Directed by Greg Swartz, ‘The Water of Life is a feature documentary that focuses on the craftsmen, chemists, and renegades at the heart of the whisky revolution that turned the stagnant scotch whisky industry of the 1980s into the titan it is today’ – WoLF
Largely focusing on the legacy of Jim McEwan [JM] and Mark Reynier [MR], the film starts with a glimpse of Jim’s renowned ‘Highland Toast‘.
Charles MacLean [CM] opens with: “A good friend of mine who works in the whisky industry once said, when you buy a bottle of whisky, you buy a hell of a lot more than liquor in a bottle”. He follows this by providing the historical context around the earliest written reference to whisky at Lindores Abbey in 1494. With a large number of commentators speaking of the virtues of whisky, timeline-wise, the film then jumps swiftly to the mid-1900s.
After the [second] war, rising demand for whisky was matched by production expansion from the 1950s onwards. By the 1970s, however, whisky had become extremely unfashionable, typically seen as ‘dad’s drink’.
The now fading whisky industry had become all about uniformity [colouring], consistency [bland blended brands], and price. “60% of whisky is dominated by two companies, 80% by 5 companies. It’s hugely consolidated” [MR]. The backbone of that industry centred around blended Scotch. Mark adds “By 1985, single malt whisky accounted for 0.5% of whisky sales”.
Whilst demand slowed and orders ceased, production did not. This led to the whisky loch and a swathe of distillery closures,… Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Port Ellen,… to name a few. “About 30 distilleries closed” [CM]. Whole areas reliant on whisky & the trade of whisky became ghost towns.
Following a huge consolidation of moth-balled & closed distilleries, unwanted stock of [single malt] whisky was off-loaded. This whisky “dribbled out into the marketplace” [MR]. “Single malt whisky was the preserve of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan and Glenmorangie”, says Billy Walker [BW]. “The independent bottlers came along and they created a new opportunity. Suddenly, all kinds of new names were appearing on bottles and that really was a new passageway into the market for single malt whisky” [BW]. “Into the 1980s, a lot of malt whiskies were only available from Independent bottlers,…. born out of wine & spirits merchants”,… [CM] such as Gordon & MacPhail.
Independent bottlers were integral to the whisky boom we are seeing today, experimenting and presenting whisky experiences to customers, above & beyond what the blends could/were doing. Talk of non-chill filtered, higher/cask strength single malts without additional colour was a dialog very much pushed by independent bottlers. Steven Rankin [G&M] explains that his great grandfather, John Urquhart, in a reaction to the upheaval at the turn of the [19/20th] century “made a decision not to progress with a blending career,… he very much focused on doing single malt whiskies as representations of distilleries from the local area”.
Charles explains the industry mindset at the time: “The rest of the industry thought this was ridiculous. Who on earth would want to drink single malt whisky”? Eventually, however, Diageo responded and responded well with the six classic Regional Malts.
This series demonstrated that whiskies from different regions and from different distilleries were different – game-changing stuff. “Single malt whisky starts then. It starts in 1985. It’s that new” [MR].
It wasn’t, however, until the mid-late 1990s that there was an upturn in optimism [and sales] when the whisky industry began focusing on single malt whisky as opposed to blends – an idea that would have seemed preposterous only a few years before. Aside from William Grant’s workhorse Kininvie , only one other new Scottish whisky distillery was born in the 1990s. ‘Against this tide of closures – when the industry seemed non-existent – Harold Currie bought land on Arran in 1993, started building in 1994, and began making spirit in 1995. He brought whisky making back to the island after 150 years‘ [WLP].
From the ashes – phoenix rising – the death of blends sees the birth of single malt. “Single malt whisky starts in 1985”, says Mark,…. as an “underground movement”. Billy Walker was told he was crazy to start up Benriach when all around him were closed after closed distilleries. “We had a feeling that something was happening out in the fringes. People were waking up to single malt whisky” [BW].
Soon enough, existing closed distilleries reopened whilst others expanded/embraced change. The reopening of Bruichladdich on Islay [see pic] – the spiritual home of whisky – was borne from the unlikely partnership between Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan and signified the changing fortunes of the whisky industry as we know it today.
Mark Reynier’s drinks background was in wine. His education started young. Sat around the dinner table as kids, Mark recalls they had to guess the wine in the decanter before they could start eating.
Years later, Mark serendipitously wins a £1000 bottle of whisky at a Milroy’s tombola and is subsequently invited to try some samples after collecting his prize. It was an old man’s drink, Whisky Soda, Whisky Mac,… no one of his generation drank whisky, Mark explains.
