An Afternoon with Lynne McEwan
By Franz Scheurer
Lynne McEwan, Sales Manager of Bruichladdich, Islay’s fastest growing distillery, lives and breathes Single Malt. She also happens to be the daughter of Bruichladdich’s Master Distiller, Jim McEwan and, although now a Glasgow resident, she still considers herself an Illeach (one born and bred on Islay). When not in her office, she’s travelling, spreading her whisky knowledge to every corner of the world. A down-to-Earth, straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of gal, she knows her product intimately and is determined to set straight the generalisations and half-truths often trotted out about Islay whiskies.
I caught up with her in Sydney a couple of days ago, to talk whisky and share a couple of drams. Here’s what I learnt:
Needless to say, Bruichladdich does not use caramel, nor are their whiskies chill-filtered. Bruichladdich is seen as a top marketeer with many different expressions hitting the shelves on a regular basis, but what the consumer may not realise is that Jim McEwan is now like a kid in a candy store, free of the restrictions governing larger, non-family-owned distilleries, and free to create whiskies that he thinks work best, not just reproduce what’s been made for the last few hundred years.
As the distillery was closed in the latter part of last century they have a lot of very old and very young stocks, but nothing in-between, so Jim had no alternative but to marry younger expressions with older. As the law governs that an age statement must represent the youngest whisky used, many of Bruichladdich’s finest blends are released without an age statement. This is a formidable way to create superb whisky without constraints.
As a small company, Bruichladdich values any cost savings they can make, but will never sacrifice quality; so, instead of using ex-Bourbon barrels (they gave Sherry barrels away a while back when they received a really inferior batch), they use ex-wine barrels. They are plentiful, cheaper to ship and impart flavours and aromas that do not otherwise exist in whiskies. One of the best expressions I’ve tried is the new 18 y/o, using barrels from the talented Austrian, Willi Opitz Zweigelt, formerly containing Trockenbeerenauslese. It’s an outstanding, complex and alluring whisky.
I was also interested to learn that they use Victorian equipment, relying on labour intensive practises to make their whisky and not on computers and computer driven machinery. They work at Port Charlotte, a distillery a short stroll from Bruichladdich, using Lomond stills, whose moving plates inside the still give greater control over the final distillate. Jim says that no one’s ever used these stills properly until now, and he’ll make spirits with them unlike any ever seen. I have no doubt he’ll succeed.
Bruichladdich is working on what they call the ‘Islay DNA’. They employ locals and source local produce, even convincing local farmers to grow barley. They are the only ones on Islay with their own bottling line and although shipping the empty bottles onto Islay then exporting them full is expensive, they persist. Only Islay water is used for distillation and reduction of a/vol and, as the local barley is not enough to cover the entire supply, they ship the local water and peat to the mainland to have extra barley malted. Port Ellen’s malting floors (the only malting floors on the island, owned by Diageo) are not an option for Bruichladdich as the quantities are small and their requirements exotic.
Bruichladdich is truly an enthusiasts’ distillery, going where no one else dares and using quality produce and practices to bring international recognition to a small, previously unknown company. Just try one of their whiskies and see for yourself!
As Jim says (on the company website):
“By industry comparison Bruichladdich bottlings are ridiculously small. Our natural whiskies are not standardised. We consequently have the opportunity (and inclination) to update, refine and develop our cuvées regularly. Not ones for standing still, we are proud to introduce new aspects of The Laddie’s character as we discover them.”
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