Whisky & Culture

Celluloid dreams

Ian Buxton dusts off the film canisters to discover a lost world
By Ian Buxton
In every distillery visitor centre you care to name you’ll see the same picture. It’s sepia, often a bit grainy and it features a group of serious looking individuals gazing earnestly at the camera.They’re wearing flat caps, moustaches and working clothes, except that is for a rather dapper character in a suit, or perhaps a kilt.He’s the owner or manager, and they are his (it’s virtually always ‘his’ by the way) dedicated workforce, captured for posterity.Your guide will explain that these are the distillery employees, circa 1920 or so and that, if you look carefully, you can see old Arthur whose great-great-grandson or some such, is still employed at the distillery today.It’s a comforting illusion, meant to suggest that nothing has changed; that Glen Gloaming is still made today as it always was.After all, the camera cannot lie. But what, I wonder; do these pictures really tell us?They’re posed after all, a carefully staged tableau meant for public consumption, recycled today to reinforce a marketing driven perception of ‘heritage’ that may well be heavily edited. I was determined to look behind the lens.That was the start of an interesting journey.Whisky making is not a static process.Production methods have changed, even if the basic process is the same, and a snapshot cannot take us behind the scenes.Sadly, there are few written records of what distilling was actually like 50 or more years ago. But in researching this subject I began to turn up some interesting film footage in various industry archives and this material, rarely seen, sheds a fascinating light on distilling as it was before mechanisation took over the production process.But first, prior to the main feature, a short interlude. The classic image of whisky on film is probably Alexander Mackendrick’s 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore, based on Compton Mackenzie’s eponymous book.This was freely based on the true story of the SS Politician which sank off the island of Eriskay in 1941 with a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky (and, incidentally, several million pounds worth of foreign bank notes). The enterprising islanders “salvaged” much of the whisky for their own consumption, sensibly eschewing sodden currency in their pursuit of the hard stuff.The humour in this classic of British cinema lies in the inevitable tension between the essentially decent, upright, well-intentioned, but slightly pompous English Captain Waggett (played effortlessly by Basil Radford) who is in command of the island’s Home Guard and the islanders – who regard the arrival of the precious spirit as a fortuitous bounty that it would be sacrilegious to ignore.But Whisky Galore, with its stereotypical image of canny Scots and stilted Englishmen, is not actually about whisky. This whisky is what Alfred Hitchcock termed a ‘McGuffin’, a necessary plot device (played here for laughs) that’s essential to set up the comedic action but otherwise immaterial.While the cultural importance of whisky to the Scot adds to the tension it isn’t vital to the plot. Any other flashpoint would have done almost as well.No, what we are looking for is actual documentary footage of production and, as luck would have it, such gems can be found.The value of this early material is the insight it gives into distillery working practices that are now lost.Of course, it has to be acknowledged that this is not ‘fly on the wall’ documentary material. The scenes were, no doubt, carefully selected and everyone who appears is on their best behaviour but they do represent a unique historical picture of a world that’s now lost.As ever, the best record comes from the old Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), basis of today’s Diageo, that dominated Scotch whisky production in the years after 1925.In a far-sighted gesture, several of the companies in the DCL fold invited the Pathé News Company to film their operation.Documentaries were shot of whisky operations at John Dewar and Sons; Johnnie Walker, though this footage is apparently now lost; White Horse; Buchanan’s and possibly elsewhere.In the DCL Gazette of July 1927 there is a commentary on the project: The filming of an industry is an intricate and difficult operation. The writing of the “scenario” is no easy task, and the preparation of the “scenes” involves a great deal of forethought and scheming. The men with the movie camera were in possession of our warehouse for some days, and they expressed themselves as confident of producing a most interesting and instructive picture to enlighten our friends across the seas as to ‘How Scotch Whisky is Made’.The films themselves are wonderful productions. Filmed, of course, in black and white with a commentary delivered by captions they aim to show the complete production process.The Dewar’s film, which today you may see in its entirety at the World of Whisky visitor centre in Aberfeldy, is typical.Flickering figures may be seen working with the wash backs; in a still room (direct fired, naturally); in the blending room and in the marrying and vatting cellars and finally in bottling.The labour-intensive nature of whisky production is immediately apparent, with bottling representing a particularly emphatic contrast with today’s streamlined operations.But all is not as it seems. The records suggest filming took place at Aberfeldy, but the distillery exterior shots are wrong for this location and research has suggested that the still room is actually at Dailuaine.Much more research is needed here, as further archive footage of real historical value is slowly emerging from a number of distilleries.Tomatin, for example, features in at least three films, one with that fine Scottish actor John Laurie (best known for his portrayal of Private Fraser in TV’s Dad’s Army) made around 1953 that is reputedly very detailed.Again this follows the process, complete with direct fired pot stills.Later again, the Scottish Television series Time with Tennent featured The Glenlivet sometime around 1973.It is a fine record of this era and shows the distillery and an interview with proprietor Bill Smith Grant (the only footage known to exist of this great and important whisky character).But the honour for the oldest piece of whisky film must go to Dewar’s. The film commercial featuring a group of manically dancing kilted Scotsmen was shot by New York’s International Film Company in 1897 and projected onto a giant screen on the roof of a building facing Herald Square. Remarkably, this is considered by US film historians to be the world’s first motion commercial.It must have been a success, because around a year later they made a more elaborate production The Whisky of His Forefathers, in which the characters in a picture come alive – to taste Dewar’s, of course.So we’ll raise a toast to whisky on film.The research continues, and like any good film there has to be a sequel.