I’m pretty sure humans have been fermenting sugars and producing alcohol since the beginning of time. Whether you start with grapes, potatoes, rice or barley, there’s something magical about the alchemy of converting starches into sugars, and then sugars into a drinkable and enjoyable concoction. Few alcohols are as wrapped in culture and place as Scotch Whisky, however, and that’s what the delightful documentary Scotch: A Golden Dream celebrates.
Indeed, is there anything that’s more identified with Scotland throughout the world than its signature golden drink, perfect with a splash of water or just an ice cube or two? But Scotch, as it’s more generally known, has a remarkable history that goes back hundreds of years and includes home stills for people producing their own house beverages and taxes. As the film explains, it was the rise of taxes and requirement for licensure that really created the modern Scotch Whisky industry back in the 1800’s.
The film isn’t really about Scotch as much as it is about the fascinating and colorful men and women who created, nurtured and now manage the business, however. Key players profiled and interviewed include Ian Macmillan, Bill Lumsden, Charles Maclean, Richard Paterson, Robbie Hughes, Brodie Nairn and Georgie Bell, but the film is really mostly about 50-year Scotch industry veteran Jim McEwan and his extraordinary life.
Scotch: A Golden Dream is also about Scotland, with an emphasis on the small but prolific island of Islay, where they have eight world-class single malt Scotch distilleries and 3200 inhabitants. As McEwan says in the film, if Islay were its own country, its tax revenue would make it one of the richest spots in the world.
McEwan’s career centers on the resurrection and growth of Bruichladdich (pronounced “brook-lad-dee”) and it’s a marvelous tale of an abandoned distillery that needed love and some guerilla creativity to transform it from a ruin to a key industry on this beautiful Scottish island.
To fully appreciate the film, I reached out prior and asked director Andrew Peat to recommend a whisky to sip during the screening. His suggestion: “for a non-peated option the Glenmorangie Lasanta (12 year single malt), and for peated the Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10”. I could only find the Glenmorangie at the local liquor store, so dutifully poured out a dram for myself as I started the movie. Unfortunately, the portion in the film that highlights the best way to enjoy a dram and appreciate the art of its creation was near the end of the film so it’s possible that my viewing also involved a second dram…
Note: To enjoy a good scotch, it’s much more about your nose than your tastebuds, so swirl it around with a splash of water to release all the different flavors and scents, then let that linger in your nose before you have a sip.
While Scotch: A Golden Dream is a love letter to Scotch Whisky, the distillers and distilleries, and Scotland itself, be prepared for a film without much of a narrative thread. It doesn’t have a step-by-step sequence on the production of Scotch, it doesn’t talk about the quite fascinating laws around whisky, whiskey, Irish and American versus Scottish whisk(e)y, it eschews just about any mention of the most popular single malts on the market and completely avoids mentioning any blends. The topics tackled are more of a collage of ideas and topics, from fermentation to peat harvesting, glass blowing for custom bottles to the short and long term consequences of prohibition in Scotland.
As a documentary, however, the film doesn’t really need a specific story or narrative to be engaging, and the heart of the film is very much Jim McEwan and his impact and importance to the modern Scottish industry. Special note must also go to the charming and hilarious Dr. Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie Distillery. His story about his first dram as a teenager is worth the price of admission alone!
Finally, whether you’re a connoisseur of fine single malt whisky or just enjoy a scotch now and then while out with the gang, there’s lots to like about Scotch: A Golden Dream. It’s that rare documentary that will educate and inform while entertaining you, and its cast of colorful and charismatic characters offer a who’s who of people with whom I’d buy a dram and share a story with any time! My Dad would have loved this film too, he always enjoyed his Scotch and Soda. Oh, and that dram of Glenmorangie Lasanta? Lovely. Well worth the modest investment.
Dad At The Movies Note: Probably not appropriate for the younger set due to its focus on alcohol and generous sprinkling of obscenities. An older teen would enjoy the heck out of this, however, and watching it with Mum & Dad while sipping on a small dram? That could be a lovely evening for someone home from college…