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The Whiskey Network Interview
The Whiskey Network is honored to bring you an intimate portrait of Jim McEwan. Our staff worked very closely with the crew at the “Water of Life: A Whisky Film” to make this possible. In May of 2021, Jim officially stepped away from public life, and gave us the privilege of having the final word on his life in whisky. Few people have impacted the island of Islay and the business of single malt whisky in such a profound manner as Jim McEwan. On top of that, he’s touched the lives of so many around the world as an ambassador of Islay whisky. Of course, there is his zesty delivery of the unique Highland Toast of which he is renowned.
Join us as we collectively wish him well into his next adventure as a private individual and thank him for everything that he has given to others. In his own words, he eloquently takes us through his whisky journey.
Destiny on the Winds of Islay
It begins on Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The wind on the island, as it is most prone to do, blows west through Bowmore, across the loch over Bruichladdich, and then out into the wild North Atlantic Ocean, destined for parts unknown. If the conditions are exactly right, this wind blows through the Bowmore Distillery malt room and carries the magical scent of malt onto parts of School Street.
Like the call of a siren, a particular young boy heard destiny calling on the wind. His name was Jim McEwan, and his destiny was bigger than he could have ever imagined in that moment.
The beginning of the story is magical, and it’s also critical component to understand the journey as a whole.
Jim McEwan (JM) - Because I was born on a whisky island, I became aware of it at a very young age. On my way to school (on School St.), I would leave my home on Main St., walk across the park, and arrive at the school. In doing so, I had to go past the distillery. Adjacent to the sidewalk were the windows of the malt barns -- they were always open, but covered with wire netting to stop birds flying in. I would stand at one of the windows and watch the men tumbling the malt. That's when I got my first olfactory flavor of whisky because as they were turning the malt; the smell was pleasing and sweet. After they’d gone a third of the way down the floor, they would stop for a break. They would cut the tobacco by hand, light their pipes, and have a dram of white whisky (at about 69% ABV). It was this magical thing: the sweat, green malt, whisky on the breath, and the pipe smoke.
There's this aroma coming through the wire, and I am thinking to myself, “Oh my goodness… I really want to become one of these guys. I want to smoke a pipe, drink whisky and all that stuff.” When I was older, I would skive off school on Monday and Wednesday because that's when they were taking the malted barley from the floor up to the kiln to be dried. I would sweep the floor and the newer guys were quite happy to see me. They never questioned why I wasn't going to school because they were quite happy that this wee bugger was doing some work for them.
I got caught quite a few times. When I went home after school time, my mother could smell the alcohol, the tobacco smoke, and the green malt off me. She would ask me, “Did you go to school today Jim?” I’d say, “Yeah, I went to school today, Mum.” She’d catch me by the ear and could immediately smell the whisky. I would be sent off to bed with no supper for telling lies. Also, she would warn me, “…and if you continue going to the distillery, I'm going to put you into an orphanage.” I said, “That sounds good.” It never stopped me.
Like all the island villages, I think that the distilleries were a playground for the kids. Because it was a small village, I was able to get to know the guys knew. If you stepped out of line, somebody else’s mum will give you a smack in the bottom. It's that kind of community. You didn't have one mother, you had about a dozen mothers looking after you.
From an early age, I was lured in by the aromatics coming out of the distillery. It was dragging me in. Whisky was a part of life rather than a treat. It was just something that was woven very closely into our existence without a second thought.
The Master Cooper and a Penny in Your Pocket
At the age of 15, he began his apprenticeship as a cooper at the Bowmore Distillery. It was a moment that almost never was, due to a technicality in the rules of the Coopers Union. The winds of destiny blew on the island once again and set things on the right path.
Studying under David Bell, Jim was able to achieve his childhood dream of being a cooper. Things would take a dramatic turn some years later when he came to oversee the Bowmore warehouses. In a very profound moment, his mentor passed away and left Jim an unforgettable gift. The weight of the moment is still with Jim to this day. Jim had become the master. He also began to realize how his destiny was deeply tied to Islay and whisky.
JM - When I left school at the age of 15, my ambition was to get a job in a distillery, obviously, but I wanted something more than that. I wanted to become a Cooper. Coopering is one of the oldest crafts in the world; the first cask was created by Egyptians. They built pyramids, so designing a cask was not too difficult. They were able to make great sea voyages because they had the barrels for water and all that.
I would stop at the distillery, and I would hang about the cooperage. It was also an olfactory experience; the guys building the casks, smoking pipes, and drinking whisky. Along with that was the smell of the toasting oak… I was having this olfactory orgasm as I was sweeping the floor. They would give me old bits of wood that they had cut off broken staves and I would take them home.
