People

Michael Palin's whisky adventure

As well known for his international travelogues as his insane antics in Monty Python, Michael Palin, a New Year's honours list CBE, is one of Britain's most popular stars. Here he tells Damian Riley-Smith about the good times he has shared with a glass of whisky.
By Damian Riley-Smith
Michael Palin’s first memorable whisky experience happened at the Edinburgh Festival. 1964 was the first time he had done any performing in front of a big public audience. He was part of the Oxford City Group and quartered at a Masonic lodge just on the approach to Edinburgh Castle, from where he could see rehearsals for the Tattoo. “It was wonderful because they’d all march out of the castle and by the time they reached us they had broken up and started lighting up or scratching their balls,” he fondly recalls. There was a pub next door, the Crown Bar, where Palin was introduced by the barman to a half-and-half (a pint of lager and stout mixed), with whisky as a chaser. Alternate sips of each drink are taken. Because of this experience, whisky and Scotland are inextricably linked in Palin’s mind.Since then Scotland has always been a part of Palin’s life. As a Monty Python fan myself it is wonderful to hear that Scotland and whisky have played an essential part in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus history books. Palin’s more selective whisky drinking began when filming the first and second series of Python in Scotland. Aficionados will remember that the Holy Grail was entirely filmed there. “We had no money, only £210,000 to make an entire movie. But it was just perfect scenery – Glencoe and Rannoch Moor.” And how did whisky play its part? “We got to know the King’s House pretty well, and its marvellous collection of whiskies. Late at night we would learn a little bit about whisky and most nights we had a competition for the one that was least pronounceable. I remember late nights with very strong whiskies – someone would find an old Talisker and we’d try that purely in order to see if our heads could cope with it.”Much of Palin’s passion for whisky comes from its romantic associations. “ I was quite a sucker for the whole business of the Scottish moor. I always thought whisky was a very healthy drink – it conjured up images of jumping across streams.” Like so many of us, Palin adores Scotland. “I loved going up for visits, as did Terry Jones, and so we persuaded the others to go up. In fact, the Holy Grail could not have been made and would not have been so successful if it had not been shot in the Scottish Highlands.”With all these visits to Scotland, it was no surprise he drank more whisky and began to learn more about its qualities. “I suppose it was later that on that I became attracted to malt whiskies. I had an American friend who was a great malt whisky drinker. Until that time I’d drunk Famous Grouse, my favourite then, and I began to enjoy the variety of malt whisky, the different tastes.” But had anyone explained what the difference was? “Well, I started reading about it, and began learning about it myself, and as I went back to Scotland so frequently I would find a new whisky each time.”But reading and listening can only get a man so far, so Palin organised a private tutored tasting in the heart of England one winter’s afternoon. “I had a wonderful tasting at Jim Murray’s house in Wellingborough which was just extraordinary. To go all the way up there and come back with this wonderful buzz after having tasted the very finest malt whiskies was quite something.”Our conversation returns to Monty Python, and the degree to which the team of John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam sat down and planned their sketches. “No not at all,” protests Palin. “If you sit down and plan it’s hopeless. I’ve realised as I’ve gone through life that I’m much better at the instinctive than the carefully planned.” But wasn’t the humour behind Python carefully scripted? “Well it was scripted, but the way the script was written was usually in a short sharp bursts and it was the highly tense activity between each of us that created the humour. And I’m not quite sure if you sat down and said, ‘Where is this coming from?’ that you could ever have created the Spanish Inquisition or the silly walk. Python was all about maximising something that was quite elusive.” Up until that time if a sketch didn’t have an ending it was jettisoned, but Python specialised in having few endings and odd beginnings. There are some who thought Python could only be created under the influence of some external inducement. So how much could Palin attribute Python’s success to drink? “People used to think we were on drugs, which wasn’t true at all,” he insists. “In fact, the drinking was mainly done by Graham Chapman.” There was a hierarchy of drinking in the team, with Chapman in the premier league. Terry Jones and I were in the first division, but John Cleese rarely drank at all.” According to Palin, drinking was their form of dealing with the energy they were consuming. “If we’d done really good work, Terry and I used to enjoy a pint down at the pub. As indeed did Graham – he had a pint, a gin and tonic and then something else. Drink was quite important to us as a way of relaxing, and as a way of celebrating and as a way of commiserating. It was very much a part of our life.” So you were quite easily lead? “Oh yes, particularly when it was something