Begrudgingly, he [Mark] agrees to try a few cask samples, inadvertently finding qualities/complexities/subtleties in one of the whiskies that he had only identified before in wine. “Amazing”, he thought. That whisky was a Bruichladdich. Inspired that he had stumbled across something no one knew anything about [his words], he knew he had to do something about it.
- “The most amazing ambassador for the Island, Islay”
- “Very much an Islay Legend”
- “Whisky Legend, and I don’t use that term lightly”
- “One of the original showmen in whisky”
- “The most enthusiastic exponent of Islay the island, and whisky itself”
Jim left school at 15 to start an apprenticeship at Bowmore  as a cooper under David Bell – the longest-serving cooper in Scotland [see pic]
Jim worked his way through every job at the distillery, eventually becoming distillery manager at Bowmore. Later, he found himself in an Ambassador role where he travelled all over the world spreading the Bowmore story. His heart, however, was back in Islay making whisky.
Looking over at Bruichladdich from Bowmore, Jim said [to Dave Broom] “Someday, I would love to make whisky at that distillery”. “Bruichladdich for me was Cinderella”, says Jim, “… it never got to the ball”. Bowmore was very much a traditional job where you stuck to the tried & tested method/recipe. Bruichladdich offered something very new = no rule book.
Mark Reynier, meanwhile, was determined to visit the distillery that had made this amazing whisky he had tried in London. Convincing his brother to come along on the trip, the two of them made their way to Islay on bicycles via the West Coast of Scotland’s island golf courses. Finally at the gates of Bruichladdich, Mark was “,.. met with massive disillusion”. Witnessing a ramshackle distillery, Bruichladdich was abandoned, the gates shut, and a sign on the gate that read:
This, Mark says, “encompasses the whole whisky industry at the time”. Laughing at his recollection, Mark’s introduction to Bruichladdich was being told to “fuck off”. Undeterred, Mark set out to buy Bruichladdich from owners Whyte & MacKay [SW].
The idea of a distillery being brought by individuals backed by a small business consortium was unheard of in the 1990s – “there was no precedent for this” [MR] – but eventually, owners W&M agreed to sell Bruichladdich to team-Mark Reynier at a nail-biting one minute to twelve on Friday 19th December – the day Mark’s son was born,… “one hell of a day”, concludes Mark.
Jim McEwan then got a call from John Mctaggart at Bruichladdich asking him whether he’d join the distillery as Production Director. Despite having worked at Bowmore for nearly 40 years, Jim jumped at the chance. As there was no cooper at Bruichladdich, Jim used to go and fix the casks there on the weekends when he wasn’t working at Bowmore. Mark was most taken with Jim. Both Jim and Mark were keen, not only to bring Bruichladdich back to life, but also to create something new,… something groundbreaking.
Alongside trend-setters Arran in 1993, the re-opening of Bruichladdich distillery in 2000 marked the beginning of the new wave of distilleries, owned and run by private individuals.
When they got started at Bruichladdich, “everything was broken, but everyone chipped in and things got done” [MR].
In the warehouse, there was an inventory of old stock going back to 1964, “most of it could be as clear as dishwater,… the barrels were so old, they never did anything at all”, says Mark.
- CM: “The old boys used to say ‘the wood makes the whisky'”.
- JM: “You don’t get bad whiskies. What you get is bad casks”.
Bruichladdich’s legacy stock had to be turned, somehow, into a brand and the idea of putting a whisky into another cask type was innovative at the time.
Additional Cask Evolution [aka ACE-ing or finishing] techniques were pioneered by David Stewart, an idea borne from very limited expressions that were around in the 1960 & 1970s, explains David. The Balvenie Classic was the first openly talked about ‘ACE-ed’ double-casked whisky, famously followed by Balvenie’s Double Wood. Bruichladdich ran with this idea and turned it into their ethos, offering [nearly] every single [allowable] cask permutation that we know and see today. “Here was a distillery beating a different drum, and that appealed to the immerging generation of consumers” [Ralfy].
However, the new owners at Bruichladdich struggled to afford new casks such as sherry barrels. Mark and Simon Coughlin looked to the wine industry that was making sherry-like wines, introducing wine barrels to the whisky industry in a way it hadn’t seen before. This process began to break down the “you can’t use wine barrels” snobbery. “What are sherry barrels if they’re not wine barrels?”, asks Mark.