I really wanted to wear the apron of a cooper because it was a badge of honor. All my early days were focused on becoming a cooper. In those days, the Cooper's Union was very savvy. With most jobs, it was a one worker and one apprentice. However, the Coopers had a special rule with the Union where it was four coopers for one apprentice. By doing so, they kept the numbers of coopers down and the salaries high.
So, I approached the distillery manager, who knew me well, and I asked him for a job. He knew I had a reputation of a wild wee bugger but said that if I behaved myself that there might be a chance. That chance came and I got an introduction into the warehouse work, painting, and all that. I was working close to the Coopers, however I couldn't get an apprenticeship because of the rule in the Cooper’s Union. It seemed that my dream was gone.
However, my late mother used to clean the offices of the only lawyer on Islay. I would go to his office and help my Mum to clean around 8:00 o'clock at night. One night I went in, and the lawyer was there. Being a lawyer and a small island almost made him like the Pope. He said, “Jim, sit down and tell me what you're doing.” I sat down and told him that I was working at the distillery in the warehouse and in the malt barn. He asked if I was enjoying it. I told him that I was, but I’ve always wanted to be a Cooper.
I told him about the rule in the union and there was no chance because of the circumstances; the union would not put up with it. We chatted a bit more and then I left. About two months later, my Mum was asked to bring me back in. When I arrived, he handed me a letter from the Cooper's Union. Without me knowing, he had contacted the Cooper’s Union and made a special plea bargain for me stating that I was very keen, but I was on a remote island. Since there were only three coopers working, would they not bend the rules a little bit to allow me to become a Cooper. They agreed and gave me a chance!
For the next five years, I served my apprenticeship making, fixing, and working on casks in the warehouse. We used to go around the warehouses once a month with little wooden hammers. We would tap every barrel to see if the cask was intact. If you got a hollow ring, that clearly indicated this cask had been leaking, so it was your responsibility to find the leak, repair it, and report it to Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. I was finally getting experience with casks in the warehouse, tapping casks, and building barrels. I absolutely loved it.
My Master Cooper was the number one and longest serving Cooper in the world: David Bell. He had been in the war and had seen death at close quarters. He was a good Christian, and there was no hiding from him. You know, he was really a strict but fair boss. He was kind and patient in teaching me. Most importantly, he also taught me how to steal whisky so that no one would know. We became lifelong friends. I genuinely loved and respected him.
One day, I was working in Glasgow, and I got a phone call from my Mum to say that my best friend and mentor was just about gone. He was in his 90’s on his deathbed. I traveled home to Islay, and I went to his little house where all of his family had gathered. They were pleased to see me because he was expected to go that night. My heart was breaking as I went to visit him. He was skeletal and hardly breathing.
I sat beside him, held his hand and he came around a little bit. He said, “Jim, it's you. Thanks for coming.” I told him, “Tomorrow, we’ll go to the distillery and build some barrels.” He replied, “Jim I'm leaving tonight. I've spoken to the Big Man in the Sky and he's waiting on me.”
He went on to tell me, “Jim, I've left you a gift that will always ensure that you will have a penny in your pocket.” I could not think what that would be. Then he said, “It's in the secret place. When I've passed on, you go to the secret place, and you'll find my gift to you. You will always have a penny in your pocket.”
He did pass that night, and I stayed on with my Mum for the funeral. Following that, everybody went to their house to offer condolences to the widow and son. I asked if I could speak to the son and told him about what was said on his father's deathbed. The son said, “Well, we better go and check out what dad left you!” The secret place was in his garden shed. There was a false panel in the floor and that's where he hid the whisky that he stole.
So, we lifted the panel, and my special gift was there. He had taken all his tools that he’d used as a cooper, soaked them in linseed oil, and the wrapped them up in Hessian sack cloth. I finally understood: if I had those tools with me, I would always have a penny in my pocket.
The Rise and Reign of Bowmore
In total, Jim spent 38 years with the Bowmore Distillery. It’s a near--mythical story of a talented man who achieved his childhood dream of becoming a cooper and then moving on to realize greater heights of success. More importantly, he begins to embrace and fulfill the true nature of his destiny: to right the wrongs of the past and restore the island of Islay to its rightful place in the world of whisky.
In 1994, Suntory became the new owners of the Bowmore. This proved to be a critical intersection of timing, opportunity, and talent. Jim was asked to return from Glasgow and take over leadership at Bowmore. The new ownership embraced him and gave them their full support. The single malt industry changed forever in this phase and continues its positive trajectory to this day.
