Whisky & Culture

The art of the matter

Brian Hennigan swaps palate for palette as he takes you on an irreverent journey through the whisky-loving Renaissance and sipping surrealists to modern art and its relationship with malts
By Brian Hennigan
Most of us would be hard-pressed to operate an Etch-a-Sketch with a few tumblers of Scotland’s finest inside us, while artists by their very nature respond as if newly enlightened to the touch of spirit in the belly. “I feast on wine and bread, and feasts they are,” said Michelangelo, a man fond of a nip and the world’s most famous interior decorator. Forbidden from endorsing anything other than Benedictine as part of his Vatican contract, few know he was in fact referring to malt whisky, brought to Rome by the much-invoked Friar John Cor. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make acqua vitae,” notes the exchequer roll of 1494, the earliest recorded evidence for whisky and a quotation that is compulsory in any whisky article. Friar John was the first to realise the importance of the Italian market for whisky. His pioneering work with painters of the period resulted in many masterpieces and his own reputation as the most successful High Renaissance parallel importer. Doubters of whisky’s importance to art history need only gaze upon the recently uncovered preparation work for the Sistine Chapel, where the Hand of Adam is seen stretching toward a bottle of Grant’s Sherry Reserve. (John Cor was to achieve greater fame when he and his convent-schooled sisters set up a madrigal pop combo who toured Europe to the delight of their record label and the disappointment of audiences, a tradition maintained by their descendants).The relationship between whisky and more contemporary art is one of similar mutual inspiration. “No malt whisky; no dripping clocks!” was one of many petulant outbursts from Salvador Dali during his infamous Speyside period.Nowadays as the artists use the spirit to drive their imaginations, so the discerning public use the artists’ creations to drive them to drink. The Oddbins nearest the Tate Modern has the largest quarter-bottle sales in Great Britain, thanks to the patronage of weary souls who have just seen their hard-earned tax pounds incarnate in the form of “Inflatable Monkey With Scone.”Yet it would be wrong to imagine 20th century artists have contributed nothing to the Scotch whisky heritage. They have in fact contributed next to nothing. Nevertheless, a particular Scottish artist gifted the world the identity of one of its most distinguished blends.Cutty Sark is perhaps the most famous example of an artist-inspired whisky. Francis Berry, senior partner in the family run business of Berry Brothers and Rudd, had an idea for a new whisky, one that would be naturally light in colour. On the 20th March 1923, James McBey, well-known Scottish artist of the time (i.e no-one has a clue who he is now), was having lunch with the partners. Buoyed by a magnificent main course – legend suggests it was a prestigious tin of the recent luncheon meat innovation, Spam – the group retired to the smoking lounge, where discussion began on Francis’ idea. McBey came up with the name Cutty Sark, evoking the speedy vessel of the time, famed as the only sailing ship ever to have outpaced a steamer (albeit on a downhill course). Taken with his vision, the company commissioned the doodling Scot to come up with a suitable motif to conquer the bars of Britain and beyond, with a particular eye on Duty Free and the emerging markets of the Far East.While the origins of Cutty Sark might be common knowledge, the origin of the name itself is less well known. While the old boat might be the most recognisable incarnation of Cutty Sark, it was not the first. The term first appears in Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter, where the witches dance dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’ – a short skirt. Thus the origins of one of the world’s most famous whiskies can be traced back through one of Scotland’s more famed artists to Scotland’s most famous poet.While you will occasionally come across James McBey in whisky books, how often do you hear of Leo Cheney, who died in 1928 aged 50? This unheralded bank clerk from Accrington, Lancashire enrolled in a cartoon-drawing correspondence course, eventually selling work to Boy’s Own, Bystander and other publications of the day. Cheney who created the most recognisable version of the Johnnie Walker character (interestingly, like Winnie the Pooh and Donald Duck before him, the Johnnie Walker man now walks around naked from the waist down – check out the logo).When it comes to mixing artists with whisky labels, Peter Blake was probably the first. The British artist who created the famous cover for The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, Blake was commissioned in the late 80s to produced a label for the release of 12 bottles of The Macallan 60-year-old. The result – a sort of roaring 20s-style design – proved a huge hit, selling under