Macbeth, you say? ‘Hot potato; orchestra stalls; Puck will make amends.’ Brummell hopes that the Bard will forgive us for quoting Blackadder’s superstitious thespians rather than his own “Scottish Play”, but there is a puckish feel about what is one of the most creative and prodigious spirits releases ever – a collection of 42 whiskies cast as every character from Shakespeare’s tale of blood and vaulting ambition.
It’s the concept of designer Lexi Livingstone Burgess, whose Burgess Studio has created the luxury look of many a high-end whisky for clients, including Glenfiddich, Bowmore and Macallan. The history of the competing distillery groups somehow reminded him of the shifting allegiances and battling thanes from the 1606 tragedy. But, rather than present the idea to one drinks group, he decided that this would only work without being restricted to a single brand – so he approached Sukhinder Singh, founder of The Whisky Exchange and its independent bottling arm, Elixir Distillers.
He also called upon Sir Quentin Blake to illustrate the labels – which the now 90-year-old artist agreed to do on condition that they would all be anthropomorphic birds. (Well, fair is fowl and fowl is fair, after all.) Burgess revealed at a tasting at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre that the illustrator, having trouble sleeping, woke at 4am one morning while they were still negotiating, started sketching in bed and had roughs of all 42 feathered thespians waiting in the wings later that day. See? Puckish.
The big challenge was the casting. Easy enough to choose a whisky that chimed as the fully rounded characters – the likes of Banquo or Lady Macbeth. Differentiating between various household attendants whose main purpose is plot exposition was a little tougher! Enter, stage left, Dave Broom, one of the world’s most knowledgeable and interesting writers on whisky, who – along with Elixir’s head blender Oliver Chilton – was able to extrapolate the play’s personae into a dramatis aqua vitae. This is where the Macbeth team has screwed their courage to the sticking place and succeeded. The chosen whiskies are not a tick list of famous and popular, but really commit to their individual parts.
Take Lady Macduff, for example. Broom explains, ‘It was important to get her right. She has a gentle caring side you see with her interaction with her son, but she is defiant, too, when she confronts the murderers.’ The choice was a 31-year-old Linkwood – sweet and smooth, but with a crisp apple bite to it. Broom’s “tasting notes” on the back of each label, however, make a refreshing change from such banal descriptions. For Lady Macduff, they read: ‘A gentleness of manner and vulnerability is what you find on first acquaintance, at home among spring orchards and drifts of honeysuckle, the troubled world seemingly unknown. But there are deeper layers to test you, a firmness of resolve, a steel at the heart. The tongue may seem sweet but can also be cutting. Do not be deceived.’
The cast is divided, as was common in Jacobean folios, into groups: The Leads (King Duncan, Banquo and Macduff in addition to Mr & Mrs Macbeth), The Thanes, The Ghosts, The Witches, The Murderers and The Household. They are being released in “Acts”, with a lead character in each batch.
The first nine include the 56-year-old Glen Grant to represent King Duncan; that Linkwood for Lady Macduff; 31-year-old Benriach and Glen Garioch for Thanes Menteith and Angus; an intriguing Ardmore for Macbeth’s batman Seyton, one of those characters literary analysts and directors like to imbue with extra meaning than the text suggests on the surface; and a heavy, rugged Blair Athol for the Bloody Sergeant. All the Ghosts will be from decommissioned (“ghost”) distilleries. The first one is a grain whisky from Cambus. The creative team imagined the anonymous Murderers being hired from parts distant and harsh, so they are unidentified single malts from the Islands; similarly, the Witches are from nameless Islay distilleries, where peat fire burns and cauldron bubbles.
Each whisky is available in different limited numbers – from 2,800 to only 100 of the Leads – with prices spanning (in the opposite direction) £95 to £10,000. The next few years should see excitement grow around the ensuing acts… it would be quite the outlay to complete the collection. But lay on – and damned be him who cries, ‘Hold! Enough!’