[Stephen talked with Jim McEwan on the phone about a month ago, at which time Jim answered the questions all three Impostors had put together for him. Since then, Stephen’s been traveling too much to transcribe (and edit) it in any kind of timely way. But today, on The Malt Impostor’s 6th maltiversary, we’re very proud to bring you this interview with the whisky legend and retiring Master Distiller for Bruichladdich. We can’t think of a better way to celebrate 6 years writing about whisky.]
MI: As the first media outlet to interview you since the 60 Minutes piece on Islay aired, we just have to know: are people looking at you differently now that they know you were the subject of an American news magazine famous for exposing corruption, greed, and the like?
JM: I’ve had a huge amount of mail from the UK and from North America about the program because it was such a poignant program because that was Bob’s last program. So it was quite an emotional thing, and you probably read the preamble that the program was never going to be made because Bob was tragically killed in a car accident. But they got it together as a tribute to Bob. So to be part of that… I had a great time with Bob in the warehouses because he certainly enjoyed tasting whisky with me. We were tasting Port Charlottes and Octomores and Bruichladdichs and some really old and rare stuff and he really loved the old distillation techniques and the old style stocks. So he and I kinda bonded right away—it wasn’t an interview sort of thing—it was really two guys at the distillery having fun, that’s what it was like. And we were actually having fun. . . . Are people looking at me differently now? Well, I didn’t realize just how big a program that was, 60 Minutes, and I’ve been absolutely swamped with mails from people who were touched by the program, because it was Bob’s last, and you get to see him laughing and joking. It was a revelation because Americans only ever saw him in a war situation. He was this lovely old man who was absolutely relaxed, drinking whisky.
But it’s probably the first time 60 Minutes has showed two old guys wandering around the warehouse drinking whisky. That shouldn’t happen. It’s like, “Are you guys for real? You’re both two old guys, and you’re bouncing around the warehouse opening up all sorts of barrels.” I mean, that’s everybody’s dream! I can just imagine all the single malt fans saying, “Aw shit! I wish it was me out there! How do I get in touch with this guy Jim McEwan?”
MI: What do you plan to do in retirement? We imagine you turning on the water at the kitchen sink, letting the water run for a while to ensure that you get the hearts in your glass. We imagine you carefully adding water to your orange juice to dilute it to the perfect strength (but no ice!). We imagine you pouring milk over your cereal and wondering precisely how long is the optimal amount of time to wait until the oats begin malting. Does this seem about right to you?
JM: Yeah, that’s pretty much the way it is with me. It drives my wife insane, my behavior at home. Even adding milk to my tea…she’s not allowed to make my tea. Seriously, I can only drink tea from my china cup, and the kettle’s got to be just exactly off the boil. Even when you’re nosing, I’ve got to make sure that the glass is bloody sterilised ten times, so you’re absolutely right about that. It’s just the way I am. Just speak to my wife: there are so many stupid foibles I have to do with taste. I’m a big salt guy, I put bloody salt on everything. She says, “For God’s sake, taste it first.” And I say, “No, I gotta have that salt taste. It’s from living on an island.” But I’m going to have to kinda get retrained, I think, you know, and become a bit less anal and just taste it and enjoy it. And my wife…I don’t get tea in bed because she doesn’t do it right, you know what I mean? After 50 years of tasting whisky, it’s got to be the same routine every time. You’ve got to have standards and mine are pretty bizarre. My wife’s in for a tough time, she doesn’t know it yet. She thought it was bad, but it’s just gonna get a whole lot worse.
MI: As you’ll recall, Stephen has a cask at Bruichladdich that’s now aged enough to be officially “Scotch whisky.” Meanwhile, Bill is obsessed with the idea of a cask heist occurring at a distillery. Given that you told 60 Minutes that Islay had no crime and policed itself via ostracizing criminals, a) can you really protect Stephen’s cask from the likes of Bill, and b) what are the odds of someone making off with a cask full of Bruichladdich whisky?
JM: You know, I have the ability to open up any cask. Now, there’s nothing to stop me from getting into that cask and taking some out. You would never know, I would just say that the angels were particularly thirsty. It was a very long, hot summer, and they were just gagging for a drink, so you got the first hit, so that’s why your cask is almost empty. By the way, it had a bad crack in it, which we didn’t notice when we filled it, so… Yeah, when you come look at it, we’ll take a cask that’s got a crack and we’ll change the name on it, and then put your name on it, so when you come, we’ll say, “Aw, it’s an absolute tragedy. I’m sorry, we did the best we could, but you’re going to have to contact your insurance company.” Yeah, we don’t make off with the cask, we just make off with the contents. And the most popular method of getting the whisky from your cask is a rubber tube and a hot water bottle. Put the hot water bottle in your pants—it’s a reverse colostomy bag—and you walk it through the door. And except for the slight hint of rubber, it goes fine.
MI: The greatest gin and tonic John ever had Mary McGregor made for him with the Botanist Gin in your visitor center two summers ago. He felt perfectly refreshed and even revived by it, though he also felt guilt-ridden for not drinking Scotch whisky in the very heart of Whisky Heaven. But then again, John feels guilt about a lot of things. At any rate, that led him to think that so much of the enjoyment of a great drink is context. Tell us about one of the most remarkable experiences you’ve had in enjoying a drink.
