Dave Broom catches up with Jim Mcewan, the country-hopping Brand Ambassador whose life is dedicated to whisky and telling the world about the people who spent their working lives making it.
It all began in 1990 on the back of a banana. There was an altogether weird malt whisky seminar at Bowmore in which retailers, writers and producers attempted to thrash out a workable plan for communicating about whisky. After a few drams, the option of being towed around the loch on the back of an inflatable banana was agreed to be a better strategy. It was fun, until the entertainment was curtailed when the chairman tried to water-ski and blew up the engine of the boat. It all descended into whisky-fuelled madness, par for the course – this was Islay after all.The one thing that stuck in my mind (other than the banana) was Bowmore's Distillery Manager, a man with a fund of outrageous stories and an infectious passion for his subject. Most managers are like that, but not many tell you about some part of the process and then ask you a question soon after to see if you have been paying attention. That's Jim McEwan for you.These days he's Morrison Bowmore's International Brand Ambassador and International Spirits Challenge Distiller of the Year, but that was hardly the career path he had mapped out for himself when he started as an Apprentice Cooper at the distillery in 1963. He worked under the legendary Davey Bell, Scotland's longest-serving cooper and Davey's attitude to life has stayed with him. "He wasn't just a great cooper who taught me everything he knew but a great philosopher," Jim recalls. "I learned a lot of things about life from him. He was a hard taskmaster who coopered in the old way, doing everything by hand – just in case the power went off and you couldn't make your wages!"He stepped into Davey's shoes as warehouse manager in 1969 and ran the cellars until 1977, a time when the puffers were still on the go. "You'd be in the hold with two hoggies swinging above your head and the man on the winch not knowing what day it was! By 11 a.m. everyone was flying, there were casks swinging back and forward, missing the boat, missing the lorry. God knows how they made it to Glasgow ... and how there was any whisky left when they got there." In 1977, he was moved to Glasgow where he spent seven years as a blender, before returning to take over as manager at Bowmore in 1984. "Initially, taking over was as exciting as scoring for Scotland in the last minute against England," he says. "Then you realise this isn't just a distillery, there's something to it. You develop a sense of pride in everything you do and realise how important to a manager the people are."You see, to Jim, people matter. The routine on a standard distillery visit is walk round, taste, talk and go home. No-one other than Jim does that and then takes you to meet Ruaridh MacLeod the ex-stillman at Bruichladdich and let him tell you how whisky is made. Ruaridh features prominently in Jim's talks. His last slide in any presentation is of the old man's lined face, a twinkle in the eye, at once sad, proud and wistful. It's a look that encapsulates whisky, Islay – Scotland even – in one confounding, inspiring, contradictory package.The stories of the wee man are legendary, like the time he staggered across the courtyard at Bruichladdich with a tar bucket attached to his foot after a day's 'sampling', denying to everyone that he'd even so much as smelled a dram. "What makes a great whisky distiller Ruaridh?" a friend's son once asked him. "Two things," says Ruaridh sipping at his nip. "One, never listen to the management." "The second?" asked the lad eagerly. "Never listen to the management," said Ruaridh with a smirk.That's the attitude that once prevailed. The men never listened to the management, the management never listened to the sales teams. This frisson between marketing and production is inevitable in whisky, Jim is one of the few who manage to bridge the gap. I ask him if he's somehow stuck in the middle, engaging in shuttle diplomacy. "There's been a lack of understanding of the value of the other person's skills," he says. "Lets face it, we can make it, but if we can't sell it we're going nowhere. Its got better in our own company. We've put a lot of time into training at the distillery. We've taken our sales team and got them to work with the crew here. Now they've got a name they can put to the men. Suddenly they're people. These same rules should apply everywhere if we're to go forward as a industry."I managed to grab him during a visit he was making to Islay with a group of Japanese barmen. As we headed off along the beach to sit on the shore of Loch Indaal they were being given a peat-cutting masterclass by 'Stormin' Norman Campbell. What has that to do with Bowmore? Its got everything to do with Bowmore ... and Laphroaig, Ardbeg and the rest. You need to see the big picture, how whisky impacts on the island. "These barmen are totally dedicated to the malts of Islay," says Jim. "Let them meet Norman or Angus Darroch the stillman, let them turn the malt in the barns. They'll never forget that. They'll leave with a warm feeling and stand behind the bar with some confidence and talk about whisky."Clever marketing? I don't think