Editor’s Note: This book was provided to us as a sample review by Plaasen Verlag. This in no case, by our editorial policies, influenced the final result of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the purchase link at the bottom of this review, our site receives a small sponsorship payment which helps support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
This is not a whiskey book. If one were looking to learn more about whiskey, this wouldn’t be on my recommended reading list. It is true that A Companion’s Journey: The Jim McEwan Story (Plassen Verlag, 2021) is about one of whiskey’s true greats, a giant in the industry, and written by himself. And it has a lot to learn – but instead it’s about the man behind the whiskey, what drives him and the moments that make up a lifetime.
The book covers McEwan’s life from the beginning as a young child on Islay to the present day, with his plans after retirement. We see him becoming a cooper at Bowmore Distillery for his first job, then moving on to management, blending and distilling roles, as well as new distilleries. The reader travels the world with McEwan as he spreads the gospel of Scotch whiskey and builds his network (although he would call it family), and is treated to anecdotes that are both heartfelt and humorous.
While fairly clearly writing the story of himself (it’s an autobiography, after all), Jim takes a step back from the other characters in his life. The snapshot-chapter approach to the story does this particularly well. All the influences from his personal life and career (and usually there’s a lot of crossover) are mentioned, some briefly and others have whole chapters dedicated to them. The “characters” here are not limited to people; place and institution play equally monumental roles.
And no character stands out as well as the very island where McEwan is from and has spent most of his life – Islay. Of course, Islay gets its own chapter early on and is with us throughout the journey. Islay’s influence on McEwan is unquestionable, and we never travel too far or have too much fun without returning to miss it. The strength of the connection he feels is so strong that he is able to find it always with him even in the most unlikely places – like a tropical storm in none other than Miami, Florida.
What we really have here is a love story – with Islay, his wife and daughters, his friends, the people who shaped him and the whiskey itself. From the prologue written by McEwan’s daughters to discussions about a person, a place and a thing, deep and heartfelt emotion supersedes the details. It’s the kind of book that made me smile reading it – most of the time. When McEwan declares, quite proudly, I must add, that he likes his steak well done, I had to stop for a moment in horror. I will never understand how a man with such a spirits-loving palate can be so far from his table. Alas.
I thought the only way to end this book was to end it like McEwan did – the Highland Toast. It’s a tradition-steeped parting ritual that McEwan has adopted as his signature move in gatherings. This includes standing (perhaps awkwardly, as was the case in my case) on both a table and a chair, and making lots of glass gestures for specific words. There’s a bit of a surprise at the end of the whole thing, but I’ll let you read that in the book.