In one of the odes Horace addressed to his patron, the politician Gaius Maecenas, the Roman poet wrote, ‘Come drink with me, Maecenas, some Sabine wine in a Greek jar’. Two millennia later, it is the producer of the drink – single malt Irish whiskey rather than wine from the Apennines – that has become the patron. Following last year’s commission of a piece by George the Poet, Bushmills, the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, has chosen another spoken word artist, James Massiah, for the 2022 edition of its Singular Tales series.
The South London writer and musician is no stranger to patronage or collaboration – he has written a poem for Prince Charles’s birthday, collaborated with Mercury-nominated jazz drummer Moses Boyd and been involved in fashion campaigns for the likes of Selfridges, Church’s and Loewe. Brummell travelled to Northern Ireland with Massiah, where he swapped stories with the Antrim distillery’s new master blender (appointed in November 2021), Alex Thomas, before performing the poem ‘I To You’, on the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway, just a few miles from Bushmills.
This has been your first trip to Ulster and, indeed, Ireland. What are your impressions?
Well, from a poetic point of view, I’ve enjoyed the little language differences… I expect I’ll be referring to anything small as ‘wee’ for a while after I get home. Standing on the edge of the Giant’s Causeway was an invigorating experience – it felt like that Romantic painting, I think it’s by Caspar David Friedrich, where there’s a guy staring at the overwhelming power of nature. And it was great talking to people about living here and working in the distillery, especially Alex Thomas, the Bushmills master blender. As soon as I talked to her, I knew my poem had to be good, because of the care and passion she has for the whiskey.
So what was the creative thought process?
Alex has such a strong sense of legacy and heritage – I guess because Bushmills is an important part of life on the north Antrim coast – and that took me to thoughts about family. My family doesn’t drink because I come from a strict church background, so my first real experience of a celebratory drink at a family celebration came when I was in a relationship. Her family lives in the countryside and they’d often have a fire outside and there’d be dancing and revelry along with food and drink – different generations together. There was no sense of reaching a certain age and having to stop partying.
Well that certainly chimes with an Irish whiskey. And there’s a certain bitter-sweet note to your piece that is reminiscent of Irish poetry and folk music.
Well, that relationship ended and the break-up is still fresh in my mind, but that time is still a very positive part of my life on reflection. I like that in music too – a certain sense of darkness and pain – and the joy I’m trying to evoke is to counterbalance that. Understanding pain, sadness and hardship actually helps you find common ground with people. Alex talked to me about the occasions when the Bushmills came out in her family… someone’s born; someone got married; and especially when someone passed away. Of course, some people have a negative relationship with alcohol, but for most, when it’s a responsible amount and particularly of an incredible single malt whiskey, it’s something that connects people.
Is it a difficult balance to strike when you’re commissioned by a brand to meet their commercial needs but be true to your self-expression? Or is it the opposite? Are you under pressure to represent a new audience for traditional brands?
It may be that marketing people look at me and see a certain demographic but, to be honest, it doesn’t occur to me – I actually forget who I am. And by that, I mean, I feel a part of so many diverse groups. I adapt to different environments and find common ground with people – whether they are royalty or counter-culture nobility. I hear interviews I’ve done where I’m being very proper and pronouncing every T and G, and others where I’m talking like I do with the people I came up with in South London – but it’s all me. Similarly, there are certain ways of writing I wouldn’t use in one context but might in another. In this instance though, the theme of sharing tales with friends and family over a drink, reflecting on the passage of time, that was just right up my street.
Your poetry is often about the rawest emotions – is it a reaction to the repressiveness of your strict religious upbringing?
Probably, yes. I played drums in the church band. It was controversial enough having instruments other than the organ, but they tolerated it as long as I played a militaristic beat. But I always felt the funk and, any time I introduced a bit of syncopation, I could see the heads popping out from the pews, looking disapprovingly down the row at me! My poetry is a mission to encourage people to feel, to express and to connect with their bodies. It’s a brief sensory experience, life, so we should feel every moment.
Talking of sensory experiences, which of the Bushmills single malts you’ve tasted is your favourite?
The 16-year-old. It was the first Bushmills I tasted and it really appealed to my palate – I tend to like a sweeter whiskey. It’s smooth and creamy from the time spent in the casks [ex-bourbon and ex-sherry for 15 years, before a year finishing in port pipes] with lovely fruity notes, too.
Were you a whiskey man before this project?
Through friends, I’ve enjoyed some good whiskeys in my time. I think whiskey, like wine, can be a bit intimidating. If you don’t know all the factors that go into judging the quality of a whiskey, you can feel your tastes are a bit primitive. But experts are more than happy to help you learn and enjoy whiskey, so now I feel I can be the one to share my knowledge with friends. When you do a guided tasting, you have your nose in the whiskey and someone like Alex says, ‘Now, here comes the milk chocolate note, with a hint of allspice’, and you suddenly spot it. It’s like a good poem that articulates something you’ve felt but hadn’t put into words yourself – it’s a eureka moment.