It would have been easy for Jim McEwan to coast on his reputation. A legend in the Scotch industry, McEwan had spent four decades at Bowmore on the Scottish island of Islay, rising from cooper's apprentice to brands ambassador. Yet, about 10 years ago, after he witnessed the closing of a neighboring distillery, Bruichladdich, he decided to do something about it. By 2000, he and his business partners had raised enough money to purchase the defunct property. McEwan had seen corporations close a number of small distilleries, but to watch them shutter one so dedicated to tradition "just broke my heart," he says. After restoring the steam-driven 19th-century equipment, he oversaw the first run of the still, in 2001: "We had the old-timers there who'd lost their jobs, and for them to see the still come back to life—the whole room went silent."

It will be six years before new whiskies can be bottled, but the Bruichladdich team is keeping busy. After buying back every cask of Bruichladdich Scotch they could find, they created a core range of whiskies—10, Fifteen and XVII(from $50 to $115)—and bottlings of rare vintages. McEwan aims for the distillery's signature style. "For the past 40 years, it's been more about malt than about peat," he says, "and I want that to come through" (; for stores, call 800-WINEBOW).