Editor’s Note: This book was provided to us as a review sample by Plaasen Verlag. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
This is not a book about whisky. If one were seeking to learn about whisky, it would not be on my recommended reading list. It’s true that A Journeyman’s Journey: The Story of Jim McEwan (Plassen Verlag, 2021) is about one of the true whisky greats, a giant in the industry, and written by himself. And it has much to teach – but instead, it’s about the man behind the whisky, what makes him tick, and the moments that make up a life.
The book spans McEwan’s life from the beginning as a young child on Islay up until the present, with his post-retirement projects. We get to see him become a cooper at Bowmore Distillery for his first job, then move through management, blending and distilling roles, as well as on to new distilleries. The reader gets to travel across the world with McEwan as he spreads the gospel of Scotch whisky and builds his network (though he would call it family), and is treated to anecdotes that range both heartfelt and humorous.
While quite clearly writing the story of himself (it is an autobiography, after all), Jim takes a bit of a backseat to the other characters of his life. The snapshot-chapter approach to the story allows particularly well for this. All of the influences of his personal life and career (and generally there’s much crossover) are mentioned, some briefly and some have entire chapters dedicated to them. “Characters” here is not limited to just people; place and institution play just as monumental of roles.
And no character stands out so prominently as the very island McEwan hails from and has spent most of his life – Islay. Of course Islay gets its own chapter early on, and is present with us the entire journey. Islay’s influence on McEwan is incontrovertible, and we never travel too far or have too much fun without coming back to missing it. The strength of connection he feels is so strong that he’s able to find it still with him in even the most unlikely of places – such as a tropical storm in none other than Miami, Florida.
What we really have here is a love story – to Islay, to his wife and daughters, to his friends, to the people who shaped him and to whisky itself. From the prologue written by McEwan’s daughters to discussions ranging across person, place and thing, deep heartfelt emotion supersedes the particulars. It’s the kind of book that I found myself smiling at as I read it – for the most part. When McEwan states, quite proudly I may add, that he likes his steak well done, I had to pause for a moment in horror. I’ll never understand how a man with such an adept spirits palate could be so far off in his dining one. Alas.
I felt the only way to end this book was to end it in the way McEwan did – the Highland Toast. It is a parting ritual stooped in tradition that McEwan has adopted as a signature move in gatherings. It includes standing (perhaps awkwardly, as it was in my case) on both a table and a chair, and much gesturing of a glass to specific words. There’s a bit of a surprise ending to the whole affair, but I’ll let you read about that in the book.