“It opened up a whole new palate to me”, and allowed Bruichladdich to introduce flavours “never experienced before,… by anyone” [JM]. “The whisky took to the new casks like you wouldn’t believe”, says Jim. In a year/year and a half, they’d brought Bruichladdich’s old flagging spirit back to life.
“Perhaps there aren’t as many true mavericks anymore, guys like Jim McEwan learning, quite literally from scratch, how the business runs – every single angle of it” [Joel Harrison].
From Bruichladdich’s existing stock, Jim had created a large dynamic ‘range’ early on, bombarding the market with bottle after bottle, choice after choice. As a result, faithful Bruichladdich collectors have rather large collections.
All this, and Bruichladdich hadn’t actually produced any new whisky yet. Cask 1 & 2 were finally filled in 2001.
Bruichladdich became synonymous with transparency – natural colour, non-chill filtration,… all fairly revolutionary at the time – their whiskies creatively packaged with colourful stories and cool names: Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Yellow Submarine, for example. They [Bruichladdich] weren’t the first to do these things, but these practices became their mantra.
Another change in the industry came in the form of science. Herriot Watt was churning out chemists & scientists who then applied their knowledge & skills to distilling. People such as Dr Bill Lumsden, Dr Rachel Barrie, and Dr Jim Swan – the renowned expert in maturation and “one of the earliest people applying science to understanding what was happening during distillation and to maturation of whisky” [CM].
Working under the late great Jim Swan, “we looked at sensory assessment, instrumental analysis, maspectometry, gas chromatograph,…..high-performance liquid chromatography”, says Rachel Barrie. “I also learned to use my nose”, she adds. Before it was science vs art. “,…. it was really bringing those two together, the science and the senses”, says Rachel.
Billy Walker [see pic] had established a solid whisky background and passion for the industry. Benriach with Billy at the helm followed Bruichladdich’s lead. Going on to Glendronach and then Glenglassaugh, Billy turned these unknown/undervalued distilleries into household names by using all the cask programmes/techniques at his disposal. “Unquestionably, wood is my favourite colour to paint with and all varieties of wood”, explains Billy.
Jim McEwan recalls critics who said Bruichladdich wasn’t a proper Islay distillery. Islay = peat. That’s why [40ppm] Port Charlotte came in, says Jim, “to shut these guys up forever”. Pushing the envelope even further, it was said you could never go higher than 50ppm. From observing the methods used in smoking salmon – no heat involved, just [cool] smoke – Bruichladdich smoked barley over minimal heat for four days. The results were staggering. Octomore was borne, the first release coming in at 167ppm. Jim’s experimentation ‘to take barley to a place never before seen, resulted in Bruichladdich now offering non-peated Islay whisky, peated Port Charlotte – more phenols than ever seen before – Octomore. Jim’s experiments even included 4x distillation! These ground-breaking experiments contributed to Bruichladdich’s colossal range and variety of single malt, as well as creating a mystique around the whisky, no better demonstrated/symbolised than by Jim’s Black Art.
“Jim revelled in the freedom he was given,… sometimes a little too much”, says Mark. Many battles – MR: “friction”, JM: “fighting” – between Mark & Jim ensued, both being outspoken, strong, independent, opinionated,… That conflict/energy drove the growth of the distillery 10 times faster, explains Jim “,.. we detonated. The most unlikely partnership in the history of whisky”.
Mark was frustrated. He wanted to bring in philosophies from the wine world. “It’s about barley”, so let’s bring on Islay barley. The whisky industry, explains Mark, buys barley based on price & consistency, and from anywhere. “Most of it doesn’t even come from Scotland”.
It was difficult to persuade locals to grow barley on Islay who hadn’t done so, for whisky anyways, for 100 years. James Brown [of Octomore farm] says “this was a completely new idea from Mark Reynier”. “We set up the first barley proving project, to prove once and for all, that terroir influences barley” [MR]. Farmers were invited to Bruichladdich to taste the [2004/2005] spirit made from their own barley. Once the farmers had compared and identified that there were differences, they began rationalising and attributing those differences as being down to soil type, location etc,.. “This is what it’s all about”, says Mark “,… it’s traceability, this is provenance,…. this is the real deal” – growing, distilling, ageing, and bottling a whisky, all made on the island. “Other distilleries are satellites. Terroir will be a buzzword in ten years time, but at the moment, the principle is to knock it”[MR].
Mark and Jim were confident in their new product. All they needed now was time. The first four years saw a loss with only small profits in subsequent years going straight back into the business. Bruichladdich was all about the people. Up to 18 farms were involved with growing barley, the distillery run by young locals, championed by Jim, who could take things forward. Bruichladdich provided jobs and encouraged tourism = a great impact for Islay.
