Words by Damien Russell
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….
Okay, perhaps not quite so much, but when sat in a room with The Lost Distillery Company – who ‘bring back the ghosts of whiskies past’, and The Birmingham Whisky Club – fine promoters of whiskies present, it’s easy to see how the festive vibe creeps in.
Tuesday might sound like a bit of an odd evening to be surrounded by such whisky pedigree, but the theme tonight is very much tasting and appreciating (over quaffing and getting squiffy). We’re at the Electric Cinema for a mixed event of whisky tasting and film viewing, with a Q & A with the film’s director, Gillies MacKinnon, at the end.
It’s the pre-screening of the 2016 remake of the Ealing comedy, cult classic Whisky Galore! – the tale of the SS Politician that ran aground off the coast of Scotland during the Second World War with a cargo of 28,000 cases of whisky. In reality, the ship sank off the north coast of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland; the island is known as Todday, which is a much funnier name (I am still that childish).
Whisky Galore! tells the tale of the island inhabitants who have already drunk their entire whisky supply and, with rationing being what it was, the drought has little end in sight. A ship crashing offshore with a cargo of whisky is therefore met with great delight and the slightly farcical romp that ensues – playing off Police, Military and Islanders – is light-hearted and fairly believable.
Naturally such a tale involves a lot of references to whisky; The Birmingham Whisky Club and The Lost Distillery took the excellent approach that such a tale deserved whisky in the flesh (so to speak) and not just on the screen.
And it’s hard to tell which takes the lead tonight, the whisky or Whisky Galore! But both take prominence in turn and if the stage is well shared, does it matter who the ‘support’ and who the ‘lead’ is? I feel, not.
The evening is started off with an introduction by Ewan Henderson (Global Brand Ambassador from The Lost Distillery Company) and a well organised distribution of whisky No1 Towiemore, based on a Speyside that would have been on the SS Politician when it sank. These Speyside whiskies are/were typically put into sherry casks giving them a sweeter note than some of their counterparts and a rich fruity finish. If you’re not into your peaty/smoky whiskies, it’s sherry cask for the win in my opinion.
I found the Towiemore a very palatable whisky, not overly strong of flavour but not suffering much for that. I also found more crisp flavours, like apple and peach, than the red fruit notes I’ve come to expect from many sherry cask whiskies, which was a nice and unusual touch.
It’s worth noting here that all of the whiskies served through the evening were blended. I’ve never been a believer in the ‘single malt is better’ approach personally and I feel that blending is an art. Which I suppose means that blending to get a whisky that has long since passed out of production must be some sort of Fine Art, but I digress…
After a joint Sláinte and some time to take in the flavours, the film began. I remember a bit about the original version and I did always like the tale, but the original presentation is certainly now dated and some of the themes and expressions don’t quite translate as well as they did, a consideration that has certainly been picked up and fixed in the new version. For example, back in 1949 women would not be portrayed as being part of exploration party whereas today it would be a matter of course that all comers are welcome to participate. Of course the island and the story can’t change too far out of recognition and the religious themes and the relationships between many of the villagers hold true: demanding parents, controlling priest etc. Without such vehicles the story wouldn’t move and while it does date the tale, the presence of military and the ship itself date it more obviously.
In fairness, I found Whisky Galore! slow to start. Not unreasonably, as there are a lot of people and relationships to introduce and a lot of groundwork to lay. But nevertheless when the film took a break and the second whisky was brought out, I wasn’t entirely unhappy.
The second whisky was Dalaruan, originally from Campbeltown, which had I not seen it written down I would have assumed was spelt Dalaroon. A west-coast whisky for a west-coast film and something like what the locals in Whisky Galore! would have been drinking regularly on the island, we are told. A slightly smoky and richer whisky, my favourite of the evening, it was just the right balance of flavour for my palate and balance is the word – it’s not middle of the road or any such boring description but Dalaruan comes well rounded and has a lot to offer. There’s a distinct salty finish to it that I liked (to my surprise) something further mentioned by Ewan Henderson in his tasting notes.
Continuing on the whisky, for a moment, the third and final dram of the evening was Lossit, an Islay from the era of rural farm distilleries. Almost like a Scottish moonshine in some ways. Reputed to be smokier than the Dalaruan, I actually found it less so, with a higher alcohol hit and a less rounded flavour. An interesting taste of what local whisky might have been like but not one I would rush to try again.
After the first break, Whisky Galore! picks up momentum and the stellar cast (Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Ellie Kendrick and Sean Biggerstaff to name a few), make it enjoyable viewing. The humour builds, the relationships develop, and it’s a good showing all round.
I would have said that at times it was a bit too farcical for me, but then if my ailing memory serves me the original is very similar so maybe I’m just grumpier in my old(er) age. And in fairness there are some tense moments to keep Whisky Galore! edgy, brining some balance so it never goes 100% over the top. I was left with that warm feeling that a well done cutesy film can instill and as the credits rolled, the audience applauded. Director in the room or not, if you can get an audience to applaud a film I think you’ve done well.
The Q&A was a mix of interesting, intelligent questions and the usual ‘advice’ type questions. One man who seemed to think it was Gillies MacKinnon’s job to bring films back to small cinemas (which of course it isn’t) but our guest director was a patient and eloquent interviewee. Listening to him tell us about Whisky Galore! being made, alongside other stories about the film and the cast, made for a lovely end to the evening.
For more on Whisky Galore! www.whiskygaloremovie.com
For more on The Lost Distillery Company, visit www.lost-distillery.com
For more from the Electric Cinema, including full film/event details and online ticket sales, visit it www.theelectric.co.uk