so pleasant as whisky.”More recently Palin has been travelling the globe on behalf of the BBC for which he was recently awarded a CBE in the New Years Honours. His first series was the energetic Around the World in 80 Days, and last year hisexcellent Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure was broadcast. Palin feels that of all the drinks he’s ever had, whisky is most associated with spectacular locations. “I remember going to Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, one of the most magnificent landscapes in the world. We were staying in a small hotel on the edge of a lake, surrounded by these extraordinary mountains, and where this man had the most wonderful malt whiskies.” It was a bottle of Bowmore he remembers most, and he treasures the memory of a whisky cooled with ice from the glacier, adding, “And I’ve also done the same in Antarctica.” The image of Palin opening a virgin bottle of malt in some extraordinary part of the world reflects the lengths he will go to experience those moments of tranquility. For years Palin has travelled with whisky in a hip flask.Many of his travels have involved others, such as the film crew, so the need for a complete bottle has increased. “Whisky is a very companionable drink. I can drink it on my own without feeling sad – as a private treat for me. But its also deeply companionable. The only time I’ve regretted drinking whisky was travelling from Dubai to Bombay, which took seven days on a boat.” Some readers may recall this memorable trip. “We had a bottle of Glenmorangie. As the sails, and the sun, came down the film crew and I would mark this great occasion with a dram. And on the third night I think it reacted rather violently with the curry I’d had and I was pretty ill for 24 hours. Of course the audience loved it. It was only a modest gut ache, but it became epic because I admitted I felt lousy.”But even in those angonising moments, Palin could still recall the importance of whisky. “I think it has a very romantic association for me – there’s something settled, hearth and home. If I’m in some far off place drinking whisky it always helps bring me home.” Glenmorangie is still what Palin consumes most. It was the first malt of which he became aware, introduced to it by Terry Jones who was a Glenmorangie fan. Nowadays, Palin likes to pick and choose.So what’s in his whisky cabinet today? “At the moment I have a Macallan and a Springbank. We had a tasting last night of both, in advance of our getting together today – my son and his friend. We also found a Bunnahabhain. I like the richness of The Macallan and occasionally I like something a little drier and a little peatier. I just love the taste of them all”.And was Palin ever abused by whisky? “Whisky’s never abused me, although I’ve probably abused whisky. I think the thing is I don’t drink enormous amounts of it – I mean some people in our business will drink a bottle of whisky a day.” For Palin malt whiskies aren’t about quantity. “With malts I can drink a small amount and get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of each one. It’s the subtlety in the various tastes that interests me. Although I don’t have a great nose – I’d like to be better educated on the subject.” So much so that he was inspired to join the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh where he has spent some quiet moments enjoying the peace of the Members’ Room and the pleasures of the bar. “I love the terminology they use – grapefruit saddle; a touch of coffee. Its like everything in the kitchen has fallen off the shelves into one particular Scotch.” Occasionally he enjoys whisky with food – well haggis, “but I’d rather drink it before or after food – except for haggis.” And his favoured time of consumption? “I do drunk it at lunch, yes, depending on how irresponsible I want to be. But I’ve never drunk it at breakfast.” As I encourage Palin to join me on the streets of Covent Garden for our own whisky tour I ask him what prompts him to reach for a dram. “Usually it’s a deep sense of satisfaction. Generally it’s a celebration. Sometimes it’s because I’m tired. I’ll reach for a whisky when I’m feeling comfortable – when I’m settled.” We rush into Cadenhead’s Covent Garden Whisky Store; my chance to immerse Palin in whisky heaven. He’s becoming so settled he starts asking me questions. Do I think whisky is adapting the way wine did? What’s my favourite malt? But it is this relaxing approach to people which is the real secret of Palin’s success. He conjures up almost universal affection, but with modesty he claims, “Some people are very indiscriminating.” But in reality its because people seem to feel as though they’re close to him. He acknowledges, “in the sense that I’m guiding them through the world as if they were there with me, which is fine, as this is the idea behind my programmes – to be as spontaneous as possible; to treat the camera as though it were someone’s grandmother or best friend.” And who could want for a better friend with whom to enjoy a dram than a traveller and raconteur who has made one of the greatest contribution’s to humour in the last 50 years? And as he has only been to one distillery, Bushmills in Ireland, which was while he was doing research for a television series, we’ll just have to persuade him to create his most ‘comfortable’ series yet – how about Around the World’s Great Whisky Distilleries in as much time as it takes?