All Things Ardnahoe with Jim McEwan

Jim McEwan (far right) with the Laing family in front of the new Ardnahoe pot stills

There are few things that get single malt drinkers more excited than word of a new whisky distillery in Scotland. When that new distillery happens to be on the isle of Islay—the spiritual home of peaty Scotch whisky and a mecca for die-hard drinkers around the globe—you can expect that enthusiasm to increase by two or even three-fold. That's definitely been the case thus far for Ardnahoe distillery, the first new facility on Islay since Kilchoman opened in 2005 and only the second established in the last 130+ years. When the Hunter Laing company announced plans to build on the north side of the island near Bunnahabhain, I let out a celebratory hoot! As if a new distillery on Islay wasn't exciting enough, it was going to be built by one of our closest partners and friends in the industry. We've been working with Stewart Laing, along with his sons Andrew and Scott, since our very first trip to Scotland and they invited me out to visit the site back in 2016 after making the announcement. 

Like any expansion team in professional sports, signing that first big free agent is an important step in building fan support. The Laings proved quickly that they were ready to play with the big boys, bringing in none other than Islay's most beloved son Jim McEwan, the former master distiller for Bowmore and Bruichladdich and an island native with more than fifty years of on-hand experience. Just like that, the excitement around the Ardnahoe project increased dramatically and since the company announced its private cask program recently, I've had all kinds of emails from American customers wondering if K&L might help them with the logistics of bottling and importation should they decide to purchase one. Not only were people interested in owning a piece of history, they were curious: for example, what would the whisky taste like? Not an unfair question for someone dropping thousands of dollars in advance for gallons and gallons of whisky yet unmade!

I hadn't talked to Jim McEwan in over two years, but if I was going to help Ardnahoe customers with their eventual cask transportation issues, I might as well help them get the scoop on the whisky itself. I sat down with Jim on Monday morning to talk about the new developments at Ardnahoe, his plans for the whisky, and what single malt fans can expect from Islay's newest distillery upon its opening in late May of 2018.


David: So you’re back in the saddle again. How does it feel?

Jim: Well, I never actually got out of the saddle. After leaving Bruichladdich, I went down to Australia to make some gin. I opened a gin distillery in a place called Byron Bay and it’s going gangbusters. I was working with the indigenous people there in the rainforest, picking some of the botanicals for the gin. It was a treat. I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was doing that and some other stuff as well, so I was never really out of the saddle, but certainly working with Ardnahoe has been fantastic. To be involved with a new distillery right from the get-go is wonderful. 

David: And now you’re back working on Islay, but I don’t know that you ever left, did you?

Jim: I never left Islay and I would never leave. Islay’s home. There’s no better place in the world for a whisky guy. That being said, the Ardnahoe offer was a surprise. I didn’t expect it. Obviously I was involved in the resurrection of Bruichladdich, and the resurrection of Bowmore if you want to call it that, but to be involved with a brand new distillery on a new site, to be involved with the planning and getting the choose the type of whisky, it was a dream come true. Plus, it’s a family business. I’m used to working with families. I worked with the Morrisons at Bowmore when that was a family business and that was great, so I’m enjoying every second of it. 

David: What are your plans for the whisky once the distillery gets up and running?

Jim: Obviously I’m going to be making a heavily heated malt; probably about 40 ppm. I would like to do an unpeated malt as well; not a lot of it, just enough so we can show people what we can do. There’s a big gap between an unpeated malt and a peated one of 40 ppm—that’s where the big boys are like at Laphroaig and Lagavulin. I feel there’s an opening in the middle there because for the folks coming into the category for the first time it’s quite a big leap. I’d like to create a stepping stone, something around 10 ppm, which would be a whisper. Then maybe one at 20 ppm, and then finally 40 ppm. That way we have different levels of peat for everyone and the customers can make their own decision about what they like. 

David: What are your fifty-plus years of experience telling you this time around? What are you most excited about?

Jim: To be part of a new distillery on Islay is tremendously exciting on a personal level as an Islander; the creation of new jobs is important as it’s all about community here. Hunter Laing is also a well-established company with a good track record. I’ve known Stewart for years; he and I are pretty good friends. It’s always nice to work with someone you’ve known for some time as you know exactly what you’re getting. We get along fine, likewise with his two boys, so I feel really comfortable in that environment. As you know, I worked for Suntory for a while at Bowmore and that was good, likewise I worked with Remy for a few years when they took over Bruichladdich. Now I get to come back to a similar situation as in those early Bruichladdich days where you’ve got freedom and that’s something I relish: having the freedom to produce whiskies that I think are going to be exceptional.

David: And cask selection as well, right? That’s always been your specialty.

