I’ve been very lucky in life: at an early age I started promoting and managing bands and a few years later I had my dream job in the A&R department at Island Records. I spent nearly a decade discovering, signing and developing new acts and in that time I was consistently asked one question: how do I discover a great artist?
Now working in a different industry as whiskey writer, I am still asked one question consistently: how do I discover a great whiskey? Simply, the best way to discover great whiskey, is with friends.
In my previous working life I discovered that there is no simple formula to finding new musical talent, but there are key ingredients, two of which are friendships and experience. Add to these the luxury of time and a solid understanding of the wider cultural landscape and you tend to have a winning formula.
One can draw parallels here with whiskey; it is the experience of the farmer that lets him grow the best barley, the Master Distiller to create the best spirit and, of course, the experience of that spirit in oak casks. Similarly, if you speak to any musician about the art of song writing, they’ll tell you the same is true in their field (excuse the pun) - emotion and experience are the ‘barley, water and yeast’ for them; their very own raw ingredients.
Alongside these key ingredients, time is a vital element to the development of both whiskey and music. When crafting a song, it is rare for an artist to be suddenly hit by inspiration like a bolt of lightning. Most work hard and collaborate with friends to perfect their craft; the results can often take years, sometimes decades, to hone.
In the same way, time allows whiskey to mature. Keeping an eye on the maturation process is one of the nicer jobs at a distillery. Nosing casks, assessing which need more time to develop and eventually which ones are ready to be released into the world surely rivals most dream jobs I can think of.
An ability to understand the lay of the land is also crucial for music and whiskey crafting: at any record label, it is the role of an A&R Manager to have an intimate knowledge of the landscape of current talent, deciding who’s worth investing in and eventually releasing at the right time. This demands knowledge of unsigned acts which are self-releasing records, touring, recording, getting press and radio play, tweeting, selling merchandise...you get the picture.
It is a skill akin to understanding the maturing stocks at a distillery, except the artists are casks and the warehouse, the world. At Island Records, my former home for many years, we had a formidable roster, ranging from Bob Marley to U2. Being tasked with adding to this list, I felt less like a talent spotter and more like the custodian of a legacy.
Last year Bushmills Irish Whiskey brought the music and whiskey worlds together in a unique event, inviting a mixed group of up-and-coming and established artists to play live at their distillery, helping people to enjoy whiskey and music in the best way possible: with friends.
As a result, ‘Bushmills Live’ was born and this year the distillery opened their gates once again, as the next generation of acts arrives to ply their craft alongside the next generation of whiskey, both maturing as they do, side-by-side.
Musicians and whiskey makers both have a very similar approach: preparation now for future success. So where better for these two to meet than in a location which, for centuries, has been doing one thing brilliantly: preparing today for success tomorrow.
The list of acts at this year’s event included some big name acts, such as Of Monsters And Men, Jake Bugg, Iain Archer (a personal friend of the blog) and a band I have been meaning to catch for a while now: Bear’s Den.
Bear’s Den is a new band, signed for a few EP’s to Communion, Mumford & Son’s label. We had the pleasure of seeing them again when we ran some whiskey tasting for the bands at Mumford’s recent sell out show at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (and something we’ll have the pleasure of again on Saturday in the wonderful town of Lewes) and quite wonderful they were, too. If you’ve never heard them play, I strongly suggest you click on this link and listen to their track Agape; a truly beautiful tune.
Bushmills created a bespoke whiskey for the headline act, Of Monsters And Men, using casks from sherry and bourbon barrels, from the years the band members were born; 1987, 1989 and 1990 making it a 23 year old single malt.
Bushmills – Of Monsters And Men – 23 Year Old Irish Single Malt Whiskey - 40% - 70cl
Nose: A big hit of vanilla and maple syrup, icing sugar, some figs and dates. Lighter, grassy tones gives this whiskey some vibrant energy.
Palate: Milk chocolate gives way to rich sherry tones, dark cherry and some sponge cake with strawberry jam and vanilla icing.
Finish: Lasting malty tones, with a hint of fresh kiwi and the strawberry jam again. Some mint.
Overall: An excellently constructed whiskey where the age shines through but with some extra, vibrant energy, too.
As we saw in our Jam & Dram exercise in May, music and whisk(e)y go hand-in-hand. Next time you put on a record, or go to a gig, forgo your usual pint and choose something altogether more in line with the work, effort and artistry on stage: a whiskey.