On Wednesday 8 October 2014 over one hundred people gathered within the walls of the iconic Kelvin Club in Melbourne to meet a man who has been involved in the production of whisky for half a century. That man, ladies and gentleman, is Jim McEwan. The vast majority of people may utter the words “Jim who?”, but anyone who enjoys a dram or two (or who knows what “dram” means) will know that the name “Jim McEwan” belongs to a man who is perhaps the world’s most famous whisky distiller. Starting his career at the Bowmore distillery at the age of 15, Jim went on to learn the craft of cooperage (making or assembling barrels) before becoming the Master Distiller at the Bruichladdich distillery in Scotland, where he now plies his trade. His career in whisky has spanned half a century, and while at Bruichladdich he has gained a reputation for producing whisky that is innovative, exciting and that tastes darn good!
Over the past week or so Jim has embarked on a much anticipated national tour of major Australian cities where he has conducted a tasting of whiskies from Bruichladdich, and the scene for his visit to Melbourne was the Kelvin Club. Malt Mileage was very fortunate to secure a ticket to Jim’s visit to Melbourne.
On arrival at the Kelvin Club guests were greeted with gin and tonic, made with Bruichladdich’s The Botanist Islay Dry Gin – a gin made using classic aromatics that tend to be used for gin such as orris root, cassia bark and coriander seed, and, 22 other botannicals hand picked on the isle of Islay in Scotland (where Bruichladdich is located). As the bottles of gin were slowly emptied, a progression of people began to eagerly make their way to the upstairs room where Jim would be conducting the whisky tasting. The room was large, and an energy filled the air as people looked around for anyone who even remotely resembled Jim. It soon became clear that Jim is not a man to enter a room unnoticed, and to the bellowing sound of bagpipes Jim entered the room marching proudly behind a bagpiper dressed in a traditional Scottish kilt. He had arrived, and the room fell silent. “Hello”, he said happily. “Hello!”, he repeated. With a gesture of his hands, not dissimilar to the one made by an old friend who wants a hug and not a handshake, the crowd realised its mistake and finally responded “Hello Jim!”. That set the tone for what was a hilarious evening. It was not the formidable legend Master Distiller McEwan up there, ready to teach everyone about whisky. It was Jim, ready to share half a dozen drams with us and talk whisky.
One of the first points Jim made was that the colour of a whisky is meaningless, because caramel (the oft-called “E150”) may be added to whisky and therefore its colour is not a reliable indicator of its age or the type of casks that were used to mature the whisky. This was demonstrated by Jim pouring cola into a glass of whisky, which darkened it, and with this altered colour he sarcastically observed whether the whisky – now dark in colour – was matured in Fino sherry casks for a number of years. This was a good point made by Jim, but it was also a confusing point given that Bruichladdich do not add caramel colouring to their whisky. The colour of Bruichladdich whisky therefore is a clue as to what casks were used to mature the whisky, though admittedly Jim is correct that a whisky’s colour reveals nothing about its age.
On tasting were whiskies in the Bruichladdich range – the Laddie Classic, Islay Barley 2006, Black Art v3, Port Charlotte Scottish Barley and Octomore 6.1. All whiskies were impressive and thoroughly enjoyable, and my picks of the evening would be the Islay Barley 2006 and Black Art v3 (curiously both of which are – despite Islay being the heartland of peat – made without peat) and the Octomore 6.1 which, despite having a terrifying 300ppm as the world’s most heavily peated whisky, is surprisingly well balanced and complex.
With wobbly knees from all the whisky and a measure of gin, we were made to stand with one foot on the table and one foot on our chairs while yelling out a Scottish toast which lasted several minutes (and almost saw me fall face first into some leftover Octomore – yes please!). The evening then ended, and the mood soon deflated. Everybody had to go home, but I get the feeling no one really wanted to – there was still plenty of whisky, and Jim’s jokes and humour left us all in a state of constant laughter (it was either Jim, or the whisky).
Overall, Jim’s visit to Melbourne was a fun-filled journey through the Bruichladdich range that was filled with laughter, jokes and some whisky education in between. If you see Jim, tell him Gunta is at the door – he’ll know what I mean!