The term ‘legend’ is one which is bandied around rather too freely these days. There are, however, a few figures who richly deserve that accolade. Jim McEwan is one. After 52 years in whisky, he has announced that he will be retiring. It seems a strange term to see, as “retiring” is hardly the term anyone would ever use to describe Jim. Countless whisky lovers the world over have been educated and entertained with his stories, peppered with the surreal absurdity of Scottish west coast humor, stories which grew longer and more hilarious with each retelling.
His whisky life started on August 1st, 1963 when he was taken on as an apprentice cooper at Bowmore. After working in every other area of the distillery, he ended up as cellar-master, and then trainee blender. In 1986, he was made the distillery’s manager.
It was in this role that I first met him…on the back of an inflatable banana. You see, surreal. It was the start of a cherished friendship. Spending any time with Jim gets you immediately swept up in his enthusiasm and passion for whisky, ideas and schemes pouring from him. Within the space of a few hours he had arranged for me to work night shift for a week at Bowmore, with the days spent driving around the island with him, meeting distillers and the people who made the island the place it is. It as the start of my whisky education, because he drilled into me the lesson that people make whisky.
In time, he became ambassador for Bowmore, but more importantly (and perhaps not always to the delights of his bosses), an ambassador for Islay. He knew that whisky is about community, something which is even more important on an island. It has always been more than just ‘whisky’ or ‘product’ to him.
It was a philosophy which he then applied when he became master distiller at Bruichladdich on its reopening in 2001. Bruichladdich was a chance to put his dreams into place: experimenting with different peating levels, getting barley grown again on Islay, looking at casks, designing a still and making gin, bringing employment to the island.
He may have been the public face of the Laddie, but in conversation he would always deflect the attention to the team. He was having fun, asking questions, creating a new community. He was hard-headed, but he was right. Behind the fun at the tastings was genuine passion for whisky, its history, its flavors, its inextricable links to Islay.
Once, when filming at Bruichladdich, I asked him to tell us about the mill. Now, the thing about filming is the need to be succinct. Jim started to talk. 20 minutes later, in an uninterrupted stream, he had taken us from the history of Bruichladdich, to biodynamics, organic farming, terroir, through the family history of the island’s farmers, then into Celtic mythology and the Vikings. He paused for a second. “Now,” he said. “The mill…” We all fell about laughing. It was the most difficult editing job the team ever had. Eventually they just let it run. It was Jim, after all.
The next generation is ready to take over. Time to nip across the burn to the house next door and his always supportive wife Barbara, his daughters and the grandchildren.
“The distillery is in great shape,” he told me. “I’ve done as much as I can here. We’re making great whisky and the whole team are fantastic: Allan Logan, Adam Hannett, Duncan MacGillivray, the Budgie, John Rennie…there’s 80 folk working here now. It’s a good feeling.
“It’s been a fantastic journey but now it’s time for the family. It’s time to see my grandchildren grow up. I want to see them become wee Ileachs. I realized when they left the last time that I didn’t want there to be another summer when I wouldn’t see them because I was working.”
There is a sense of an era now over, but I hope, like Frank Sinatra, he’ll never fully disappear. We wish him well.
Thanks Jim, it’s been a blast.