Whisky has exploded in popularity and price around the world. Every day, new customers immerse themselves in this most unique of spirits. And as their knowledge grows, these consumers demand ever more complexity and innovation from each new dram they try.
Time and time again aficionados have proven they are willing to spend big money if the whisky delivers a transcendent experience. Distillers have both immense pressure and vast creative opportunities to stand out in this robust marketplace.
The Water of Life tells the stories of a handful of these whisky masters and how each has done just, coaxing their unique flavors from the barrels, the fires, the stills, even the warehouses themselves, via a process that in itself is nearly universal.
Some turn to the past, some invent the future, but all of them create incredible spirits, many of which they themselves will never experience after the decades necessary to complete aging.
The world seemingly cannot get enough.
With hundreds of distilleries across Scotland (and more popping up almost weekly), it would be impossible to tell all of their stories. Instead, we focus on a handful of distillers and craftspeople who are at the forefront of today’s global whisky explosion and how their work in this most special of industries impacts the people and towns throughout rural Scotland.
At the center of our story is the legendary Jim McEwan.
Born next door to the Bowmore Distillery, Jim has spent his entire life in whisky, continually breaking new ground. With the recent opening of his latest venture, Ardnahoe Distillery, Jim realized a dream of building a new distillery from the ground up.
As a teenager Jim began working at Bowmore as a cooper’s apprentice (after some unofficial work sweeping floors as a boy). He went on to hold nearly every job that a distillery has to offer, even leaving at one point to become a master blender. He later returned to Bowmore as the master distiller for 12 years.
After expressing sorrow that the Bruichladdich Distillery — visible across Loch Indaal from Bowmore — stood closed, destiny called on Jim. He became part of the team that revitalized Bruichladdich, shaking the whisky world. With award after award, the Bruichladdich team signaled a bold new era in what could be accomplished with a drink that, by law, has only three ingredients. Jim created truly groundbreaking expressions, hiring dozens of locals who otherwise might have had to leave Islay, and in the process grew a once-mothballed distillery into a whisky powerhouse in less than 15 years.
But Jim is a master at something else, too: storytelling. His ribald and passionate tales about whisky and life on Islay are the stuff of legend, and they serve as the perfect complement to the drams he makes.
Liam Hughes, creator of the new Glasgow Distillery, its name as inconspicuous as its location in a suburban industrial estate, is commercially releasing its first whisky as this is being written. But it’s already creating a buzz and, in fact, sold out its entire pre-production run.
A transplanted Irishman, Hughes and his small outfit have created a large following for their Makar Gin, and the whisky has started winning awards at trade shows, led by their Prometheus.
Long before cask experimentation became common place, David Stewart was busy creating what is now universally known as The Balvenie DoubleWood. He’s been the malt master for William Grant & Sons for more than 55 years, has been honored by the Queen with an MBE, and has recently named his heir apparent, Kelsey McKechnie. We talk with master and apprentice together, exploring what goes into each day, year, and decade of making some of the world’s most respected whiskies.
When Billy Walker bought the mothballed BenRiach Distillery, people told him he was crazy. By the time he added Glendronach and Glenglassaugh to the stable, the critics had largely been silenced. Walker, who is both a master blender and a master entrepreneur, sold the three distilleries for nearly $400m a few years ago. Did he ride off into the sunset? No way. He bought the always overlooked GlenAllachie and set about changing the whisky landscape yet again.