JM: One of my most vivid memories…I was on the road in the States for a long, long time. I don’t think I’d been home for five weeks, and I ended up in Miami. And I was completely shattered. But fortunately in the bar they had Laphroaig Cask Strength. And I thought, “If I can just smell the peat, that’ll take me home. I’ll be transported spiritually back home to Islay.” So there was this tropical storm coming in off the ocean, and I remember I was in the top floor, and I had a really really good cigar and I had a balcony. I had a shower, and I got freshened up, and I poured myself a large one. It would’ve stopped a horse at 40 meters. It was a killer dram, you know? Boom! It was like dum-dum blew the back of your head off, that cask strength Laphroaig. And I remember sitting there in my underpants, smoking a cigar, and these cracks of thunder and lightning were shooting across the ocean, and I killed the first Laphroaig Cask Strength, and I am feeling no pain. And then I got on to my second one, and it starts to rain a little bit, and there I am on the top floor of this hotel in Miami, and there’s lightning all around me, and I’m trying to smoke a wet cigar, and I’m drinking my second glass of Laphroaig in my underpants. Absolutely fucking amazing, man. You should try it.
MI: One of the things we think about with Bruichladdich is its connection to Islay. From the geography to the people, the salty spray of the ocean to the smoky tang of the peat, and the very colors of land, sea, and sky–all of them are so tightly bound up with the family of Bruichladdich spirits one could conclude that you are distilling Islay herself. With that said, now that you’re leaving Bruichladdich, who is the most insufferable wanker on the island?
JM: With a population of 3,500 people, I’ve got to be very careful. I can’t fall out with anyone. But I’ve had some absolute wankers I’ve met who’ve visited the distillery. And one of the most insufferable guys was a single malt fan from Austria who regarded himself as being the know-all of single malts, and he was a complete pain in the crutch. We’re walking across the yard, and we walk through the mashers first, and I’m explaining it to him, blah blah blah. And he’s with a big group, and he’s the spokesman for the group, and as we left the distill room, he stopped me and he said, “Jim!” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Your whisky will not be good.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “When we went on the tour, the door of the distillation room was closed. When we arrived in the distillation room, the door was open. This will have a dramatic effect on the pot still. Therefore, your whisky will be inconsistent.” I thought, “Well, fuck me.” So I thought I’d heard everything, but I said, “Well, that’s really interesting,” and I ran over as fast as I could, for the sake of his ego, and I quickly shut the door. I stood there with my hands against it, and he noted to his audience, “Well, there you go: I’ve taught Jim McEwan how to make whisky.” I was so appreciative of that. Austria. Remember the name.
MI: During his first visit to Islay, you had Stephen try the Laddie Ten less than a week before it was to be released. You told him that he was the first person outside of your team to try it. Did his positive feedback that day play any role in your decision to eventually discontinue the Laddie Ten? I mean, it wasn’t really his fault, was it?
JM: Well, I have to say, Stephen, about 100 people had tried it before you, and I told them all they were the first. So I’m sorry to tell you at this late stage in the game, but you were not the first, and you were not the reason. The reason we stopped making it was: it was so successful that we ran out of stock. Really, it wasn’t your fault. I don’t want you to feel bad about it. There was a wee smile in the face that said, “Oh, I’m the first.” Yeah, right, okay. Whatever, man. You know, you’re the first woman I’ve loved in my life. I promise to be faithful to you…yeah. And you fell for it! Oh my God! You totally bought the story! Another one bites the dust! Oh, the power of alcohol is incredible. Oh, Stephen, you’re the very first, you’re my favorite, try this. And the guy bought it! Can I sell you a television, by the way?
MI: Finally, a serious question: what are your plans regarding your charitable work, especially SpiritAid, during your retirement?
JM: Oh my God, a serious question! This has been the strangest interview I’ve ever had. Unforgettable. Well, I’m hoping people will feel charitable towards me and give me money. I’ve got no job now, so I’m absolutely broke. All I’ve got is a few bottles and a garden shed. That’s it. But I will do charitable work, especially for Spirit Aid. It’s a great charity. Yeah, that’s where the future lies: trying to do something worthwhile. There’s so much suffering going on in the world just now. So if I can tell a story or two and pour a glass of whisky or two, and it keeps a kid alive, then yeah, that’s what I’ll be doing. But I’ll do it on my terms. There are so many charities, and there are only one or two I want to work with—smaller charities—that’s what I’ll be doing. But also, I’ve got grandchildren of my own. I’ve got four beautiful grandchildren, they are 5, 4, 3, and 2—two boys and two girls—so I want to spend time with them. They live in Glasgow; I want them to get the Islay DNA. I want them to come and spend summers with me and do stuff that I did as a kid in the ocean and all that sort of stuff. For about 10 years, I was on the road for about 33 weeks a year, so it’s time to look after my wife for a while now. She’s been very, very supportive to me; otherwise, I couldn’t have done it.
You know, if someone asks for advice, I’m happy to give some advice. It’s been a privilege and a great honor. I remember starting in 23rd July, 1963, I was a skinny little runt, and all I wanted to be was a cooper. The guy who taught me, he was the number one cooper in the world, and his tombstone is in Bowmore Cemetery. I could take you there blindfolded. His name was David Bell. David Bell, Cooper. And he was iconic: he taught me a lot of things, not just about making whisky and coopering, but just about life. And so when I die, on my tombstone, I want it to say, “Jim McEwan, Cooper.” Out of total respect for the man that took me under his wing, and nourished me and looked after me in the early days. . . . But yeah, I’m leaving very satisfied and happy. I feel I’ve done a fair job, and the guys I’m leaving behind, they will carry on in that style, so the legacy goes on, and all we can do is write a page in a book, and from there let someone else write the next page. But it’s been great fun.
Going back, though, Stephen: yeah, you really were the first, man! The first one to taste the 10 year old! Oh my God!