Interview with Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich Master Distiller

Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich Master Distiller visited Sydney in September 2014 on his Australian tour and hosted a series of tastings and masterclasses around the country. If you ever had the chance to meet the legend, or to hear him speak, you would know that he has the gift of story telling, of taking you beyond the amber spirit in the glass and into the heart of the people of Islay.

Gourmantic was privy to a private and an intimate tasting of the Bruichladdich range which included the mysterious Bruichladdich Black Art and culminated in the Octomore 6.1, the most heavily peated whisky in the world. But this article is not about whisky tasting notes or relating the excitement and fanfare that made up part of the #JimDownUnder2014 tour. Nor is it about Jim’s reaction when I told him the Octomore 6.1 gave me a “mouthgasm”. Though it is worth a mention. After the tasting, I had the opportunity of a one-on-one interview in which he spoke of terroir, his proudest moment in 52 years in the whisky industry and the future of Octomore.

Bruichladdich Masterclass with Jim McEwan
Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich Master Distiller 

Corinne Mossati: To a newcomer to single malts, how would you define the style of Bruichladdich?

Jim McEwan: For someone coming to the category for the first time, I would say that Bruichladdich Classic is a perfect place to start. Because it’s non peated and because it is so pure and natural, you want to start as you would want to continue. You want to do something that has integrity and a good history behind it. We don’t use artificial colouring, we don’t use chill filtration, we use the best casks that we can possibly buy.

It is a very easy spirit to drink. It takes on the oak beautifully and all the fruit from distillation. It is really a fresh Hebridean style whisky that the sea has a big influence on because terroir really matters. The barley is grown in salty soil and stuff like that. It has a delicious sweetness to it almost like barley sugar. It has lots and lots of fruit in there and it is a perfect place to start and remain with. I am not saying it’s a starter’s whisky but it is a great whisky to get into the category with and stay with it.

Bruichladdich Masterclass with Jim McEwan

What are the characteristics of Bruichladdich that distinguish it the most from other Islay malts?

The fact that it is not peated. The rest of the island and Islay malts are all peated. While at Bruichladdich, we do a peated malt as you know with Port Charlotte, Bruichladdich is totally unpeated and it shows a gentler side of Islay.

Bruichladdich Masterclass with Jim McEwan

And the trickle distillation method, would you say that it is unique to Bruichladdich?

I can’t comment on anybody else. But we’re not doing it because we are not in a rush. Our equipment is so old and we’re running a pot still that was built in 1881. We have to distill slowly but the real beauty of slow distillation is the purification of the alcohol, so we are distilling slowly for that reason and that reason only. The slower you distill, the more pure your spirit is. There are no off notes coming through at all. And because we do not sell to whisky blenders, we can afford to take our time and that is the whole secret of Bruichladdich.

Bruichladdich Masterclass with Jim McEwan
Demonstrating the band of gold when adding water to non-chill filtered whisky

How important is terroir to whisky? 

It is in the interest of companies to take on the terroir. We really believe that the soil in Islay is different, that the atmosphere in Islay is different it. It is very important to mature our casks beside the ocean because there is salty moisture falling on the casks which absorb it year after year. After storms come through, there is a lot of salt around.

The barley is growing in salt and that whole island environment. We have only been with the distillery since 2001 but already I can tell you I notice a difference in the whisky that has been made with us. We believe in the terroir, the casks, the whole thing, no artificial colouring to hide anything and we believe in the Islayness of it shining through.

We buy the best casks that money can buy and we spend a fortune on casks because the spirit is the child and the cask is the mother. If you have a beautiful child that goes to a wonderful mother, the result is a given that you are going to have a beautiful young spirit in 15 or something like that. So it’s that combination of slow distillation, the terroir, the maturation on the island, the inference of the sea, the inference of the local farmers growing the barley. And the people, because we are making it by hand. These guys are working through the night and there is no management there. We are going 24 hours a day quietly as the storms blow on those quite nights making whisky gently.

Bruichladdich is not a drink, it’s the blood of an island. I’m telling the story of my life in this whisky.

Bruichladdich Masterclass with Jim McEwan

Earlier you said that your proudest moment in 52 years was the story when Bruichladdich was born?

