Master of Malt was lucky enough to attend a preview of new documentary The Golden Dram, set to hit cinemas from 8 March. So, what’s it all about?
If you like your whisky on screen, then you are spoiled for choice at the moment. A couple of years ago the BBC made Scotch! The Story of Whisky, there’s The Three Drinkers Do Scotch Whisky, which we wrote about recently, and Dave Broom has a crowdfunded film in the pipeline which sounds great. Now there’s The Golden Dram, and it’s directed by a man called Andrew Peat. How perfect is that?
The film features some of the biggest names in whisky including Charles MacLean, Richard Paterson (on magnificently hammy form) and Dr. Bill Lumsden. But at the heart of the film is Jim McEwan. Peat has been clever in constructing the film around this industry legend on the verge of retirement. This gives the story an elegiac, end-of-an-era quality.
McEwan was born on Islay near the Bowmore Distillery. The distillery was the heart of the town, and from an early age all he wanted to do was work there. He began as an apprentice in 1963. It was a different world. Bill Lumsden, who began his career in the 80s, tells the story of how, on his first day as a fresh-faced graduate, the distillery manager flicked his cigarette butt into a fermentation vat, just to show the college boy who was boss. There are stories about taking a dram of cask-strength whisky at 8am and another a lunchtime. Oh, for the days before health and safety!
Today, many in the business are university graduates but in McEwan’s day you worked your way up from the floor. He did shifts in all parts of Bowmore, including coopering, malting and distilling. He quickly rose through the ranks and, after a spell blending whisky in Glasgow, in 1986 he was named Bowmore distillery manager.
Under McEwan, Bowmore became one of the most highly-regarded distilleries in Scotland. When Suntory took over in 1994, head office in Japan realised what a treasure they had in McEwan and sent him off around the world spreading the word about whisky. And you can see why – when he’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. To hear him talk is to hear a master storyteller with a deep love and knowledge of whisky.
Tired of all the travelling and missing his family– there are some moving contributions from his daughters – McEwan surprised everyone by leaving Bowmore in 2000 to take over a dilapidated distillery nearby, Bruichladdich. “When Bruichladdich died the community died,” McEwan tells us at one point in the film. This is the best part of the production, seeing how McEwan and the team rebuilt the distillery and reemployed all the old team who had been laid off. No, that’s just something in my eye. His relationship with distillery manager Duncan McGillivray is particularly warm and amusing.
It is all beautifully shot with shimmering barley, sparkling water and lambs gamboling in the fields. As well as an intimate portrait of McEwan and Islay, the film also tells us some of the history of Scotch whisky and shows us how that barley is turned into the golden dram. Here, I think, it is less successful. If you don’t know how whisky is made you are probably going to be none the wiser after watching. The history element is similarly rushed. There’s stuff about the wild days of distilling before it went legal with the passing of the Excise Act in 1823, but then it jumps straight to the present day. I think something on the booms and busts that plague the industry would have been helpful in explaining why Bruichladdich and other distilleries on Islay closed. The directors could have cut many of the talking heads; there were so many that at times it reminded me a little of those 80s nostalgia shows featuring Stuart Maconie. A long segment about glass blowing also added nothing to the story.
But whenever McEwan is on screen, the film is nothing less than spellbinding. It ends with McEwan shutting the gates at Bruichladdich, we assume for the last time, to go into retirement. His work is done; Bruichladdich is back to its former glory and distilling on Islay is booming. But then, just before the credits roll, we are told that McEwan has been lured out of retirement for one final caper, building Islay’s newest distillery, Ardnahoe, which opens next month. You can’t keep him away from the business he loves.
To find out about screening for The Golden Dram go to: www.scotchthegoldendram.co.uk/cinemas/