Spirit of art

Martin Mitchell goes beyond words into visual tasting notes
By Martin Mitchell
Edvard Munch is credited with saying, “I paint only what I saw, not what I see”. The Norwegian artist, whose Scream fetched $119.9 million at Sotheby’s, New York, earlier this year, might well have been pushed therefore – were he alive! – to keep up with the prodigious output of two young artists, Silvie Wallington and Sam Mead, at a recent art and whisky event staged in London by leading independent spirits retailers, The Whisky Exchange. During a tasting conducted by Martine Nouet they conjured from taste and verbal description alone four original paintings each, in about 90 minutes, and they truly wowed the audience of 40-plus with their extraordinarily perceptive results.

Martine Nouet, well known in these pages and noted for her pioneering pairings of whisky with food, nature, music and virtually any other mood-enhancing stimulation which she feels sits comfortably with a dram, finally fulfilled an ambition at one of London’s premier hospitality venues, Vinopolis, with the presentation of the aptly-titled “Whisky –Spirit of Art”; a unique pairing of graphic art and malt whisky.

Choosing four outstanding, complex and intriguing whiskies, two from Islay and two from Speyside, she set about suggesting that from taste alone could emerge graphic interpretations that illustrated not just the whiskies but their natural source. Neither Silvie nor Sam had ever visited these whisky producing areas of Scotland and had only a brief prior exposure to Martine’s tasting notes.

Martine said: “It was a lovely journey at the event. Our sensory perception informs our lives. It gives us knowledge, hearing, vision, taste, smell, touch. Everything came together that night in a fabulous synthesis, and the artists absolutely understood it and I think the guests did too.”

For nearly two years the idea of an art and whisky event, never before attempted in such an open forum and outside the constraints of an individual brand, lay dormant, until The Whisky Exchange boldly stepped forward where others had faltered. With an eye on possible future event theming and with the knowledge that Bunnahabhain 18 Years Old (40%), Glen Grant 170th Anniversary, Glenrothes 1995 and Laphroaig 10 Years Old Cask Strength #003 would form the nexus for this ambitious tasting and pairing, the invites went out and acceptances followed briskly.

Chris Bolton, from The Whisky Exchange, enthused: “We’re thrilled by how well received Martine’s Art & Whisky tasting has been. Here at The Whisky Exchange we pride ourselves on pushing the boundaries of innovation and creativity with our events, and this truly was a first for us.”

The boundaries were truly tested and maybe even breached and there was a palpable tension among organisers and presenters as the event got underway, but the whiskies brought their inherent star quality and almost subliminally informed the art. Abstraction was the inevitable order of the night. Concept and creative freedom were let loose, starting from the blankest of canvases both metaphorical and literal. In Silvie’s Wallington’s words: “The more I experimented, the more I saw a real connection between what I was tasting and what I was painting.”

Silvie decided to use water colours “because they are a very free medium and lend themselves to painting quickly and with expression”. Sam Mead went with acrylic paint and pencil. Both artists managed to produce outstanding work at extraordinary speed, each interpretation taking between 20 and 25 minutes. Neither had ever attempted such a performance of their work before. In Sam’s opinion the challenge added a layer of knowledge to his work, and he added: “I need to believe I can complete a piece of work in any situation. Working in private can become egotistical. This event added some fear and pressure and I enjoyed it a lot.” Silvie largely shared this view. “Painting for me is a quiet, concentrated and fairly private process. That got turned on its head with the addition of a 40-strong audience. I definitely got in the flow and believe that the audience needed the live aspect of the creative process to understand the whisky and art connection we were trying to create.”

By their own admission the influence of taste was tricky but a sense of place unfolded.

The well-known Global Spirits Ambassador, Ronnie Cox, an occasional accomplice of Martine Nouet’s on various pairing projects, felt the event could have been “far too esoteric” for a dedicated and knowledgeable bunch of whisky aficionados, but he was pleasantly surprised. Speaking of the importance of sensory evaluations, particularly with regard to single malts, Ronnie believes that these evaluations help us to stay in touch with that growing and changing market.

Mood, atmosphere, relaxation and leisure were the things that he emphasised in a brief post-event interview and he described the visceral artists’ response to the tasting as “really exciting”. When asked if this kind of event had a future his response was unequivocal: “Of course it has; this was an epiphany moment”.

At the end of the evening in a quite spontaneous response to the works of Silvie and Sam, all eight pieces of work sold. Not of course for the Munch-size numbers that might boggle the eyes of a Lucasian Chair of Mathematics but they did sell, and as Sam observed, “They might not have sold had the audience not seen them being made”.