so. He is just passionate about his subject and sees it touching everything on the island. As we pause to raid the bramble bushes of the last of their fruit I remember how every visit has involved us laughing, tasting and smelling our way across the island: leaping out of the van to smell the difference between gorse and broom, or finally pinning a light seaside note in a dram to the smell of a clump of sea thrifts at the high water mark on the beach. Insane? The hikers we picked up certainly thought so.As we sit in the late autumn warmth, the loch coggling against the stones, the white-painted Bruichladdich opposite, the conversation suddenly takes a different, sombre, turn. I observe that, as mergers continue and firms get larger, so people come in from other industries who see whisky as a commodity."We're losing one and a half distilleries a year. When I started, there were 120 but if it continues at this rate, by the time I die we'll be down to maybe 60 ... with more mergers on the horizon it will be horrendous."But are you raging against the dying of the light? You're talking about an industry that believed in apprenticeship, in people, in high manning levels, but that's an exception these days. Most plants now are three men and a manager off site. Can you turn it back?"I doubt it. I guess automation is the way of the world, but I think a distillery without a manager is unbelievable. The 'savings' made by cutting jobs wouldn't be able to pay a fraction of the handouts paid to so-called experts who who walk in promising to change the world, last for two years and leave with pockets bulging, pension plans intact having left bugger-all behind but closed distilleries and empty houses."He sighs, chucks a stone into the loch and looks out to the far shore. "We've still got a hell of a long way to go Davey. The industry may be 500 years old but the job to educate people is still like trying to climb Mount Everest in a pair of gymshoes. It can be done, but we need the right tools and more than anything we need the right commitment. Everywhere I go the demand, the interest, the goodwill and the passion that people have for malt whisky would move you to tears. We have to harness that passion and bring them with us. If we can teach them, there will be a fantastic future for whisky."But are enough people trying to educate them?"I'd like to see a global generic campaign, maybe run by the SWA, looking at markets that need help and I hope more young guys like David Robertson or Bill Lumsden come along on the road – joining Jim Cryle, John Ramsay, Robert Hicks, David Stewart, Colin Scott and myself. There's not enough of us."But is that Brand Ambassador role marketing? Education or entertainment? It's not a line of questioning he likes. To Jim, 'entertainment' infers he is no more than a storyteller rather than someone who tells you his life night after night, giving a piece of himself to the audience. I've touched a raw nerve."To hold an audience you have to be entertaining, so what do you talk about? Yourself, your life at the distillery, your experiences. It didn't come easy, so I get angry when people imply this is bullshit."Maybe, I suggest, his open nature means it doesn't strike him as weird to take you to meet Ruaridh. It's hardly your classic marketing technique is it?He laughs. "Aye, but the man is something special. I end every talk with that slide of him and tell people about his contribution to the industry. That's the way to go, get the honesty and integrity of guys like that. Get rid of the Mickey Mouse stuff, the pipers in the glen. I'm not about that bullshit." The cloud lifts and he's off again with stories of the wild old days, culminating in Donald's haircut (see below). There's the man who invited a horse he was convinced could speak Gaelic into his front room for a dram, getting the gauger's sniffer dog drunk so it ran away when it smelled whisky, the tricks played on the locals who would sneak in to steal the wash, the binman who pretended to be the Morrison Bowmore's Master Blender – those absurd, surreal stories that only people who have lived on the west coast of Scotland know to be true. This is a part of the world that's far, far stranger than anyone can ever believe.But under the laughs there's that line – 'his contribution to the industry'. Who remembers the names of the Stillmen? No one gives the men who made the whisky a second thought. If this was the wine industry they would be held up as gods.It can't be easy when everyone wants a piece of you, when your mobile phone never stops ringing. It's a tough lifestyle. "I love the job, but when you're standing in New Jersey at 2 a.m. with the rain pouring off you while you're trying to hail a cab you wonder 'is it worth it?'" he says with a wry smile. "Then the next night you get a fantastic response and it's all worthwhile. As long as there's a couple of people who want to know about whisky I'll talk to them, whether they're in Taiwan or Tarbert." As the first skein of wintering geese flies over us he's off to rescue the hungover Japanese ambassadors from Norman's clutches. After that it's Canada for a month, then back to Islay, where his heart is. The never-ending tour goes on.
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