We all know that the key ingredient in the making of good whisky is time. Be it three years and a day, to 50 years old, Old Father Time is the watchman over the whisky world making sure that new make spirit safely slumbers in oak casks, the contact with wood slowly turning the clear liquor in to whisky; developing character, personality and flavour over time.
In the same way, time and contact is as important in our own lives as it is in the whisky cask.
As we move on in our own personal journey in life, we meet people at different stages, interacting with them on different levels, as we mature, develop character, personality and experience.
One such encounter in my life was towards the end of the last century when, as a teenage music manager, I was looking for bands to work with. Travelling down from Oxford to London on a weekly basis, I would pick up demo tapes and CDs from the offices of various record labels, taking them home to review.
One summer’s afternoon, I returned back to the ‘shire with a bundle containing a CD from Deptford-based band Cub. Excited by the excellent song writing and vocal delivery, I immediately called the number on the attached letter and spoke to two young men, Joel Pott and Carey Willetts.
After a few minutes on the phone, it seemed obvious that the band were already catching the attention of various major labels and that this was a job which required more from a manager than youthful exuberance. I politely ended the call and carried on making my way through the pile of demos.
“I wanted to show that we’re about community, connection and communication. Whisky helps fuel that as much as music does”
Fast forward two or three years and I’ve had some success in the world of artist management, to the point where legendary label Island Records asked me to join their newly restructured A&R team with a view to turning around the fortunes of a company which, at the time, relied on foreign pop acts such as Shaggy, to pull in the pounds.
It was during my first week at Island Records when I remember hearing some demos from a new band, who were doing the rounds at the time. Requesting a copy from their management, it arrived with a simple stamp of one word on the front: Athlete.
Athlete were, it turns out, the very same Deptford-based lads who were previously called Cub. During the past couple of years, these South Londoners had locked themselves away, emerging from their studio as a new band, having developed a distinctive character, personality and their own sound over time.
Sadly, I didn’t get to sign the band to Island Records, with them choosing instead to go with Parlophone, the home of The Beatles and Coldplay. It proved the right move, with Athletes debut album going on to be nominated for the Mercury Music Award, their second album, Tourist hitting the number one spot in the UK albums chart and the single Wires earning the band the highest accolade in music, an Ivor Novello award, for song writing. Not to mention selling more than a million records in their time. Not bad stats, really.
However, despite not working with the band on a direct musical level, there was always a lasting friendship and I often had acts supporting Athlete on tour.
One of the obvious threads of friendship between the band and I, was a love of whisky. “There was always a bottle of ‘good single malt whisky’ listed on our rider,” notes Carey Willetts.
“Sometimes the venue manager would get this spot on, with a bottle of Oban or Lagavulin. Other times it was local supermarket-own stuff, which just made us shudder.”
In 2011, Athlete embarked on a stripped-back, semi-acoustic tour of small venues, to reconnect with their fans and give them a special, more intimate musical experience. Part of this enabled the band to hold a meet-and-greet with competition winners, before some of the key shows on the tour.
“Most bands want to meet their fans, but it can be quite an awkward experience for both sides, the band and the fans, as to what to say and how to say it,” comments Willetts.
“That’s when we teamed up with you [Joel Harrison] and Neil [Ridley] to host a series of whisky tastings to make the whole situation a little more, well, fluid.”
Willetts claims that these series of classes cemented a love of Scotch both with himself and the rest of the band, something which he has taken with him to his next musical project, Boxes
Boxes , Willetts’ solo act, launched in 2011 with the release of a small run, limited edition debut EP entitled Throw Your Stones, the video to which features some close friends of the musician, such as Dermot O’Leary, Zoe Ball and a chef by the name of Heston Blumenthal.
However, it didn’t stop there. A second EP was recorded and released in 2012, but this time the music was accompanied by something a little different: Willetts’ own blended Scotch whisky, Boxes Blend.
“Music is a communicator, a connector. It always has been and always will be,” says Willetts. “But whisky is, too.
“That’s why I wanted to put a whisky together under the Boxes banner; to show that we’re about community, connection and communication. Whisky helps fuel that as much as music does.”
Blended by Willetts this was a task which he didn’t take lightly: “Blending a whisky is not an easy thing to do at all. I’ve got the up-most respect for anyone that did this, from those a hundred years ago, to the people doing it today,” he says.
“It’s not a million miles away from making a record: you have all the individual parts which you can experience individually, but they create something entirely different when they come together.”
Willetts concludes: “At the end of it all, you’re looking for something to reflect, translate maybe, what is in your head and I think we’ve done a really good job of that, flavour-wise, on this blend.”
Available now, matching music and whisky, the Boxes Blend coupled with the debut album might just be the best excuse for a night in, ever.