He's Back!

Hey! That's Stewart Laing, the man behind the Glasgow whisky house that brings us the Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign labels. Oh! And over there on the right, those are his sons Andrew and Scott. I know them, too! But who's that guy in the middle, enjoying a glass of Scotch with the three Laings? He looks vaguely familiar. 

Where I have seen him? Think, David......think.......think......think.....

Oh...wait! Is it this guy?

Why, yes it is! That's Jim McEwan, former master distiller for both Bowmore and Bruichladdich. He's a legend in the whisky business. In fact, I'd say he's one of a handful of master distillers that you might even consider a celebrity in the Scotch game. But why would Jim McEwan be hanging out with the Laings in their Glasgow office, posing in a somewhat celebratory position? What does a distiller have to do with a whisky house?

Think, David.....think.....think....think.....think.

Oh! Aren't the Laings building a new distillery called Ardnahoe on Islay? Yes, that's right. I remember that

Wait a minute! You don't couldn't be. Do you think the Laings somehow convinced Jim McEwan to come out of retirement? To consider one last cannonball run? To take one more Islay distillery to the top of the mountain before finally calling it quits? Oh wait...there's a press release in that email from the Laing family. Maybe I should have read that before looking at the pictures:

From Ardnahoe:

World-renowned whisky distiller Jim McEwan has been appointed Production Director of Ardnahoe Distillery on Islay - 18 months after he retired.

The Islay-born whisky industry icon, who has 53 years’ experience under his belt, has been hired by Hunter Laing & Co, the family-run Glasgow whisky company behind Ardnahoe, the first distillery to be built on Islay for more than a decade.  

Ardnahoe is being built on the north-east coast of Islay and will become the ninth distillery on the island. It expects to start distilling whisky in early 2018.

As Production Director at Ardnahoe Distillery, McEwan is playing a pivotal role at the distillery for the Laing family – father Stewart and sons Andrew and Scott. From shaping its design and installing his preferred pieces of distilling equipment, to fine-tuning the production processes and selecting casks, he will influence every step of the whisky-making journey at Ardnahoe.

The distillery, which will include a visitor centre café, shop and tasting room, will produce traditional peated Islay single malt. 

McEwan will also work on a number of other as-yet-secret creative projects that are sure to make waves across the spirits world.

Prodigious career

McEwan retired from the whisky industry in July 2015 after a prodigious career that began in 1963, and later saw his name become synonymous with both Islay and the Scotch whisky industry.

In his last role, he was Master Distiller at Bruichladdich Distillery for 15 years where he produced a series of innovative whiskies, including notably Octomore, the world’s most heavily-peated whisky, as well as revered Islay gin, The Botanist.

Prior to that, he spent 38 years in a variety of roles at Bowmore, the distillery he first joined as a 15-year-old apprentice cooper in 1963.  During his career there, he worked in every aspect of the distillery, from warehousing and cellar master, to trainee blender, distillery manager and Global Brand Ambassador.

During his brief retirement, McEwan turned his hand once again to gin distilling, spending time in the Australian rainforests sourcing botanicals to help Cape Byron Distillery launch Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin.

“One of the most beautiful sites for a distillery anywhere in the world”

Reflecting on his choice to come out of retirement to work at Ardnahoe distillery, McEwan said: “I had intended to ride off into the sunset, but I’ve known Stewart for many years and have always been impressed with Hunter Laing whisky. When the call came in, it really excited me.

“Then when I visited the distillery site with the Laing family, it absolutely blew me away. It’s an incredible spot up on a hill overlooking the Sound of Islay out to Mull in the north and across to Jura - it has to be one of the most beautiful sites for a distillery anywhere in the world.

“It felt as though the stars were aligning; the amazing location, my history with Islay, my relationship with the Laing family, their passion for the project, the calibre of architect Iain Hepburn, plus my chance to get involved with the design of the distillery for the first time in my career, all made it feel like it was ‘meant to happen’.”

Andrew Laing, Director of Hunter Laing & Co, said: “It’s hard to think of anyone better qualified than Jim McEwan to develop the character of the newest Islay malt whisky. Jim has lived and breathed Islay whisky his whole life and is bringing all of his passion and knowledge to Ardnahoe Distillery. The three of us are hugely impressed with the whiskies he’s produced in the past and can sleep easy knowing that he is in ultimate charge of whisky-making at Ardnahoe”.

Hunter Laing & Co have also revealed that they will be taking part in Feis Ile, The Islay Festival of Music and Malt, which runs from the 26th May to 3rd June. The exact details remain under wraps for now, but they will hosting tastings of casks from the Hunter Laing stocks which have been hand selected by McEwan.

Do you know how hard it's been for me to keep this under my hat? I'm so relieved we can tell people now!


