I have a thing for Scotland. I’m not sure where it came from, but my dad probably had a lot to do with it. He loved history, especially Irish and Scottish, and would often talk about the general injustices meted out to the Scots by our common enemy. He viewed Scotland as being another Ireland (but never saw Ireland as another Scotland) and fostered in me the improbable notion that there is an unspoken kinship between our people, some ancient celtic bloodline that bound us. In retrospect, I think at least some of his affinity for the Scots was their Not-Englishness – born in the early years of the Irish state to the children of Famine survivors, he was a product of his times. But he also just liked the Scots. It was as simple, pure, and utterly nonsensical as that; all natives of Scotland were deemed to be ‘good eggs’ by him. Dennis Nilsen, Ian Brady, Edward Longshanks, The Scunner Campbell – a great bunch of lads.
So I grew up with a fondness for Scotland that was firmly in place long before I first visited the country in the Nineties. I’ve eulogised Edinburgh on this blog many, many times, but my love for the city isn’t based on any real understanding of it. It’s a series of brief encounters with the place, spread over several decades. I show up, eat, drink, and be merry, then leave. The roadworks never bother me – although I would question why they appear to be taking longer than the completion of La Sagrada Familia but with less impressive results – and neither does the high cost of living. I’m just a tourist, there for a good time.
So while I always jump in with a frighteningly enthusiastic ooooh I love Scotland any time the country gets mentioned, the fact is I know almost nothing of the place. In my mind I have a showreel of things I love about it – highlands, islands, castles – with a soundtrack by Idlewild, Twilight Sad, Mogwai, Glasvegas. Throw Ratcatcher, Braveheart, Local Hero into the pot too. It’s like a weird fetish. Even my rhapsodising about How Late It Was How Late or Edwin Morgan makes me sound like the banter boys from Chewin’ The Fat. The Scotland I love doesn’t exist anywhere outside my head. It’s a vague notion of a place built from books, films, TV, and occasional flaneurial sojourns to the country.
My love of whisky has only made this condition worse, and has also turned me into something of a Quisling, crowing about the greatness of Scottish whisky whilst occasionally pouring scorn on our domestic product. But a healthy domestic whiskey scene is one that can take the hits, that can withstand scrutiny and is one which has nothing to hide, not least in terms of where the stuff is actually being made.
This is Irish whiskey’s year zero. The old order, the great houses, the romantic icons and legends of yore are dead and gone, they are with with O’Leary in the grave. We had a rich prehistory of distilling, and then a long, sad decline. Much of the last century was spent trying to simply survive, with only Bushmills, Cooley and Midleton left to keep the flame lit. In that period, everything changed – a lot of our heritage and tradition was effectively forgotten, or lost. The past decade has seen a reversal of our fortunes (largely due, ironically enough, to one of the last great houses – Jameson) but for the vast majority of the Irish whiskey scene, there is little direct lineage back to the olden times. You can mourn the loss, or see this as an opportunity to start anew, unburdened of history. So we can build this as we go, and our friends across the water can be a blueprint on how to elevate whisky to the point where it is part of our identity. Whisky is Scotland’s national drink – they have an entire category that is synonymous with their country, and their people, whereas we only have one brand, one style, as our national drink – Guinness.
Anyone who has been on whisky trips will tell you just how ingrained in the culture whisky is in Scotland. This aura of whisky is captured in the documentary The Amber Light, which explores Scotland through the prism of their national drink and how it has permeated music, art, culture, and memory, with whisky writer Dave Broom as host, guide and subject.
The director of The Amber Light is Adam Park, so as the film landed on Netflix this year, I thought I would ask how it came about, starting with his own history: “I bounced around quite a lot as a kid but moved to Dublin from South Africa when I was 11 or so, and lived in the city until I was 22. Mostly hanging out and DJ-ing at clubs like the Funnel and Switch, heavily into music and making videos. Those are my two loves. So I moved to London to study film, started at the bottom and worked my way up, really.”
The making of The Amber Light was fuelled by crowdfunding, something which Park says was the plan from the beginning.
“It served a number of functions; not just to raise cash but also to build an audience and act as a bit of marketing to get the word out. A sort of built-in PR story. As challenging as it was, I’d not entirely dissuade people from going down that route, depending on the project.
“Then the rest of the budget was pulled together from a few other sources, mostly private, and there’s the BFI tax credit for production which comes in once the film is finished to hopefully fill in some of the gaps.
“It’s not impossible to get funding, but yes it’s pretty hard. It’s very chicken-and-egg. There are pockets of money and it’s accessible with a combination of access, luck, experience and having the right project. It’s a little easier from country to country, some cultures place more importance on this kind of stuff than others, so it can become a political football.”
And despite the well-documented difficulties in getting funding for film – or simply getting a film made – Park and his team did not want to take money from the whisky industry itself.
“We were very careful from the beginning not to take booze money, for editorial reasons. We tried very hard to ensure the film was brand agnostic, which I think we succeeded in. Obviously we couldn’t do it without mentioning the big whisky firms, but I’m happy with the balance we achieved.”
So what lessons, if any, does Park think we could learn from the Scots on whisky, given that we are effectively at the start of our journey whereas the Scots are two centuries into theirs.
“I’m not entirely sure how much Ireland should learn from Scotch whisky, to be honest. If there is, it’s mostly a question of perspective. And I’m not sure I agree that Ireland is at the start of its journey. Jameson and Bushmills, for example – an interesting dichotomy there, that touches on so much of Irish history, even ignoring the sometimes odd mythology that has built up around it.
“I am no expert on process and the actual making of the spirit, but it strikes me that there’s as much richness in story in Ireland as there is in Scotland. Anywhere that has a strong cultural connection to spirits, like Mexico, Caribbean, Kentucky, it’s going to touch on all sorts of things because it’s been there so long, and it’s been bringing people together for so long, helping to build community and become part of the culture.
“There’s also so much that Ireland and Scotland share; not just whisk(e)y, but culturally, in language, music, and so on. Literature. Poetry. A love of self-flagellation. It is an interesting point that Ireland’s drink really is Guiness rather than stout, which maybe it should be. But that as in most things is down to clever branding people somewhere along the way. As ever, business decisions can be fundamental to success (though not always – Scotch has had ups and downs and circumstance can take a lot of credit for where they sit today), no more so than in Irish whiskey. And at the moment where the Scots got it right, the Irish didn’t, but are now going through a bit of a renaissance.”
There are a few films about whisky – documentaries which veer from the po-faced, hyper-reverential visual essays to Brigadoonesque, tartan-soaked sales pitches. Dramatic films usually only feature it as a flimsy narrative device that offers little to the true nerd. The Amber Light is a film on whisky as much as a film about whisky – it frames Scotland’s national drink as muse, as landscape, as sound. Is it an accurate portrayal? This I could not say – it feeds into my amber-tinted views of the Scotland I claim to know, but show it to an actual Scot and they may see a completely alien place.
The question it left me with was how long will it take before Ireland could make a similar film; how long before the words national drink bring to mind something other than a big black and white pint; how long until Irish whiskey has soaked down into art and literature in the same way it has in Scotland? And what will it take to achieve that?