The sound of Glen Scotia
How do you capture the sense of sound in a distillery and its location – and then incorporate that into a song? That’s what the team at Glen Scotia set out to do, with a whisky and music collaboration in its Campbeltown home, as Richard Goslan reports
Anyone who’s visited a distillery will know the impact it can have on your senses – specifically your nose. From the waft of malted barley as you approach the building, the estery punch from opening the lid to a washback and then to the deep, soothing notes of sleeping casks in the warehouse, it’s a delicious olfactory assault.
But what about the sounds of the distillery and its environment? How do they add to the experience?
That was a question that came to the mind of the team at Glen Scotia in Campbeltown, and they decided to launch an artistic collaboration to explore this underappreciated sensory aspect of the distillery experience.
ABOVE: Neil Ridley
Glen Scotia enlisted whisky writer and musician Neil Ridley, music producer Dean Honer and singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon to spend time in and around the distillery, gathering its sounds and ultimately creating a song, Copper Heart, which integrates sounds from the distillery and the town itself. There’s also a B-side, The Sound of Glen Scotia, which is a fully immersive 17-minute audio soundtrack, depicting everything from the grain being delivered to the sounds of the mash tun, washbacks, stillhouse and even distillery manager and master distiller Iain McAlister checking on the casks in the warehouse and drawing a sample.
The concept came from Nick Bradley, brand manager at Glen Scotia, who says: “Every year, ahead of the Campbeltown Festival, Glen Scotia invites an artist or artists to collaborate with the team here, to see the distillery and our home through their eyes and artistic medium. Our greatest hope is this can give whisky lovers all over the globe a flavour of our home.
“Music felt like a nice natural next step, so I approached Neil Ridley, who is probably the perfect embodiment of where the worlds of whisky and music meet. He came back with this idea of using the sounds of the distillery to create a track.”
Neil teamed up with producer Dean Honer, using specialised audio equipment to capture the proximity of sounds. A binaural microphone, which resembles a featureless human head, was used to mimic the exact proximity of sounds as they were heard during recording. They even submerged waterproof microphones known as hydrophones into casks of whisky, creating the sense of a world heard from the spirit’s enclosed point of view.
“What we tried to get is effectively a slice of life on any given day in the Glen Scotia distillery,” says Neil. “You've got a couple of the guys running the mash tuns and the malt being delivered and the conversations that go on there, and together with Dean we worked out which bits of equipment to take and how to articulate this the best way and came up with some fun bits of equipment to achieve that.”
ABOVE: Dean Honer
ABOVE: distillery manager and master distiller Iain McAlister
“The challenge was in finding a way to fit these kind of industrial sounds into a folk song, without it being too jarring,” says Dean. “In the end, a lot of the sounds that we used were percussion sounds, such as the casks being hit – the more kind of woody sounds seem to work really well. But there's a bit of a breakdown in the song where you can hear the sound of the stills.
“It was a bit tricky because obviously it's an industrial process at the end of the day, so we had to get these sounds to fit in with quite a gentle song.”
As the songwriter, Jenny’s role was also to observe, take notes and soak up the atmosphere not only of the distillery but of its location within Campbeltown.
“I had a notebook with me and made sure to chat to everybody who was working that day in the distillery, what they were actually saying about their experience of the liquid, of working at the distillery, and their own take on the sounds and the smells and the colour – all things that I ended up using a lot in the song lyrics,” she says.
“It kind of struck me that the process of making whisky mirrors the seasons, so I wanted to get elements of that and elements of Campbeltown itself, making reference to the birds which are ever-present in the sounds of the distillery, and the colours that you see at different times of year, which seem to mirror the whisky itself.”
For distillery manager and master distiller Iain McAlister, the project helps bring Glen Scotia to whisky lovers around the world – and is further proof of the distillery’s turnaround in fortunes.
“Whatever the medium is, the ultimate aspect that any distillery is going to be the whisky that’s produced here, but it's also good to also understand the people, the place, the relationship that all the different components have,” he says. “Something like music is potentially going to convey that, the sense of place, everything that goes with that, it's something that can be transferred from Campbeltown around the world.
“I also reflect on where the distillery was and where we are now, it's simply unbelievable, you'd never have dreamt in your wildest dream what we were going to be able to achieve, it's wonderful, and that’s thanks to the visitors, the consumers, everybody has had a part to play in the rise of Glen Scotia.”