Jim: Right, the spirit is like the child and the cask is the mother. If the whisky goes to a good mother then it’s the best possible outcome. At Bruichladdich I was using all sorts of casks and it worked really well; not just Bourbon, not just sherry, but all sorts of wine casks, bringing different flavor profiles in, and widening the knowledge of the consumer. That way it’s not just a one trick pony. To have that freedom and for the Laing family to have the faith in me to create the spirit, that’s a great honor. Not many people have that chance. When I set out to make Octomore, people said you couldn’t make a whisky that peaty, but we did it. People told me that we couldn’t make gin on Islay, but we did that, too. To have that freedom again with a brand new distillery is really exciting.

David: Do you have a plan for the house style or character of the whisky?

Jim: Most certainly the majority of the casks we’ll be using—as much as 60%—will be fresh Bourbon barrels from Kentucky. I’m a big fan of ex-Bourbon and as a former cooper I enjoy the American oak with the sweetness and the spiciness it gives to the whisky. I’ll be using wine casks again. Sherry casks are very hard to get today and they’re very expensive because no one is drinking sherry now. It will be a mixture, for sure. It’s nice to have as many options as possible on the menu for the consumer today. You don’t always eat the same food every day and whisky is no different. In the end, the consumer is king and I’d like to reach as wide of an audience as possible. 

David: Speaking of consumers, I’ve received a lot of consumer interest about the single barrel futures you’re currently offering to private clients. What would you say to anyone currently pondering the purchase of a private Ardnahoe barrel right now?

Jim: Buying an entire cask of whisky direct from a brand new distillery, it’s quite rare to get that opportunity. Particularly an Islay distillery because, whether you like it or not, Islay whisky is on fire right now. It’s a good investment. We sold casks at Bruichladdich originally that are now fetching quite a sum. In terms of value for money, I think it’s a wise choice. You could put your money in a savings account and collect your interest, but the value of whisky is still increasing by the minute. You can keep it for ten years and the value will only go up. I can assure your customers that I’ll be doing the very best I can to produce a spirit of tremendous quality. I’ve got a pretty good track record, I think. 

David: I don’t think anyone will question the quality of your spirits from Bowmore and Bruichladdich, that’s for sure!

Jim: We sold a lot of private casks early on at Bruichladdich and we made a lot of people very happy. We also made a lot of friends. The fact of the matter is: I’m getting on now and it will probably be the last spirit I’ll ever make. This will be my swan song. To leave a mark on the island and to have the chance to create something wonderful, it’s been quite an adventure. I’ve always been adventurous in terms of distillation and cask types, while adhering to tried and tested methods. The other thing to mention is that Ardnahoe will be putting in worm tubs and they will be the first worm tubs used on Islay in some time, rather than shell condensers. It will be a very slow distillation because with worm tubs you have to wait for the vapor to go down and cool. The lyne arm extending to the worm tubs has got to be one of the longest in the world, I would think, so there will be a lot of copper contact. The worm itself will be made from copper, so it should be a clean spirit and easy to drink. I believe it will mature quickly as well. When a whisky is fine the influence of the oak will appear much more quickly. I’m hoping to create one of the purest spirits ever made. 

David: And the first runs will be done by you specifically, right?

Jim: Yes, and like I said this likely will be the last whisky I ever make. I’ll be seventy years old next year, but I’m not going to screw this up. I can't wait to get started, plus the location of the distillery has to be one of the best in the world. Sitting high on the hill, looking down the Sound of Islay toward the islands to the north with Jura across the way. The water supply is Loch Ardnahoe, which is just across the street from us. It’s about a quarter of a mile away from the distillery and the water is perfect. There’s nothing near this loch at all, not a house or a car. It’s just a pure island loch and it’s very deep. Everything is right about this site, even just to come and sit. They're going to put a balcony out there where you can sit and look out with a dram in your hand. It’s an everchanging picture, too. One minute the clouds are flying over with winds coming up the sound and on other nights you can go out there and look at the moon shining down. It will be a must-visit distillery.

David: They’re going to put in a café, too?

Jim: Yes, they’ll have a café where you can come get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. We’ll also have a super tasting room because Hunter Laing has a great portfolio of whiskies from all around Scotland. You’ll be able to taste whiskies from all over, not just Ardnahoe, and you’ll be able to buy them in the gift shop. All in all, we’re hoping to pool our experience from decades in the business and put it all into this distillery. Stewart has been in the whisky business all his life, as have I. Plus, you’ve got the two sons as well and they’re just as excited about this. After working for multi-nationals, it’s great to be working with a family again. It’s a good feeling. I’ve got a good feeling about all of this. 

To reiterate: anyone wants help with logistics in purchasing an inagural cask from Ardnahoe should feel free to reach out to me for information. NOTE: Ardnahoe is only offering casks of their heavily peated formula, not the unpeated or lightly peated expressions.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll