“We’ve looked at how to make the experience holistic. It’s not just combining two things, whisky and music, and plonking them in a venue. It’s about how you blend it together!” explains Felipe. Boasting a boisterous roster of traditional Delta songs and tunes made famous by the likes of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, revellers at a Rhythm & Booze Project gig are guaranteed to get more than their money’s worth in foot-tapping blues action alone. However, at the heart of it, this is a whisky experience inspired by the pair’s years as a key fixture at Feis Ile – The Islay Festival of Music & Malt.
It all began while Paul and Felipe were attending the University of St Andrews, first playing together in a still-active band called The Blueswater. Later, both moved to Edinburgh to continue their education, with Paul pursuing a PhD in drumming and Felipe penning a Master’s thesis on the subject of sustainable distilling on Islay. It was then that the pair discovered they had each independently developed a love of Scotch whisky. Later, Felipe even began hosting small tasting events and more recently started writing about whisky as a contributor to Forbes.
“We both knew we liked whisky a lot and enjoyed talking about it. So, we had the idea of going to Islay and doing gigs out there at the bars and hotels. In return, we simply asked for food, bed and whisky,” explains Felipe.
"And we say, ‘no you’re not’. But, of course, as it turned out, Georgie Crawford was indeed the distillery manager. She said, ‘you’re coming to my office tomorrow at noon.’ So, the next day, we rock up and she sits us in her office, breaks out the new make spirit and we end up tasting the entire range. While this is going on, she mentions that we should come and play at the Feis – we had no idea what that was.”
Having been brought up to speed, Felipe and Paul proceeded to play regularly at the Festival over the following decade and it was during this time that the template was created for The Rhythm & Booze Project.
“A lot of the stuff we did on Islay were just gigs, going out to bars and providing music for some of the events. But we also did an event at Caol Ila, we’ve done it for years now, with Colin Dunn. We’d play, he’d talk about the whisky, then we’d bounce off each other, chatting about the drams, and we just made it work. It wasn’t us providing music for a tasting – it was us together with Colin mixing whisky and music into one experience,” explains Paul. “Though, for the record, we no longer just get paid in whisky,” he adds with a laugh.
What differentiates The Rhythm & Booze Project from other events is that the format doesn’t play to the tune of a typical tasting, eschewing the traditional model by which music and Scotch whisky have been presented together for decades. This is no ceilidh dinner – there’s not a bagpipe, tartan sash or haggis in sight – and the experience feels far more integrated than a gig sponsored by a whisky brand. Even better, enjoyment of the evening doesn’t depend on having a pre-existing knowledge of whisky. For newbies to the category, The Rhythm & Booze Project offers a far less intimidating experience than a formal, small-group whisky masterclass seated around a table. “The most intimidating question I’ve heard Felipe ask of the audience is: ‘do you like it?’” says Paul.
More seasoned whisky fans are also in for a treat, however, as the evenings feature an open bar of bottles that have been put in a loose order from lightest to heaviest in style. Though one might expect to find ‘training wheels whisky’ at an event pitching to a broad church, the pair instead choose to showcase more unusual and challenging expressions – recent examples include Loch Lomond’s malted barley-based single grain, Chivas Regal Mizunara, a few quirky old blends, and the odd independent bottling.
“Also, we intentionally work out the quantities so everyone can’t try everything. This is because we’d rather have one bottle of 12 wildly different whiskies on offer than two bottles of just six expressions. That way, people can really choose their own adventure,” explains Felipe. This easy-going model means guests can try as many or as few whiskies as they like, with no formal ‘tutoring’ taking place.
“If you need a rough guide to what they’re like, we’ll give it to you,” he adds. “But, really, you’re going on your own journey and we’ll give some hints and tips along the way. In between times, we’ll just lay down the blues and tell a few stories. Sure, we like to throw people in at the deep end but we also give them an idea of how to swim.”
In the somewhat more structured setting of a seated venue at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe, however, guests will be served three pre-selected drams from Lagavulin, Balvenie, and Bruichladdich distilleries, while partnerships with indy bottler DramFool and retailer Jeffrey St. Whisky & Tobacco will deliver some surprises. Though more restricted in timescale and space than their usual format, the pair knew that taking the Project to the Fringe was the next logical step.
For these two young musicians, however, this is about more than simply bringing their project to a wider audience in a bigger venue.
“I think hitting the Fringe is really important from a whisky perspective, especially when you talk about reaching new audiences and finding new ways to do whisky experiences,” begins Felipe. “We’re doing this in an environment where there’s already international tourism happening on a scale the UK pretty much never sees for one month of the year. People come from all over the world and they all want to do something Scottish. There’s now a whisky event in the mix," Paul adds.
Under the name of Two Guys, Three Drams: The Ultimate Live Blues and Whisky Experience, Paul and Felipe say that this will be their most ambitious whisky and music experience yet.
“The idea is that people can come back more than once and keep finding something new,” explains Paul. “We’ve booked out a converted church for a 10-night run. We’ve paid for the venue, submitted the registration, and have no idea what’s going to happen!”
Saying that, come August, one thing is certain: The Rhythm and Booze Project's unique approach to playing the best blues and serving the tastiest whisky will truly lift your spirits.