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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Jim McEwan Tribute & Bruichladdich 22 yo Whisky Review!

Unfortunately this review starts on a rather sad note. For those who aren't aware, Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich's Master Distiller, is retiring this coming week. On the 23rd of July, 2015, to be precise. So, rather than just a review of 'Laddie 22', which I've wanted to try for quite some time, this is also a tribute to the man who helped create it.

It's quite possible, I think, that if it weren't for Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich might not have 'made it' at all. Certainly it would not have reached the heights that it has today without his hard work. After a massive 52 years in the industry, Islay-native Jim has gone from being an apprentice cooper (building barrels), to master distiller at what is, in my opinion, one of the top distilleries in Scotland, and is now hanging up his hat.

Bruichladdich distillery was 'moth-balled', basically shut down, in the mid-1990s, until a group of private investors purchased the distillery in early 2000. They hired Jim, who was working for Bowmore at the time, to help bring the distillery back to life. They rebuilt the distillery, keeping much of the original equipment, and re-hiring much of the staff, and it began producing whisky again in 2001. These days the distillery is owned by Remy-Cointreau, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any obvious differences so far, which is promising.

Aside from 'laddie's excellent un-peated range, we have Jim (and team) to thank for bringing us Octomore and Port Charlotte whiskies, and of course the Black Art series. We also owe him thanks for the decisions to not chill filter, to bottle at a decent strength, to not add any artificial colouring, and to mature and bottle their malt on-site. Bruichladdich is, in fact, the largest private employer on the island of Islay, not including the local farmers who are supplying barley to the distillery. 

Jim's incredible passion for his island home, his workplace, and whisky in general, is totally genuine, and ingrained in his soul. I was lucky enough to see him in action during one of his many tours last year, so I can tell you first-hand that his passion is also infectious! It shows in the distillery's tasting notes as well, I think, which are really whisky poetry. Have a browse here for proof, but I should warn you, you'll want to drink whisky afterwards. And during. The man is truly a master distiller, and a true whisky legend.

Seeing as Jim currently lives on the distillery site, I don't think we've seen the last of his influence just yet, but with his retirement, current assistant distillery manager Adam Hannett is taking the reigns as head distiller. He's been learning from Jim for some time already, but he has some big shoes to fill. No pressure! Anyway, let's raise a glass to Jim, and drink some Bruichladdich!

The 'Laddie 22yo is one of the oldest malts Bruichladdich have released, and is part of their un-peated range. It was bottled at 46%, due to it being released prior to the distillery's move up to 50% as their standard strength. As with all 'Laddie's, it's non-chill filtered and bottled without adding colouring. Let's just remind ourselves what a massive expanse of time 22 years is. I was in primary school 22 years ago! So this whisky has sat peacefully in ex-bourbon casks, in Bruichladdich's warehouse on Islay, breathing in the sea air, for quite some time. This also means it was distilled prior to the distillery shutting down, and was selected by the new team, when it re-opened, to go the distance. Sounds promising...

Bruichladdich 'Laddie' 22yo, 46%, Islay, Scotland.
Ex-bourbon cask matured, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Un-peated.

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: Stewed banana and apple, sea breezes. Fresh, buttery pastry and creamy caramel. Salted, toasted nuts, vanilla ice cream, slightly floral.

Texture: Medium body, no heat at all. 

Taste: Creamy & light, slightly salty. Stewed fruits, lemon oil, some spice. Dried malted barley and some dry, spicy oak. 

Finish: Medium length, juicy barley, white pepper, a little honey. Drying with a dash of spice. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Surprisingly fresh & light for it's age, the un-peated laddie character is still there, but it's matured and mellowed. Very easy drinking and well-balanced. Unfortunately it's a little hard to find now, likewise the 10yo and 16yo 'Laddie's, with the un-peated range having mostly moved to non-age statement, like many other distilleries. 

That doesn't make them less enjoyable though, the standard 'laddie classic' is still a great entry-level malt. In fact I believe they've also increased their standard bottling strength to 50% as well, which certainly helps ease the pain! The 22yo is still available here and at Dan Murphy's on-line, and both are quite reasonably priced, but stock has to be running low.    

A review of Black Art may have been a more fitting toast to Mr. McEwan, it having been his secret recipe malt, but the 3rd release was one of my first reviews, and is now quite hard to find. But, that bottle isn't empty yet, so I'm enjoying a 'wee dram' of that mysterious malt as I write this. In fact, let's have a toast. If you like, grab a glass of Bruichladdich / Port Charlotte / Octomore, stick The Proclaimers on, crank the volume, and toast Jim with me. Unless you're at work, then perhaps use headphones...

A heart-felt and humble thanks to you, Jim McEwan, for your hard work over the last 52 years in the industry. You've helped bring Bruichladdich back from the grave, I'm sure it's been a labour of love, and it's not going anywhere now. Thanks for pushing the boundaries, sticking to your (and our) values, and being a true master distiller. Enjoy your retirement, and may your glass never run dry!