What I know about whisky could be written on the bottom of a bottle cork. Until recently that is.
My work as a filmmaker can bring me into contact with a variety of unique situations, and I occasionally get to meet some well known faces. I have been fortunate to work for some pretty big names in the corporate sector as well, companies such as Apple from the United States, as their UK Producer. Two weeks ago another household name contacted me from the US for a documentary shoot on whisky, or should I say, Whiskey, on this occasion I can't name them here as I am bound by a non disclosure agreement, but I'm fairly sure you can work it out.
The job entailed arranging transport, accommodation, filming kit, locations and interviews, all prior to the film crew landing last week. They started off in Scotland and would then move on to London and Cambridge, so with my contacts I enlisted a London Producer to organise that leg. For you geeks out there we were shooting on an Arri Amira, a popular camera in documentary making and now some major TV dramas.
The majority of my time was spent securing a distillery for them to film in, and this brought me into contact with people who were so passionate about Scotch Whisky it was hard to get a word in edge ways.
One of our interviewees was the world renowned whisky expert Charles Maclean. So great is his knowledge that Ken Loach cast him as himself in his 2012 movie, The Angels Share.
As a result of this job my own knowledge of whisky has increased a hundred fold, and what a fascinating journey it was. The still house in one distillery alone was a thing of beauty.
Scotch Whisky's origins can be dated back as far as 1494 to a drink called The Water of Life, a definition it still carries today. But back then it was a clear drink, not the familiar amber colour we now see. This comes from the barrels that the distilled whisky is matured in over time. Though some sherry caskets are used from Spain, a large quantity of barrels from the American Whiskey industry, and bourbon makers, are used.
But it was a collective series of events that conspired to bring the American barrels into being a intrinsic part of Scotch making that I found particularly interesting. A long time back, wood in which to make barrels was becoming scarce. It was helped by importing sherry caskets, but this wasn't meeting demand, partly because Scotch Whisky was being "laid down" for so long. On the other side of the Atlantic federal law dictated that all American Whiskey had to be matured in new, unused white oak barrels. They had the opposite problem. They were accumulating a vast pile of unusable barrels. So the market was born for exporting them to Scotland.
A "barrel" is a unit of measure, much like the oil industry. The larger the barrel, the slower the maturation, and so the smoother the end product. In Scotland the American barrel was too small, and so when they arrive they are remade in a cooperage into a casket called a Hogs Head.
Distilleries all make a single malt, as that it was comes out of each individual still. A large portion of these are then "blended" with other whiskys. However, if you were to buy a bottle of blended whisky it may contain, for example, two thirds 70 year old, a third 25 year old, and a tablespoon of 3 year old. Though an unlikely extreme example, if this were the mix, it would have to be sold as a 3 year old, and cannot state the other whisky ages. Incidentally, three years is the minimum age of any Scotch Whisky by law.
The patience required to achieve the world famous end result is astounding. This is not a business to turn a fast buck. It was amazing in one distillery to see dusty rows of barrels in a run down warehouse that had being lying undisturbed for more than 20 years.
I had a great, if not exhausting, time on the shoot, and now I know my Hogs Heads from my Butts, Puncheons and Port Pipes.
I think the crew had a good time too.