JIM MCEWAN, the Scotch whisky veteran who was instrumental in bringing the Bruichladdich malt back to life, has been tempted out of retirement to head production at the first ever distillery to be built by Hunter Laing & Co, the Glasgow-based bottler and blender.
Mr McEwan, who was born in Bowmore and spent more than five decades in the industry, spoke of the “highest honour” of being given the chance to create a distillery and a brand new whisky from scratch on his native Islay.
His appointment comes as Hunter Laing oversees the early stages of the infrastructure work to support the £8 million distillery, which is being built on the north-east of the island overlooking the Sound of Islay, with views of of Iona, Mull and Jura.
The company, led by Stewart Laing with sons Andrew and Scott, ultimately hopes to begin distilling within 18 months, but Mr McEwan said it will be at least seven years before Ardnahoe releases its maiden single malt.
Ardnahoe will be the ninth distillery on the island and the first to be built since Kilchoman was founded by Anthony Wills in 2005.
Mr McEwan, who spent 38 years in a range of roles at Bowmore Distillery after joining as an apprentice cooper 53 years ago, aged 15, revealed the approach from Hunter Laing “came out of the blue”
Speaking from his home at Bruichladdich on Islay, he explained: “When I heard what Stewart had to say and [about] the location I thought, wow.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 53 years. I was there for the reconstruction of Bowmore and Bruichladdich, and this is the first time I’ve been given the chance to be involved in the design of a brand new distillery. You can imagine the excitement.
“I’ve visited most distilleries in Scotland, I would think, some of them are amazing. To be actively involved in the design element of the new distillery was an offer I could not refuse. There are so many things I have always wanted to do in a distillery, and suddenly I have got the opportunity. I wasn’t going to let it pass me by.”
The distillery will be located in front of Ardnahoe Loch, believed to be the deepest fresh water loch on the island, which will be its main source of water. And it is positioned just three miles from the ferry terminal, making it accessible for the island’s main transport link.
Early infrastructure work is underway now, including the construction of access roads.
Mr McEwan added: “It will be a beautiful distillery – the location is sensational. It sits high above the Sound of Islay, and it faces Mull and Iona right down the sound of Islay. It is truly a beautiful spot.”
Mr McEwan anticipates the distillery being able to produce in the region of 650,000 to 700,000 litres, which will be used exclusively for Ardnahoe single malt. And he expects to create between two and three styles, bringing in different types of wood to influence the flavours.
But Mr McEwan said he sees the creation of jobs as one of the biggest benefits of the project, noting that the welfare of Islay has always been chief among his motivations. Ardnahoe will initially employ up to 10 staff across all of its operations, including some bottling.
“Ten people in an island of 3,500, if you take the working population out of the 3,500, is a good percentage,” he said.
“And it can only grow, because we have to make as much whisky as we possibly can from the get go, because we have to wait seven years before it goes into a bottle. That’s a long time.
“When you start a new distillery it’s that wait period, when you have money going out all the time – you have got to buy the malt, you have got to buy the barrels, [and] you have to pay the salaries.
“Fortunately with [Hunter] Laing, they have the other side of the business. They are independent bottlers so they have good stocks of mature whisky. That will support us as we move down that trail towards the seven years. It’s looking really good and I’m excited.”
Asked why the company has set itself a target of introducing a malt after seven years, even though spirit can legally be sold as Scotch after maturing for three, Mr McEwan said releasing it too early would be like “giving you children away”. He said: “Let it grow up. Let it express itself. That’s how I see it. They’re like children. They have got to be given the opportunity to grow up and breathe and live. Seven years for me is a good age.”
Stewart Laing, managing director of Hunter Laing, said “I’ve known Jim for almost 50 years now and the fact that he has come out of retirement to work with us at Ardnahoe Distillery is a real honour.
“Having a man of his remarkable experience, knowledge, calibre and passion at the heart of shaping our distillery is something we’re all incredibly proud of and excited about.”