An Evening With Jim McEwan at Willow Park Wines & Spirits
26 September 2013
Most times I try to maintain a bit of a ‘professional’ distance from the people or products I’m writing about, but at other times I have to switch tacks and let honesty, personal bias and heart be my guide. Such is the case here in sharing a bit about Willow Park’s recent evening event with Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan.
While there are scores of incredibly interesting public figures in the whisky world, few are as instantly engaging as Jim. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he is in a league of his own as arguably the best whisky speaker out there. His talks are as entertaining and boisterous as the best of live shows and as warm and comfortable as your favorite slippers. A dichotomy that somehow balances beautifully.
I’ve seen Jim speak a couple of times now. I’ve also been privileged enough to spend some time with him on his turf (the distillery itself), and to have interviewed him here on the site. In all of the encounters we’ve shared, he’s never been anything but the quintessential gentleman.
It was for this reason, over any other, that I ended up at Willow Park last Thursday.
In one of my less-than-Mensa moments I managed to seriously mix up my days on when this event was to take place. When a pal of mine emailed asking if I was ‘going to be there tonight’, my response was ‘where?’ After an initial hour or two of resigned melancholy (supposed to be home with the kids, making dinner, etc), I called the wife and told her I wanted to go. Angel that she is, she immediately said ‘go’. One rather sheepish call to Willow Park’s whisky specialist, Dave Michiels, and I’d managed to wriggle my way into a seat for this sold out event. (Thanks again, Dave!)
I somehow managed to bolt out of the office and down to Willow Park early enough to help with some of the last minute set up and to have a bit of a chat with Dave and Jim before things got too crazy.
Now…I’ve attended many, many events at WP, but this one was a doozy. I think attendance was in the neighbourhood of 120-130. For a formal sit-down whisky tasting…this was unbelievable. Pull together 130 folks with their minds set on some good drinks and an evening of entertainment and it’s bound to be a good time.
Early on in the presentation, Jim’s mention of his recent milestone 50 years in the industry brought a rousing cheer from the masses. Let that sink in for a sec. 50 years. 50 f*cking years! First of all…what a great job to have if you’ve gotta do something for half a century. Second…how can you not appreciate that level of dedication and inherent knowledge? Simply unbelievable.
And perhaps a better question might be ‘how can you not love a man who takes the occasional potshot at the Irish’? I think his exact words regarding Ireland were “the land of drunkards and liars. Twenty three miles away…and not far enough.” All in jest, of course, lest anyone get their knickers in a twist. It’s all in delivery, and I gotta say…the man had the room in stitches time and again. (*Note…I only repeat this here in order to mock the afflicted ATW contributor, and resident Irish (dim)wit, Maltmonster)
Mockery aside, Jim was on point tonight. Great presentation. He has a way of combining a wicked and acerbic wit with the utmost in poignancy and melancholic nationalism. There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of insincerity in his professed adoration for all things Islay. Having been there twice now, I can unequivocally say he does well at capturing the essence of what makes Islay magical.
The line-up of malts for this eve was a pure and simple one: Laddie 10, Islay Barley (Dunlossit), Laddie 16, Laddie 22, Cuvee 640 and Port Charlotte 10. It was a simple, yet elegant, flight of drams. In fact, in speaking with a good mate the following morning, I told him how cohesive and well-structured the range was. Each dram segued nicely into the one following, with enough variation to allow each its moment to shine.
It would have made an interesting variation on a theme to include a taste of Bruichladdich’s titanic peat monster, Octomore, as well, but alas…beggars can’t be choosers. It’s arguable as well that such a big gunner – even as the last malt of the evening – may have thrown off the balance of the range. And as I said…it worked a treat as it was.
As we worked our way through the whiskies, Jim filled us in on some of the inspirations and influences responsible for their births. Tales related to terroir…to island sustainability and provenance…to history and inheritance of the past…to the people who helped make it…and of course….to the people who buy it.
It’s neat to see a roomful of Canadians – most of whom have never stepped foot on the peaty bogs of Islay – come out in defense of Scottish pride and island ‘nationalism’ when Jim asks a question such as ‘how do call it a Scotch whisky if it’s not made from Scottish barley?’…or ‘how do call it an Islay malt if it’s matured over on the mainland?’
Hmmmm…discussions for another day.
Much like the last time Jim came to Willow Park, he pulled the crowd to its feet to close out the evening. Perhaps not in the way you’d expect however. Picture a crowd 130 strong…standing on tables…glasses in hand…shouting a battle cry in Gaelic…and downing the last of their whisky in a Highland toast flourish. This is Jim’s exit. And it’s a bloody good one.
I wish I had a picture of all these fine folk holding their glasses high to the man who made the spirit they were drinking, but alas…I was too busy standing on a table, drinking whisky and roaring along with the rest of the unwashed masses. Life is too short to just observe. Sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty.
Incidentally…I ran into a gent I hadn’t seen in a long while at this show. His name is Dan, and he’s a helluva decent guy. We sat next to each other and caught up a little throughout the evening. Great tasting partner too, I might add. This social aspect is why we love whisky so much, no? Well…that’s part of it anyway. I guess the other would be the juice itself. I gotta say…it was a crying shame that the seat next to Dan and I was never claimed. I did my good deed for the eve in liberating a couple of the extra drams, so as not to insult Jim by letting his fine spirit go to waste. See? Irrespective of what my wife says…I’m a pretty decent chap, huh?
Finally…I can’t say enough good things about the fine folk at Select Wine & Spirits and Willow Park Wine & Spirits for putting on an absolutely top notch event. No surprise there. They always come through.
– Words: Curt
– Photos: Curt