auction for £5,500, a record at the time. Buoyed by their success with Blake, The Macallan distillers invited another artist to perform for the next release of their 60-year-old in 1993. Valerio Adami is Recognised as one of Europe’s most important artists. A profile in The New Yorker explained Adami’s wish to reawaken civilisation’s desire for a space to dream, reviving the myths of Western culture, using devices from Ovid and similar works, and so enable us to unleash the joys of sexuality, desire, beauty and creativity. Having read this description, The Macallan Distillers realised that here was a man whose aesthetic desires matched their own vision of the role of whisky in the post-industrial world. They immediately set aside their morning cocoa and reached an agreement that resulted in a product of unrivalled envy and desire. Each bottle was numbered and signed by the artist, before being housed in a striking tantalus (a Latin word meaning ‘glass box thing’). Originally sold by closed bids received at the distillery, The Macallan Distillers are now trying to trace the current owners of the precious bottles, the details having been mislaid in the week-long party following the sudden generation of a few hundred thousand pounds. Allegedly.Satirical artist Ralph Steadman achieved some status in the whisky world for his illustrated musings on the spirit, captured in the book Still Life With Whisky. Less well-known is his own contribution to label lore, namely The Macallan Private Eye edition. This bottling, featuring an enamelled detail from Steadman, was released for the 35th anniversary of Private Eye, the British satirical publication with which The Macallan enjoys a long association (i.e they have advertised in it a lot).In terms of whisky in pictures, the scene is less fertile. Often, artists leave it unclear what the actual liquid is in a composition. Not so Joseph Cornell, American sculptor and pioneer of ‘assemblage’. This is a particular attitude of artistic creation where different commonplace objects are set together in a contradictory way, indicating the fragmented nature of contemporary society. Thus, a toy dog sits next to a bottle of shampoo, next to a whisky tumbler. This reflects the traditional ‘morning after’ lounge scene, whereby a real dog sits beneath the television, looking at the owner sleeping under the table, next to a whisky tumbler. Cornell gets acclaim, while the dog owner gets a hangover and is late for work.At least Cornell used whisky glasses and the like in surrealist juxtapositional works. For fear of creating evidence of an Arts Council Grant badly spent, most artists are loathe to put anything alcoholic on view, finding it difficult enough to pass Victoria Wine receipts off as ‘artist materials’.There remains however one piece of art which, along with Michelangelo’s statue of David and Van Gogh’s Starry Night, manages create an impression of the human condition few other works can match. I am talking of course about Dogs Playing Poker (left). Observe the attitude of the dogs, as they engage with one another. While each is part of the game, each is also separate, knowing success or failure depends on those around them. The countenance of all reveals an attitude of knowing folly, it being too lately apparent to the small circle that fate will play as much a part in their existence as any planning on their own part. Some seem happy to cheat, an all-too-human failing that speaks to our hearts and our accountants. And overall, a sombre atmosphere that recognises that no gain is possible without an according loss to a fellow being. Under such existential circumstances, it’s no wonder some of the dogs choose to have a glass of whisky at their side. While some scholars have argued that this is most likely bourbon – in keeping with the ‘New World’ feel of the painting – others have noted that use of such a modern spirit would run against the spirit of the group, whose every hair seems to speak of a commitment to older values. There are few artistic accomplishments (outside of the operatic works of Richard Wagner) which speak so clearly of destiny, deliverance and the importance of good breeding.It is a source of some regret that so few artists have seen – and exploited – the manifold opportunities that exist for whisky within the contemporary compositional palette. The field of drip-mats is, incredibly, as yet unexplored. The shape of bottles remains completely unvisited by aesthetic review, the whisky companies seemingly obsessed with having something that both looks and works like a bottle. Such moribund areas cry out for the involvement of our leading creative lights. Think what joy and countless cheap headlines might be bought by a Damien Hirst bottle – one side missing, whisky dripping off the table – or a Tracey Emin shot-glass set, rims smeared in lipstick and a fag stubbed out in one. Perhaps through the integration of whisky and art, some clever company might yet achieve the contemporary relevance the spirit so desperately needs.