Autumn 2024 Banquet

Music and Scotch Whisky

  • Annabel Meikle
  • December 14 2023

Simple-Minds-Macallan-036 copy 2IT WAS the gig that stopped the whisky stills.  

When Scottish rockers Simple Minds played their song Solstice Kiss live for the first time at The Macallan Estate last November, the distillery shut down production for a whole day so it could go ahead.

The 60-million-album sellers had written the track to accompany the short film, The Spirit of 1926, Macallan’s tribute to Janet ‘Nettie’ Harbinson, who inherited the distillery after her husband died in 1918. She had to battle to stay in charge – there were many attempts to get her to hand over the reins, largely because she was a woman.

Jaume Ferràs, Global Creative Director for The Macallan, remembers the gig well. “To stop production for a day, and to get everything done safely without exploding the whole thing, was quite a challenge, but we really enjoyed seeing the song played in the area where we make our whisky.”

One of the bottles crafted by Nettie, The Macallan 1926, which was matured for 60 years, was sold at auction in 2019 for £1.5 million, making it the most expensive bottle of spirit or wine ever and a potent symbol of her legacy.

When Macallan decided to share Nettie’s story in a film they began looking for musical collaborators. Simple Minds were ideal partners, says Jaume.

“Janet’s story is one of legacy and hardship and doing the right thing. Simple Minds were an easy choice. They are Scottish, they understand the international language. They understand how a local story can be translated for a global audience. And they have legacy themselves. Back in the late 70s and 80s, they started something that has inspired lots of others after them.”


It takes two

Music and whisky, whisky and music – the two have long been amorous bedfellows. No more so than in Scotland, where folk tunes on the subject abound – such as A Farewell to Whisky, The Parting Glass, Tak a Dram and Campbeltown Loch (I Wish you Were Whisky); where pubs renowned for their whisky offerings host regular turn-up-and-play music sessions; and where there is a busy calendar of whisky festivals that almost always place music at the centre of their programmes.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that when Scotch Whisky makers want to celebrate their products, they so often turn to musicians to lend a hand.

As part of their creative ‘In Collaboration’ series, Macallan has also worked with Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti on its Tales of The Macallan Volume 1 limited-edition release, and Scottish post-rock instrumentalists Mogwai, who composed and recorded an original score for the release of The Reach – an 81-year-old single malt, the world’s oldest ever whisky. Mogwai’s music was then set to a film shot on and around The Macallan Estate by photographer Nadav Kander, evoking the year of distillation, 1940, and the start of the whisky’s journey.

Jaume is at pains to point out that, although these collaborations often accompany a release with a superlative – the oldest or the most expensive – these are not the real headlines for them. It’s more about telling a meaningful brand story and inspiring consumers.

“We don’t necessarily talk to the few hundred lucky ones who are going to get the product. We try to come up with a story that is inspirational for younger generations, and if they like the story, they might drink a product they can afford.”

Ballantines_RZA_Launch_Image02_16x9Chivas Brothers’ brand Ballantine’s has also been connecting with its younger global audience through musical collaborations. They recently announced a continuing partnership with Wu-Tang Clan frontman RZA, which will see a range of releases – or ‘drops’ – from music to food and fashion. The first of these was a Crosley record player designed by RZA. Ballantine’s has also released some RZA-inspired cocktail recipes, including Shaolin Sour, Staten Island Iced Tea and Rock ’n’ Ruckus.

BallantinesStillLife3420_FINAL_ORIGINAL_CROP_3The RZA partnership is part of Ballantine’s Stay True initiative, expressing its passion for individuals – and by association Ballantine’s whisky – living the Stay True lifestyle and “staying true to who you are”.

Explaining the celebration of their shared values, Mathieu Deslandes, Ballantine’s Global Marketing Director, says: “RZA is well known for doing things his own way, a mindset that reflects the spirit of Ballantine’s, inspired by our pioneering founder George Ballantine.”

Ballantine’s has also been working with music promoter and online broadcaster Boiler Room since 2014, when it launched its Boiler Room X Ballantine’s True Music collaboration. The project features live-streamed party nights all around the world, from pop-up DJ sets in London’s Soho to reggaetón nights in Colombia and Afrobeat events in Cameroon. Links to all the sets are available on Ballantine’s website, with playlists on Spotify.

It is world music at its most cutting-edge and cool, with Ballantine’s and their mixology experts at the centre of the heady cocktail. As they say in their materials: “It wouldn’t be a Ballantine’s event without whisky.”

William Grant’s Monkey Shoulder has also been appealing to a younger demographic with its ongoing series of exclusive music playlists curated by artists and DJs. These ‘Monkey mixes’ with the hashtag #madeformixing are released on the Mixcloud platform where they can be streamed.



Musical collaborations come in all shapes and sizes – and genres – and a long way from the club scene, Caol Ila got together with jazz pianist Fergus McCreadie to celebrate the reopening of its visitor attraction on Islay last year, after a multi-million-pound transformation. McCreadie, who is inspired by Scotland’s coast and islands, created
a special piece of music and performed it in front of the distillery.

