Whisky & Culture

The Voice-o-Graph

There's a vinyl revolution in the air
By Neil Ridley
In a new series of features, Editor-at-Large Neil Ridley explores the relationship between music and whisky, beginning with a curious look at the Aberlour Voice-o-Graph.

Like whisky, music is a wonderfully subjective arena, which sparks passionate debate, settles scores and ultimately brings people together. Throw them both together in the same room and something truly extraordinary happens: Our senses become more attuned and entwined; introspective pieces of music relax our mood and help us concentrate on the depth of flavour and aroma in a whisky. More energetic pieces sharpen our ability to focus on specific elements: light-and-shade, complexity and simplicity.

For many, the ritual of playing a piece of vinyl has more than its fair share of similarities to that of pouring their favourite whisky. Each shares a certain amount of ritual and reverence. There is a hugely tangible aspect to the process of taking a piece of vinyl from its sleeve and placing it on the turntable - and in turn, the un-corking and measuring out of a generous dram, whilst deciding whether to add a dash of water or not.

Rather like the resurgence of interest in whisky worldwide, vinyl sales are currently at an 18 year high. Half a decade ago, sales were worth £3 million a year in the UK. Now they are approaching nearly £20 million a year, so all the indications are there that the format is truly back from the grave. Whisky companies have noticed this and many brands, from The Balvenie, Auchentoshan and The Glenrothes, have looked to feature vinyl somewhere in its promotional activity.

Taking this a stage further is Aberlour and its Made From Experience campaign, which sought to bring the concept of whisky tasting and vinyl even closer together. The Speyside brand recently acquired a 1947 Voice-o-Graph recording booth, an antiquated piece of equipment thought to be practically extinct, which cuts directly onto 6" vinyl records. 60 years ago, the booths were enormously popular, particularly in the US, where, for the princely sum of 25 cents, anyone could enter the booth and cut their very own 65 second recording. Everything from marriage proposals to radio jingles were captured by the booths, until they eventually fell silent in the late 1960s when home tape recorders - and latterly digital recorders rendered them obsolete for nearly the last five decades. That is, until a chance meeting between The White Stripes' Jack White and vintage equipment enthusiast Bill Bollman brought about a revival of sorts.

"The Voice-o-Graph recordings were like the text messages of their day," explains Bollman, who also has an extensive collection of original Voice-o-Graph discs. "Until they existed, no one had a chance to really hear their own voice." Jack White purchased the only known fully functional booth from Bollman (after being painstakingly restored) and based it at his Third Man Records store in Nashville, where Canadian artist Neil Young recorded the Grammy-nominated A Letter Home using the booth. The record booths also had a much more important social significance during wartime. Parents would record messages for their sons and daughters serving overseas and to hear one of the original vinyls recorded in the early 1940s is an incredible experience - like opening a time capsule into an America 70 years ago.

The Voice-o-Graph booth owned by Aberlour is the 'sister' booth to the one owned by White and was also fully restored by Bollman. It made its debut in July last year in New York, then London and most recently, appeared in Canada, where different expressions of Aberlour were paired with vinyl recordings from classic albums, including Carole King and Johnny Cash, each one highlighting light-and-shade in the flavour profiles of the whisky.

The Voice-o-Graph was demonstrated with an acoustic singer songwriter in each location and the recordings produced - each one effectively a unique piece of vinyl, were then paired with Aberlour A'bunadh, to demonstrate the subtleties between each different batch of the whisky.

This year will see the Voice-o-Graph take up permeant residency at the Aberlour Distillery, beginning another chapter in its intrepid 70 year story.

"The most incredible thing about the Voice-o-Graph is the lengthy and colourful history that has made its own experience, one that cannot be created new," explains Bill Bollman. "The knocks, the scratches, the bruises - much like the records recorded inside. When you step into this revived Voice-O-Graph record booth, it's as if it knew that one day it would be back, making its rich experience even richer."