When the spirit wasn’t clearing, I was really feeling like dying. You know something is not going right and you get afraid. I went to wash my face and asked for a miracle and when I came back, it was clear. It was such a joy and sheer relief as much as anything, that this distillery could still do it. Just looking round the men and the atmosphere was so emotional. It was not just me but the men. They had been there 3 times and let go. Could it work again? It did. It was the best moment in 52 years. Nobody spoke. And they walked away because they couldn’t speak. It was phenomenal. Bruichladdich was born.

How do you feel about the movement towards no age statements in whisky?

I think it’s inevitable. Because of the fantastic success of the sale of older whiskies, the stocks are not there. In our case, we have some older stock which we bought when we bought the distillery but we’re a young company, so our oldest whisky now would be 12 years old as we are 12 years old.

There has been such a huge demand from the consumer particularly duty free where you find these 30 yo and 20 yo. What you must understand if the whisky is 30 yo, the barrel has lost 60% of its content. So where you started with a barrel that once held 300 bottles, it now holds 150 bottles. The longer you age, the less you get and older whiskies are being sold in abundance in the last couple of decades and the stocks are just not there.

If you look at the history of Scotch whisky and single malt in particular, it’s been patchy. In the 1980s, 31 distilleries closed in one night and they were closed for years. So there was this gap. Bruichladdich was closed for 12 years. Also as blends have become more successful, which is the main point, blends are flying out. What does a blender need, he needs single malt and he needs it young. So if you are taking it for the blend at 5 yo or 8 yo or 12 yo, you are not going to have it for a single malt because you have already banged it into a blend. And that is the main reason for non-age, so much of the older stock has gone into blended whisky or used far too early for blended whisky. The success of blends – and there are so many blends out there – is just incredible. And a lot of the blends have quite a high malt percentage, the good ones have 40%. So, you can’t sell your child and watch it grow up.

Bruichladdich Masterclass with Jim McEwan

In Octomore 6.1, you have created the most heavily peated whisky in the world and it’s sensational. Where does one go from there?

We have an Octomore coming out next year and it’s going to be over 300ppm. We didn’t ask for 300ppm, it just happened. A particular peat with particular moisture, the wind was blowing strong, the pagoda was really sucking the peat through and there you go, you’ve got 300ppm with the same peating regime, just different weather conditions.

The next Octomore coming out this year is 265ppm. Again we didn’t ask for it. The guy is just shovelling on peat, he is not measuring the peat or weighing every kilo. He is just throwing it on, the wind hammering its gale force 10, the peat’s quite dry, the smoke is pouring out and that’s it. So we have one coming out that is 265 and we have one at 300 but we do not ask the guy to do it, it just happens that way.

So it’s the right conditions that drive the level of peat?    

We give you what the peat gives us. We are doing a bit of work on some beautiful French virgin oak. Because it’s virgin oak it’s never had wine or spirit in it. It is just stunning. We’re always looking for new ways, trying things out. They don’t always succeed but you never know. It’s like distilling four times. This year I sold the Octomore quadruple distilled. Most of the peat had gone because every time you distil you lose peat but it created a flavour that nobody had ever experienced before.

The last time we had quadruple distilled was in 1695 in a small still like a dust bin on the island of Lewis by holy men. It was called the Perilous Whisky. One spoonful you live forever, two you go blind and three you die. I read the book I said, shit I gotta make that. We got it and we called it Discovery because you are tasting something that mankind has not tasted since 1695.

So you can do a lot of stuff with Octomore, it is a very versatile spirit. You add water to it and it ignites. That is the secret of Octomore. You don’t get the nose as soon as you add water because of the viscosity. You need the water to go in first. If you ever watch a bomb detonating, the bomb drops, you get the initial explosion then you get the mushroom, you add the water, it goes boom.

Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich Master Distiller

With our sincere thanks to Jim McEwan for his time.

Photography © by Kevin Burke for Gourmantic – Copyright: All rights reserved.


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About the author

Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is the Founder/Editor of popular online magazine Gourmantic and Cocktails & Bars, a website dedicated to cocktail culture and the discerning drinker. She is named in Australian Bartender Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential List since 2013, is a member of The Academy responsible for judging the World’s 50 Best Bars. She has also judged the inaugural Australasian Whisky Awards and various national cocktail competitions.