In 2000, the IWSC awarded Bruichladdich the title Distiller Of The Year [website], followed by a further flurry of awards and good news stories when the news around them wasn’t so positive. “The doubters stopped doubting”, which made a number of companies sit up and take note. “Cinderella did go to the ball” [JM].
Then all of a sudden, Bruichladdich’s shareholders receive an offer from Remy Martin and agree to sell the distillery for £58 million.
- Jim is pragmatic about it. It meant the distillery could increase production and expand international markets.
- Mark is “gobsmacked”, and frank about how it cost him emotionally. They [Remy] are the right people for the job, says Mark. He simply didn’t like it. With a powerless role, he/it was gone.
Since 2004, we’ve seen 32 new distilleries in Scotland – “Unprecedented” [CM] – “Peak whisky mania” [Becky Paskin].
The potential production of whisky in Scotland during this time has increased to just over 60%. The industry is booming, Ardbeg is doubling production, Kilchoman too with a new malting floor,….
For the up-starts, there are no rules or traditions that these distilleries have to adhere to. There are, however, new challenges for all new & existing distilleries.
Firstly, the new single malt consumer is educated and discerning. Secondly, as CM explains, the new distilleries can’t fall back on traditional blending markets, so their whisky will have to stand up for itself as a single malt. We’ve typically seen inaugural whiskies from new distilleries being sold out via ballot before they’ve even been bottled, or in some cases, before a distillery has even been built. After those inaugural releases have flown, however, what then? The new landscape is becoming a more and more crowded market for new distilleries entering the arena.
We are now at a crossroads where the golden generation of masters, many with 50-60 years of experience in the industry, are handing the reigns onto their apprentices. This generational pass-over – a continuing theme in the film – contains all these nuggets of knowledge that aren’t written in textbooks,… “tricks of the trade learned over decades” [Blair Bowman].
In 2015, Jim handed over the keys to Alan & Adam Hannett, as his master had to him. The hand-over included the recipe for Black Art . Though the significance of this wasn’t lost, Bruichladdich’s new master distiller threw the recipe in the bin [so the story goes]. ‘He needs to make the new Black Art the way he needs to make it’, was the takeaway.
And so the journey goes on. The old ways pass and the new ways come in. As for Jim, Mark, Billy,… does/can anyone retire from whisky? It’s the water of life after all. Despite announcing his retirement, Jim found himself assisting at Ardnahoe and also consulting at Cape Byron Distillery in Australia. After making his second fortune selling Glendronach & Glenglassaugh, Billy Walker kick-starts Glenallachie [WLP]. Meanwhile, everything Mark wanted to do at Bruichladdich he is now doing at Waterford [WLP], continuing his terroir mission and stepping up traceability and provenance to a new time high.
The film finishes with a plethora of ponderings over whisky and the meaning of life by many of the contributors who appear with regularity in the film. They include:
- Iain Croucher [NSS], Blair Bowman [whisky writer], Josh Peters [The Whisky Jug], Becky Paskin [whisky writer/Our Whisky], Chris Leggat [Douglas Laing], Lachlan McIntyre [Glasgow Distillery], Neil Ridley [writer],…
- ,… Allan Logan [Bruichladdich], Ralfy [see pic], Billy Walker [Glenallachie], David Stewart [Balvenie], Keith Cruickshank [Benromach], Joel Harrison [whisky/drinks writer], Steven Rankin [G&M], Rachel MacNeill [Islay Whisky Academy], Dr Bill Lumsden [WA], Rachel Barrie [Master Blender],……
All describe what whisky is, in essence – ‘unlike any other spirit’ and ‘a lot of things to a lot of people’.
A celebration of whisky today, The Water of Life reveals there’s more to single malt than what’s in the glass. A fantastic whisky film, it paints a compelling picture of those key to the single malt whisky craze we are witnessing today, featuring those who continue to be influential. It makes me wonder, when we look back to this time a hundred years from now, which names will appear in the history books as pioneers of this whisky boom that began at the end of the 20th century. Is it not likely to be the names Jim McEwan, Mark Reynier, Billy Walker,… [Arran’s] Harold Currie, [Kilchoman’s] Anthony Wills,… ?
Further reading and watching:
- The Water of Life – Film
- Jim McEwan on the V-pub
- Interview with Jim  – coolhunting.com
- Jim interviewed on WhiskyCast in 2021
- Inside The Cask
- Spotlight on Waterford – WLP