,000 in 2001 shortly after reopening. Bruichladdich now operates 24 hours a day, 5.5 days a week; you can’t push the old Victorian equipment too much, Jim noted, ‘copper is sacrificial’ in its nature – there is only so much you can do before it collapses in on itself. Bruichladdich’s output may not match some of the other distilleries on Islay but it is important to note that 100% of the spirit is destined for single malt. None of it goes to blends.
The Remy takeover has also meant more local jobs for the community. The site now has about 50 staff working there which is fantastic news for a small community.
A final comment from Jim on Remy was particulary exciting. Remy are dedicated to building Port Charlotte distillery and it could happen in about 5 years time. The plans are completed and the construction would see Port Charlotte and Octomore production move to the new site with Bruichladdich remaining where it is. Expected capacity would be around 500,000 litres per year. The stills that would be used would be the old Inverleven wash and spirit still that Jim bought a while ago.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
It is a story that we have heard before but there is nothing better than hearing it in person from the man himself. Inverleven distillery was being demolished and Jim got wind of this through an old friend. He travelled down to the distillery and essentially bought the equipment for a song. All of the kit, stills and mashtun were loaded onto two ex-naval barges and sailed down the Clyde (importantly past UK and US nuclear submarine stations) and out to Islay. Due to the location of the submarines and their nuclear capability, the area was under constant satellite surveillance from the Americans who watched the barges sail all the way to Loch Indaal and their subsequent unloading at the distillery. A week after unloading Jim’s PA received a call from the US Defence Agency in Washington asking why webcam three wasn’t working and when it would be fixed? Innocently she replied ‘that a bulb had probably gone and it would be up and running in a week or so.’ She followed up with asking pricelessly ‘are you a single malt fan?’ ‘No’ was the response, ‘I’m from the US Defence Agency and with a few tweaks we think you have the capability to make weapons of mass destruction!‘ This was brilliant for the distillery and word was put out on every wire that ‘Bruichladdich could make weapons of mass destruction.’ They couldn’t have paid for better advertising!
Making the gin was a great leap of faith. In part it was borne out of a way of making some money quickly but that didn’t stop Bruichladdich doing it right. They had obtained an old lomond still from Inverleven and they reconfigured the internal workings to make it work for them. The gin they produce contains 32 botanicals, of which 22 come from Islay. They have two professional botanists working for them (living just outside Port Ellen) who work by picking the tips of plants so that it is produced in a sustainable manner.
Warehouses, Terroir and Experiments
Bruichladdich are expanding. They are part way through a cycle that will see them building a new warehouse on Islay every year for ten years. In Jim’s words ‘we don’t want it maturing by the side of the M8 in Glasgow.’ Pressed further, he continued that ‘we totally believe in terroir.’ And as if they needed to prove this they are currently undertaking an exceptionally exciting experiment. They have divided Scotland into regions, for example Invernessshire, Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Islay etc, and have sown 80 tonnes of the same specification barley in each region. They have now started distilling the barley, after Bairds in Inverness malted it for them, and ‘the difference in new spirit is remarkable.’ Jim commented that you would expect a difference in the Islay sown barley as the land is laden with salt and the barley needs long roots to surive. Add to this the rain (again salt heavy) forces the barley to be strong, producing a robust husk and plant giving the resulting spirit a more malty flavour. Contrastingly the spirit from Invernessshire is a lot fruitier. The spirit will be going into fresh bourbon barrels in the same warehouse as the experiment continues. They will then track and continue each year. It’s about being authentic said Jim, and that is why for one they will never use artificial colouring.
In Jim’s words ‘this has to stop.’ Marketing departments are focusing on telling outrageous stories about whisky – ‘you can hear the piper playing a lament in the Northern Glens and an eagle calling from the East’ – that’s some drink!! The spirit should be selling the whisky, and not the story. Jim, and we’re with him here, would like the abolition of caramel colouring from the industry. He comments that it is allowing ‘sub-standard casks to be used again and again.’ Asked if he thought education was the answer, Jim was firm in his belief that it needs government intervention to change the situation. He added that caramel colouring, which is made from sugar, is a big taste inhibitor – by adding the caramel you are mixing alcohol and sugar which isn’t good; you distill to remove the sugar from the spirit!
We loved our conversation with Jim, and not just because it was about whisky. Jim is a great orator and we could spend hours just listening to him. He is no more passionate than when talking about people and places he loves and has loved and one such story really touched us. We won’t retell it all here, but just mention a snippet of it.
Jim recalled a gentleman who had the honour of being Cooper No. 1 in Scotland (at a time when coopers were plentiful – Jim was Cooper No. 800 when he started). He had grown up in Aberfoyle and was part of a generation that served in two world wars. This particular person was unfortunately a prisoner of war in both of them as part of the Glasgow Light Highland Infantry. Describing it as ‘a living hell’ he survived both experiences and became a cooper. He was a mentor to Jim throughout his life, until his death at the age of 95. Jim calls him a philosopher and describes how he said ‘One thing is for certain, you don’t choose your way into life, and you don’t choose your way out. It’s the bit in the middle you choose, so choose well.’
It was an honour to spend time with Jim in his office talking about his 52 years in the industry, and our time together wasn’t over. Jim took us to his tasting room where we tried a 2008 Octomore that had been matured in Virgin Oak casks and sampled at 69.5%. It was incredible, and the colour it had taken from the wood remarkable – a further nail in the coffin of caramel colouring. He then escorted up to warehouse 12 – the scene of his annual Feis Ile masterclass and it would be fair to say took us on a warehouse tour like no other. How often do you have the privilege of a warehouse with Jim McEwan? Islay is made of these memories, and Bruichladdich will forever be at the heart of them. We’re already looking forward to going back to the distillery in May and reacquainting ourselves with Jim and his team but for now we say thank you to Bruichladdich – it was epic. Slainte.
Check back soon for the final part of our Bruichladdich trilogy where we speak to ‘the future of the distillery’ and chat over coffee and biscuits with Allan and Adam. You won’t want to miss it.