May 24, 2013 – Jim McEwan is arguably the most well-known figure in Islay whisky today. He spent 38 years at Bowmore Distillery, working his way up from an apprentice cooper to distillery manager. In 2001, he left the security of Bowmore for the uncertainty of Bruichladdich, which was being reopened after years of being mothballed.
“The first day I walked through the gates of Bruichladdich, January 6, 2001…I’d just left Suntory, a company which I loved dearly after 38 years at Bowmore….come in the gates of Bruichladdich and thought ‘Wow…Jim,you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life” — I was wrong.”
12 years later, Bruichladdich is thriving and McEwan is marking his 50th year in the whisky business during the distillery’s open day Sunday (May 26) as part of the annual Islay Festival of Malt & Music.
In late 2010, McEwan told WhiskyCast’s Mark Gillespie that he intended to retire on his 50th anniversary to spend time with his young grandchildren. However, that news was always greeted skeptically by McEwan’s friends and colleagues, and in a telephone interview today, he said he’s agreed to stay on with Bruichladdich for three more years at the request of new owner Rémy Cointreau.
“They understand what we’re about, and the message is clear from Rémy…that just keep doing what you’re doing…that’s why we bought you,” he said. “They totally get it…they get the whole thing, they understand how we work here..I’ve been there and I’ve seen them do their cognac and all the stuff, and the attention to detail and quality just blows me away.”
However, Jim will not continue with one of the responsibilities he’s held since 2001. When Bruichladdich agreed to sell its Murray McDavid independent bottling range to Aceo Ltd. earlier this spring, it ended McEwan’s role in selecting the casks of whisky to be bottled under that label.
“We just want to put all of our focus on Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, and Octomore,” he said. “We cannot expend any energy on other products, so everything, all of the money will go to double production. We did a great job with Murray McDavid, and I wish them well, but we’re just focusing on Bruichladdich.”
For the entire interview with Jim McEwan, including the whiskies he selected for his 50th anniversary master class to be held on Sunday at Bruichladdich, listen to this weekend’s episode of WhiskyCast.