-David Driscoll

Drink & Watch: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

I have to say that, even though I currently have to watch all the movies on my laptop and am still anxiously awaiting availability via Roku, I'm loving my new FilmStruck subscription so far. At my fingertips are hundreds of movies that I previously had to purchase on DVD via Criterion, plus a huge number of Turner Classic options, ready to stream at a moment's notice. I didn't waste any time sinking my teeth into the alluring John Cassavetes collection, especially since I haven't watched any of his movies since my film school days at UCSD. I think it goes without saying that an appreciation for cinéma vérité has to come with age; mainly because you have to have lived a bit before you understand the intricacies of real life. While most people know Cassavetes for his role as Mia Farrow's husband in Rosemary's Baby, the actor was a serious pioneer of American independent film as a director as well. I don't think P.T. Anderson's Boogie Nights ever gets made without Cassavetes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a film I watched for the first time in nearly twenty years this past weekend. Not only is the movie a masterpiece of film noir, gritty crime, and impromptu improvisation, it's one hell of a drinking flick. 

Much like Cassavetes is mostly known for his major movie roles, the late and brilliant character actor Ben Gazzara is probably most recognized as Jackie Treehorn from The Big Lebowski or the devious and douche-y Brad Wesley from Swayze's action classic Roadhouse. While Gazzara shines in those supporting roles, his depth and talent as an actor are given the full spotlight in Bookie. Within the first twenty minutes of the film you'll be heading for your wet bar, likely pouring yourself a heavy Scotch on the rocks, as you watch Gazzara as club owner Cosmo Vitelli move from dive bar to dive bar, drinking Scotch and waters in the lowlit 1970's LA night life. By the time he hits the limo for an outing with his lovely dancers, you'll be thirsting for Champagne. There's an absolutely classic scene where Gazzara tries to force Dom Perignon on one of the young starlets, telling her repeatedly: "It's the best. Try it. It's the best." Much like a new Pappy convert who's never actually tried the full spectrum of Bourbon options, Vitelli clearly isn't an aficionado. He's simply an insecure and somewhat naive businessman who wants to impress a certain level of sophistication upon his equally naive and ambitious club girls. Yet, it's that very appetite—that burning desire for big shot recognition—and the careless manner in which he goes after it that ultimately gets him into trouble. From that point on, Vitelli's life takes a drastic turn into LA's even seedier underbelly.

The worse it gets, the more you want to drink. The more you drink, the worse it seems to get. Man, did I have a great time drinking whisky and Champagne on the couch with my laptop and headphones!

We might have to make this an official Alamo Drafthouse party in the future. I'm going to get LVMH on the phone and see if they'll sponsor a Glenmorangie/Dom Perignon movie event!

-David Driscoll


Lone Wolf Indies

With the industry's indie darlings getting picked off one-by-one over the last year, where do you go to find whisky that's still being made by the little guy? I should amend that statement: where do you go to find whisky that's still being made by the little and that's actually worth drinking? Two of Scotland's newer distilleries, Wolfburn and Kilchoman, have just released new expressions that I think offer unique, interesting, and well-balanced flavors for the Scotch drinker who's looking outside the corporate box. Wolfburn's sherry-aged Aurora is now finally here in the U.S. and Kilchoman's cask strength Quarter Cask release just hit the docks as well. Let's take a look...

Wolfburn "Aurora" Single Malt Scotch Whisky $59.99 - The Aurora differs from the standard Wolfburn expression in that there's no peat influence from the ex-Islay barrels and sherry butts were used in place. What's interesting is that the color is still quite light despite the use of Oloroso casks. The initial flavors are light and fruity much like one would expect from a Highland malt, but the sherry sneaks up on the finish with a late-coming wave of spice cake, cocoa, and toffee. It's another charming and utterly drinkable malt from an exciting up and comer.

Kilchoman "Quarter Cask Matured" Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky $99.99 - Bottled at cask strength 56.9% and finished in small barriques, Kilchoman has take a page from Laprhoaig's book and offered a quarter cask release, albeit at full strength. The result is everything you'd expect: big oak, big peat, big spice, big earth, and big vanilla. It's just a big, explosive whisky all around. It's everything you love and have come to expect from the little Islay engine that could.

-David Driscoll


Bordeaux for the New Generation

While we're planning on launching our big email for the new Old Particular casks this afternoon, today is really all about Bordeaux. We've got our huge UGC tasting tonight (300+ tickets sold out!) in the city, plus a private dinner at Mathilde afterward for friends and winemakers. I'm stoked!! I can't wait to see everyone and taste the wines again. I'm even more excited, however, by the fact that a number of you spirits drinkers are crossing over into some wine appreciation. I'm getting lots of emails from whisky drinkers who are ready for a new adventure, but some are either intimidated or turned off by the stuffiness of old world wine. They want classically-styled, but exciting wines. I've been doing my best to help in that search.

If that describes your own sentiments with wine, then I've got someone to introduce you to: Hélène Garcin. She was born into an old school Bordeaux family, but she's as modern and forward-thinking as they come. I adore both her and her wines, and I think both the reasonable pricing and fresher, drinkable style in which she makes her cuvées are exactly what Bordeaux needs to continue connecting with future generations. More about her new 2015 Château d'Arce here at On the Trail. I bought a case of this wine last week. I'm recommending others do the same before the big email strikes later today.