In another collaboration between pianist and whisky maker, Polish-born composer Hania Rani created a piece for Bowmore, which she played live on one of the island’s stunning beaches. The Boat was inspired by her visit to the island and the distillery, and her atmospheric performance can be seen online as part of an interpretive film.

Once again, it’s a question of shared values and storytelling, as Bowmore’s Global Marketing Director, Kirsteen Beeston, explains: “We seek to celebrate the art of composition with partners who can bring distinct aspects of our whisky and our story to the fore, interpreting our whisky through their own creative lens.”

Cantilena festFrench food writer Martine Nouet has taken the concept of collaboration in an entirely different direction, literally pairing music and whisky during live events. Martine, a Master of the Quaich, pioneered the pairing of whisky with food in the 1990s. Back then, she says: “Nobody was doing it. Everybody in the industry was appalled. But I am very stubborn. It took me 10 years to convince them.”

After decades travelling the world doing whisky and food pairing events, and publishing a book on the subject, Martine, who now lives on Islay, turned her attention to other whisky pairings, including music.

She has since held numerous events, many of them at the Cantilena Festival, a week of chamber music in venues across Islay. She adopts a sensory approach, using criteria such as the delivery of aroma. Is it slow, faster or all at once? She also considers the instruments. “The violin expresses a more light, airy whisky, whereas a viola will give darker notes. A cello will express the oakiness of the whisky.”

At Cantilena last year she paired a Bowmore 15-year-old 2022 release with a Vivaldi Lute Concerto in D, noting that, “Vivaldi’s music enhances the lightness and liveliness of the whisky.” She also matched a 19-year-old Ardbeg Traigh Bhan having a ‘sea brine’ nose with an Elgar serenade – “the rhythm of the music evokes the ebb and flow of the sea”.

She happily concedes it’s not an exact science but is really about giving people both the opportunity “not to be shy with their senses” and an hour of pleasure. “The music will have an action on your senses and that will enhance the effects of the whisky. We all have senses. We have to use them because that’s what makes life beautiful.”

Another live pairing experience, the Rhythm and Booze Project, the brainchild of guitarist Felipe Schrieberg and drummer Paul Archibald, combines foot-stomping blues with whisky tastings. The pair have run their customised events for a number of years in many settings, including distilleries, whisky festivals, wedding parties and even at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“We are strong believers that good music makes whisky better and good whisky will make the music better,” says guitarist Felipe, who is also a whisky writer and recently inducted Keeper.

He and drummer Paul got into the whisky world by accident when in 2011, as student musicians, they went to Islay and offered to play gigs for free – well, for food, board and whisky. They were spotted by then Lagavulin Distillery Manager Georgie Crawford, who took a shine to them and invited them to play at the Islay Festival – the Fèis Ìle – the following year.

“We played at Lagavulin amongst other gigs and we’ve be going to the Fèis every year since,” says Felipe.

The relationship with Lagavulin blossomed further when the entrepreneurial pair came up with a scheme to transform a Lagavulin maturation cask into a bass drum, a world first. In their YouTube video chronicling the project, they use the drum to play John Lee Hooker’s classic Boom Boom in – where else? – the Lagavulin distillery.

Having honed their offering, they debuted their Fringe show 2 Guys, 3 Drams in 2019, returning with a sell-out run this summer. They like to feature different flavour profiles and this year’s whiskies included a Chivas Regal 18, a Loch Lomond 12 and Ardbeg’s Bizarrebq.

For the final whisky, they run a little experiment where, during a drum roll, the audience is invited to nose a specific whisky. At the end of the drum roll they take a sip and hold it in the mouth. Finally, when the song gets going, they swallow. “You get this punchy song hitting you as well as a punchy whisky,” says Felipe.

This year’s punchy whisky was their own cask-strength ‘Rhythm and Booze Records’ spirit which comes complete with its own soundtrack, available through a QR code on the label. Rich, fruity and with a hint of leather, it is a perfect match for their gritty blues music, says Felipe.

The Keepers of the Quaich doesn’t sell tickets to its twice-yearly banquets at Blair Castle in Scotland but those, too, are always at full complement, with plenty of whisky and music on offer.

But the Keepers’ collaboration with the music world goes further than this – as they support a unique scholarship programme for final year students of traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, helping with training, travel and other costs associated with
their early careers.
As part of the programme the students are invited to perform in front of the international audience at the Keeper banquets.

In 2019, six scholarship winners went one step further and, alongside the band Ceol Alba at Blair Castle, recorded The Spirit of the Quaich, an album of traditional and original songs, which can be streamed on the music platform Soundcloud.

The Conservatoire’s Head of Traditional Music, Joshua Dickson, said the scholarship programme can be transformative and career-shaping. “The backing has helped these artists and musicians to make a big impact. We cherish our partnership with Keepers of the Quaich and the opportunities it affords to some of Scotland’s most innovative musical voices.”

Music and whisky, whisky and music – in so many ways, the spirit of collaboration is alive,
well and enduring.

This article first appeared in the winter 2023 issue of The Keeper magazine

The Spirit of the Quaich can be found here

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