This past September I spent a week touring the eight working distilleries on Islay. Amid all of the phenomenal experiences, one shone above all others…My time at Bruichladdich. The team at Bruichladdich have always prided themselves on doing things their own way, and apparently a hearty welcome was just another example of the Bruichladdich mandate. I’ll spare you the details here, but if you care to hear a little more about the gang at Bruichladdich check out the following: http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?page_id=236.
Unfortunately as I was touring Islay Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s Master Distiller, was in Toronto. In lieu of the conversation were unable to have at the distillery, Jim happily agreed to answer a few questions for the faithful here at ATW.
Without further ado…
Jim, can you tell us a little about your history in the whisky industry?
I Started at the age of 15 as an apprentice Cooper at Bowmore and stayed with Bowmore for 38 years, during which time I learned about Malting, Mashing, Distilling, Warehouse keeping, Blending, Marketing, Educating all sorts of people around the globe about Bowmore and other whiskies of course.
I lived in Glasgow during my Blending days and also during my time as the Bowmore Global Ambassador.
I left Bowmore in Dec 2000 and started in Bruichladdich on the 6th Jan 2001.
What does a typical day at Bruichladdich entail for you?
A typical day starts at 7.00 am with a cup of coffee and sort out my E-mails in order of importance and make a start on them.
7-30 am Duncan and Allan arrive, and it’s a half hour of ‘whats happening throughout the day’ type discussion, what visitors are expected etc etc.
8.00 am – 10.00 am Try and finish E-mails, which as you know is not without its delays, due to travel commitments or just way to busy preparing whisky for the bottling hall.
10-00 am – 12-30 pm Warehouses to carry out Quality checks on casks or select casks for bottling
1.00 pm- 5-30 pm A mix of meeting with visitors from our distributors or single malt fans who simply want to say ‘Hi’.
Check on the Mashing and Distillation with the guys.
Look after VIP groups and carry out tastings with them, plus find some more time to respond to the hundreds of mails I receive with questions on whisky…and I do try to reply. Check with the bottling hall on what their requirements are for the next few days and check on the spirit that has been bottled that day.
5-30 pm Chat with the operators on duty before going home for a well earned dram.
What role do you play, both artistically and technically (though at Bruichladdich these may be indistinguishable), in the creation of the Bruichladdich expressions?
My role is ensuring that the whisky we make is as good as it can be, that the whisky we sell is constantly as good as it can be.
I design new styles of Single Malts that I hope will enhance the Brand and bring exciting flavours to new and old customers. I also assist a little in the marketing of said products with ideas and concepts.
Are the more unique Bruichladdich expressions (such as Octomore, X4, PC5-8, etc) generally driven by an inspiration to smash boundaries or simply because you believe that they will be exceptional?
There will always be new and exciting products from us that’s the way we like it and so does the more educated consumer who wants quality and choice, that’s what we deliver. Why? Because we can, we will continue to break down barriers plus we will always produce a high quality product and when the consumer talks we listen and take on board their comments.
In your opinion which characteristic of Bruichladdich most distinguishes it, not only from the other Islay malts, but Scotch whisky in general?
Being an unpeated Islay kind of sets Bruichladdich apart anyway, and the beautiful fruity sweet malt flavours which meld superbly with the oak make it an very easy and enjoyable spirit for the consumer to appreciate. All the goodness and skill taken in making it is very evident due to the quality of the Barley, the Casks and slow distillation plus the 100% maturation in the cellars by the sea make it truly unique, as most other distillers mature their stocks in central Scotland.
Plus the fact that is produced with Victorian equipment in the time honoured way. Bruichladdich is elegant, sophisticated, free from all additives and made by artisinal skills passed down the line since 1881.
What factor of production would you suggest most directly influences and determines this character?
The speed of distillation and the cask quality.
Can you share a unique piece of Bruichladdich history that most of us wouldn’t know?
History WILL be made on 29th May at 8.26am 2011, that is when we will be 10 years old, it’s been a long haul but we are almost there. Praise the lord.
Having been an integral part of the Bruichladdich renaissance, can you share some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome in bringing it to where it is today?
The biggest problem was getting the distillery back into shape. We have done well on a tight budget and carried most of the refurb work ourselves plus we still made whisky throughout the renovations. There are many things still to be done and they will be done in time as we have shown with the building of a bottling hall, the changes made in the Stillhouse, the construction of a new warehouse and another about to be started in Jan 2011. The team have been totally amazing, never a quibble or a complaint, and now we employ 50 people, which makes us the biggest employer on the Island outwith the Government who employ 62% of Scotland.
Are there any updates you can give us regarding the status of the Port Charlotte Distillery?
Port Charlotte is on the back burner due to the fact that we have to build new warehouses as I mentioned.
Can you share any insight as to the inter-relationships between the Islay distilleries? Is there a high level of support and cooperation on the island?
The relationship between all the distilleries is and always has been first class, this will continue forever its an Islay thing and at the moment all distilleries are managed by local lads who have know each other all their lives. It’s never been any other way.
What is your favorite expression in the current Bruichladdich range?
At the moment I am in love with Black Art 2. It’s absolute magic.
When not drinking Bruichladdich, what would your drink of choice be?
I love MORTLACH. It’s my no. 1 Speyside, TALISKER is another, as is BOWMORE, given that I helped to make a fair drop.
Is there one gem of a cask sitting in the warehouse you are itching to either bottle or drink yourself?
I have two casks of 1990 which I transferred into Chateau Y-Quem four years ago from Bourbon Barrels and it’s totally wicked. No whisky should be this easy but it is and I love it. No, its not for sale.
Can you give a hint as to what may be on the horizon for future Bruichladdich expressions?
Future Bruichladdich expressions? Well today we started selling our own Gin made here in an old Lomond Still which I call UGLY BETTY. It’s beautiful, very fresh and with the flavours of 22 Islay botanicals it’s dangerously drinkable. It’s on our Web shop list so give it a try…you will not be disappointed.
Of course there will be unique bottlings like a 25 year old Oloroso bottling or Port Charlotte from a PX Sherry, lots of options it could be X4 in Château La Tour, watch this space.
What can one expect if visiting Bruichladdich?
A warm welcome and a good dram .
What would you pour someone about to taste their first Bruichladdich?
Bruichladdich Classic would be my introduction malt to anyone trying Brookie for the first time. It’s a mix of pre-Jim and post-Jim and it reflects all that is good about this distillery and all who work in it.
Warm thanks and sincere appreciation for your time, Jim. Hopefully next time we’ll be able to share a dram.
In the meantime, readers…keep checking back in the coming days. Part 2 of the Bruichladdich interview will be with Mark Reynier.