This era of his career was the bedrock of his revolutionary success going forward.
JM – Incredibly, I found my coopering. Next, I trained as a blender. I could nose whisky all day, tell you if it was good or not good, and then put the blends together. The man who taught me blending was fantastic. He had a nose like a golf ball, and it was bright red. It was like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer! What a guy… he was an original Glasgow hardback. Him and I got on famously and he taught me everything about blending and what to look for in a cask.
Then, I got a call from the Board of Directors of Bowmore, and they asked if I would consider going back to Bowmore as distillery manager. They said I could take my time and think about it, but I didn’t need it. I was going. Considering I had started at 15, it was a huge thing for me. When I went back and took over the reins, that must have been quite a shock for some of the guys who I had worked with previously. I'd left them as a young man and come back as the boss. It can be quite difficult to be in charge of people you grew up with and who are older than you. However, they accepted me, and some of them were quite proud that there was an Islay man running our distillery. It was a tremendous achievement for me to get the privilege come back to Bowmore.
Having said that, I have to say that Bowmore was in pretty bad condition and needed a major investment. Then, Suntory came along and that changed the whole world because they became the people who I worked for. I was wondering if this was going to work or not, but as soon as I met the Japanese president of Suntory, I saw an opportunity. His name was Shinichiro (Shin) Torii and he was educated at Harvard University. He was absolutely a great gentleman with an American style about him.
I remember when the Japanese arrived for the first time, it is a great story.
I received a phone call from the Bowmore Board of Directors asking to find a space to land four helicopters because there were some VIP guests coming. I worked it out that they would land on the sports field beside the school. The day came, and sure enough we can see the helicopters coming right on time. They landed and I stepped forward with all the kids in the primary school waving, including my two daughters. The Japanese visitors thought this was special for them, and I had planned that.
At that moment, the President of Suntory and his wife stepped off the first helicopter, and I went forward to greet them. As I was doing that, my two daughters (Linda and Leslie) broke ranks and they ran up to me. There I am, shaking hands with the President of Suntory and I've got a child on each leg. Shin Torii’s wife, who spoke perfect English, asked me if these were my children. I said yes, and that I would send them away. She said, not to and then she spoke to them. After that, we got down to business.
I took him out to the distillery, and he said, “Jim, you have to tell me everything you need. We want to make Bowmore number one.” We went through the distillery, and I showed him this and that. About a month later, this group of accountants came over from Suntory, had a look at everything, and took note of everything I wanted. They asked me to provide some estimates of the total costs for the refurbishment of the distillery… and it was a huge sum. I thought I'd go high, and if I get low, that would be OK. They put all the money requests in; it was absolutely fantastic. The Japanese helped create a fantastic outlet for single malt whisky, so my time with them was great. We refurbished the distillery, they provided marketing expertise, and it was really a major turning point.
Coming back to run Bowmore was the icing on the cake.
Bruichladdich: The Cinderella that Never Went to the Ball
There are few names in the whisky industry that conjure up the reaction that you’ll get when you talk about Bruichladdich. Starting out, the distillery was positioned for success but then spent 40 years languishing and was ultimately shut down in 1994. Jobs were lost, lives were ruined, and families left the island as a result. To some people on Islay, this was a sore spot in history that has never been forgotten.
Enter Mark Reynier, Simon Coughlin, Gordon Wright, and a cadre of other private investors. After several previous attempts, a deal was finally struck for the distillery in December of 2000. It was going to be daunting task to get the distillery in working order, as it had fallen into disrepair after many years of being shut down. Most importantly, who could they get to serve as Master Distiller and Production Director?
In a move that sent seismic level shockwaves through the industry, Jim McEwan agreed to join Bruichladdich. In doing so, the heights of his career broke through the stratosphere and into hyperspace. At that moment, he knew that he was to use his collective experience in whisky to right the wrong in the story of Bruichladdich and the island of Islay.
What followed was the unprecedented journey of Bruichladdich into some of the most creative and innovative territory the whisky industry has ever seen. They set out to be disruptors in the industry and in doing so, created legions of devoted fans all around the world. Led by Jim McEwan at the distillery, they brought Bruichladdich back from the brink and completed the Cinderella story.
He had repaid an old debt owed to the people of Islay, and then some.
JM - Bruichladdich was in a really horrible state when I arrived: we had two men and a dog. However, there were some good casks in the warehouse and that gave us a start. Next, we needed to hire the right people. On the island, there is population of less than 4,000. As a result, you actually know almost every family. When we started, I wanted to hire young guys and train them myself. In addition, I brought in some seasoned distillers who knew their way around the stillhouse.