Column: Beverages

by Gus Donohoo

A Master Distiller Tells a Buoyant Tale of Whisky Vapor and Eternal Youth

The stars that line the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard are a timid, human comment on immortality—certainly not a stellar one (those stars are fucking old)—but are made poignant by that wafer-thin golden line in Hollywood, that sees Porsches park beside paupers, and death and life live side-by-side. 

I’ve arrived at the Spanish Colonial Style lounge of the Roosevelt Hotel after a stroll north from the Flaunt Offices, treading sweaty steps on a shadowless Los Angeles day. The man I’m to meet is Jim McEwan, the Master Distiller of Bruichladdich Whisky. He’s immaculately dressed in a tweed suit and is a character teeming with life and enthusiasm, he’ll tell me a story of an Elixir of Eternal Youth.

In myth and fable, many reluctant souls have sought out eternity via a holy cup, a sorcerer’s potion, a philosopher’s stone, or an elixir of life. Many presumably began this quest at the bottom of a bottle. Who better to ask about such elixirs than a modern potion maker, the artisan behind some of the finest Scotches on the planet.

There was a record kept by a very famous traveler off the western isles of Scotland. A historian, he was traveling through [and] writing down the lifestyle—what people were eating and doing—because there was no transportation in 1495. He was in the Western Isles, up in Lewis and Harris, and somewhere up there, there was a group of holy men distilling whiskey.

These holy men were not stupid. They were marketing geniuses.

They said: “We’re distilling four times, if you take one spoonful you’ll live forever, if you take two spoonfuls you’ll go blind, and should you take three spoonfuls your heart will stop and you will fall down dead.”

So all the rich guys in Scotland were sending their servants to the island to get the one spoonful. Of course, the rich guys died [eventually], but what a marketing gig that was!

So I read this book and I thought, “I’ve got to do this, I’ve really got to make this stuff! It hasn’t been done since 1495!” And I’m thinking, “Why have you got to do it? Your stills are old, you could blow the place up! In fact, you could make Islay into two islands—if it detonates you’ll separate the island!” So anyway, I thought, “You only come this way once, right? You’ve got to do it!” So I set off on this journey of double distillation? Not a problem. Triple distillation? Not a problem. And now you’re down to quadruple distillation…

It gets more complicated with each distillation because of the strength of the alcohol in the old stills. It’s highly combustible. So the highest possible strength you can get in a pot still is 89.4% alcohol, and nobody’s been there—ever. I’m quite sure those guys in the Western Isles haven’t been there.

So we set off on [that] journey and we got to the fourth distillation during the night when there was nobody around, just myself and one of the old still guys and I’m thinking; “Starship Enterprise, we’ve got to go.”

And I’m watching this, and the old still is starting to tremble a bit, you know? And I’m watching the hydrometer: 87...88...89… Point-five to go and we’ve touched the void, you know? And the old guy that was with me said, “Neil, we’re just about to make history, we’re almost there!”’ And he could see it was going to be very, very dangerous, so he said, “Is there anything I can do to help you Jim?” And I said, “Yeah, can you go and get two fire extinguishers? If I’m suddenly enveloped in a ball of fire will you try and save my life?”

[Editor’s note: At this point Jim jumps up and strides across the lounge] 

And Neil goes away, and he comes back in with two fire extinguishers [Jim points his fingers like pistols from across the room] and he says, “Okay Jim, you’re good to go. Take it home, take it home.”

I said, “Neil we’re at 89.1.” [Jim starts backing out of the lounge] He says, “Jim, I’m with you all the way.” [He backs out further] “Keep going Jim, keep going.” [Jim gets to the edge of the room behind a column, and sticks one pistol finger around each side]

And we touched it. We touched it! We touch 89.4, and then [Neil says], “Shit, get it off before it blows up!”

 The conversation delves deeper and deeper into the art and the craft—the voodoo and the sorcery—behind making the finest Scotch Whisky. But like those old men of lore who were consumed by their quest for eternity—like the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang whose potion makers failed him, and who turned to launching fleets of virgins across savage seas—like those men I had to know, I had to turn the conversation back—“What Jim, what is the Elixir of Eternal Youth?”

 Traditional, old-style, well-distilled whisky made with passion and pride, with no additives, and no takeaways, just as it comes off the still. Using the best barley available from Scotland, using the best casks available from around the world, and maturing it in its own natural environment, let it mature slowly...You will live forever. Like the guys in the north, one spoonful you’ll live forever...

 So perhaps Jim and the holy men are right, perhaps eternal life can be captured with just a spoonful—by restricting yourself to just a spoonful—perhaps it lies in moderation. In putting down the whisky tumbler, the donut, the cigar…perhaps the quest for immortality is a quest for self-control. I ponder this, and savor another immoderate sip.