-David Driscoll


Brexit-Priced Imports – Round II

We’re hoping to make 2017 a value-oriented year in our Scotch whisky department; one that begins to put the fun back into the single malt drinking. With new pricing that reflects our direct dollar-to-pound business, we’re back with round two of our post-Brexit cask selections from Old Particular. Featuring a selection of Highland, Speyside, and grain whiskies, we’ve managed to locate serious whiskies between 18 and 26 years of age, at cask strength, and of a tremendous quality at or under $80 per bottle. If last week’s Dailuaine sherry butt edition whet your appetite for single malt value, we suggest moving on to our first main course: classically-styled selections from Glen Spey, Ben Nevis, Linkwood, and the now-closed Port Dundas that highlight the nuances and intricacies of single barrel whisky for prices that haven’t been seen in years.

1997 Glen Spey 18 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - Glen Spey is one the Speyside's unknown gems, a distillery whose sole job is to make single malt for Johnnie Walker and J&B. If you're a fan of the soft, vanilla-laden, easy-drinking whisky of Scotland's epicenter, then this 18 year old single cask edition of Glen Spey is going to warm your heart while simultaneously warming your palate. When allowed to shine on its own, the nose emits a concentrated aroma of sweet grains, citrus, and malted barley. As it moves over the tongue those flavors become richer: dried orange, dark chocolate, and a wave of vanilla on the finish. At 55.9% cask strength, all of those flavors are dialed up a notch, which is why a few drops of water helps temper the storm and bring the whisky into a better harmony. Think of the Glen Spey as a single barrel, cask strength edition of something like Glenmorangie or unsherried Aberlour, but for a price that has to be seen to be believed. Glen Spey is good, old fashioned drinkin' Scotch and for $65 you can afford pour a little more heavily than usual.

1996 Ben Nevis 20 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky $79.99 - Ben Nevis is owned today by the Japanese whisky company Nikka, who purchased the Western Highland distillery back in 1989. Since that time we've tasted a variety of styles from the Fort Williams facility, both peated and unpeated, but this barrel might be the best expression of Ben Nevis we've ever carried. Supple, succulent, and round on the palate, the malt simply balloons over the palate with big, sweet flavors of dried apricot, honey, marmalade, and vanilla. In fact, the whisky is so creamy and sweet on the finish that we had to double back and ask about the cask type (perhaps Sauternes?), but it turns out this was just a cherry barrel; a perfectly aged hogshead that happened to over-achieve. Fans of our Imperial 20 year casks from Signatory will want to take note: the Ben Nevis 20 is a dead ringer for that fruit-forward Highland style, albeit for $20 cheaper per bottle. Naturally reduced to a very drinkable 51.7% cask strength, this is sure to be one of the friendliest and most popular Highland whiskies we sell this year.

1995 Linkwood 21 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky $79.99 - What could possibly be better than our 19 year old Linkwood cask from Signatory, the whisky made famous for its role in Johnnie Walker Blue? Well, we'll tell you. A 21 year cask of the same whisky that improves upon that foundation in every way, yet sells for $10 less due to our new Brexit pricing! Linkwood has long been one of our favorites, but this 21 year hogshead from Old Particular is one of the more concentrated and expressive we've tasted recently. Known for its elegant vanilla and stonefruit flavors, this particular selection bursts with oak spices from the first sip, then oozes into a mouthful of butterscotch with green apples and toasted almonds on the finish. It's just as elegant as any of our previous editions of Linkwood, it's just that there's more to chew on here. There's a depth and complexity in this particular cask that we never knew was missing from the others. Bottled at 53.6%, the baking spices dance on the finish for minutes with the added proof. For the price, this is an absolute no-brainer.

1990 Port Dundas 26 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Scotch Whisky $79.99 - If there's one thing we can help take credit for here at K&L, it's been helping to remove the undeserved stigma associated with grain whisky in the Scotch industry. Maligned and misunderstood for years, it wasn't until we started launching a number of 25-50 year old releases at ridiculously reasonable prices that hearts and minds began to change. When Nikka brought their delicious Coffey Still editions to the market and people saw just how fruity and delicious these corn and unmalted barley whiskies could be, we think grain whisky finally got over the hump. Crazily enough, today our single casks of grain whisky are some of the most anticipated by our customers. The only thing that gets these finicky drinkers more excited than a new cask of mature grain deliciousness is a closed distillery! Port Dundas was officially closed in 2009 by Diageo who had used the whisky for Johnnie Walker and other blends. This single expression, distilled in 1990 before the closure, is absolutely chalk full of brown sugar, toasted vanilla, peaches in syrup, and sweet, sticky caramel on the finish. It lights up the palate from front to back and it pops on the back end with a 51.9% ABV. Drinking 26 year old whisky this good in this style shouldn't be a luxury. Thanks to our new pricing, you can enjoy this whisky a bit more freely than you might otherwise. The North Glasgow distillery might be shut down, but its legacy will live on in this lovely single cask edition.

-David Driscoll

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