Quentin Blake designs whisky labels based on Macbeth
Through his namesake Burgess Studio, Lexi Burgess has spent years working on the design side of the whisky industry. This involvement encouraged him to look into the history of distilleries, where the shifting allegiances between the major players – sometimes cooperative and sometimes cut-throat – reminded him of the machinations of Macbeth.
That realisation crystalised into the idea of producing a collection of Scotch whiskies representing the characters in the play, which he has now done, through his new company, Livingstone.
Burgess has had a long working relationship with Britain’s greatest living illustrator, Quentin Blake. The inaugural Children’s Laureate is now in his 90s and has little interest in commercial projects, but was persuaded to provide label illustrations when Burgess suggested that he could draw the characters as anthropomorphic birds.
Blake was an enthusiastic birdwatcher as a boy, and the fascination has stayed with him. “I think it is possible to do this because [birds] have two legs like us and I can draw all kinds of human characters without drawing specific individuals,” said Blake. “So that, here, the depiction of Macbeth doesn’t have to remind you of some particular production of the play.”
Having woken especially early one morning, Blake started drawing, and by 10am he was on the phone to Burgess, to tell him that he had produced the initial sketches. Blake later worked up these pencil drawings, with his signature scratchy Indian ink.
If Burgess can be considered the director of this production, then renowned whisky writer Dave Broom was his casting director. A life-long fan of the Scottish play, Broom was invited to write descriptions of the characters, that would define them in terms of the characteristics of whiskies, in what was effectively an elevated version of the dreaded interview question, “If you were a biscuit, which biscuit would you be, and why?”
Broom considered Blake’s illustrations, and examined Shakespeare’s text for clues about the geographical origins of the characters and how they related to one another, seeking coherent metaphors that would bring together the fictional and historical figures of the play with their contemporary analogues in spirits.
Broom explained, “Flavours true to the lead characters were most obviously divided into light and darkness – the question was how to signify this in whisky? Smoke lends itself to creating the impression of wildness and danger, a straying into the dark side; the blood and gore of this tragedy brought to mind rich, sherried whiskies, and light and ‘goodness’ felt best conveyed by refill American oak: golden, honeyed, soft, gentle and sweet.”
The characters could be sensibly divided into categories, which would provide a structure to the collection. Lead characters would be old and rare whiskies; Thanes would be distinctive and aged for around 30 years; the Witches would be magical potions; the Ghosts would use stock from distilleries that had ceased production; the Murderers would be harsh and rugged; and the Household, characters such as doctors and messengers, would be interesting whiskies available in volume, at more accessible prices.
To source these whiskies, Burgess reached out to Elixir Distillers, who possess diverse stock from all over Scotland. Elixir’s co-founder Sukhinder Singh is an avid whisky collector himself, and was immediately attracted to Burgess’ proposal. It put him in mind of Ichiro’s Malt Card Series, a playing card-themed collection of the final stock of whiskies from the closed Japanese distillery Hanyu. Seen from that perspective, Singh’s interest makes perfect sense. In 2019 a near-complete collection of 54 Card Series bottles sold at Bonhams in Hong Kong for more than $917,000. The following year another 54-bottle set sold for $1.52 million.
Singh and Elixir’s head blender, Oliver Chilton, took Broom’s profiles of characters from Macbeth, and began matching them to casks in their portfolio. “His commentary contained sufficient certainties and posed plenty of questions to give us both clear direction and a good degree of freedom,” said Singh. “This worked well as a brief to interpret and inspire the choices for [each character’s whisky], creating the spark to send us off in a peated or non-peated direction, vegetal and herbaceous or dark and dusky.”
It took several years to select and organise the whiskies, and the release schedule will follow a thoughtfully paced Shakespearean five act structure. This first release, Act I, contains nine whiskies, and new releases are planned annually, to culminate with Act V in 2027. Each act will include a selection of characters from within the different categories, ensuring wide variety in terms of distilleries, types of whisky, flavour, and price.
The lead character of this first release is King Duncan, a 56 year old Glen Grant, aged in a sherry butt it has the flavour of sticky toffee pudding, but with mushroomy depths. It is exceptional, and at £10,000 more than 13 times the price of the next most expensive whiskies in the collection thus far.
With some of the whiskies, the connection between flavour and character is more conceptual, while with others it is more direct. For instance, Broom imagined that the Thane Menteith, had lived a life of wealth and comfort, disturbed at the end by a call to action, 31 year old Benriach has the expected rich orchard fruit and nutty flavours, but with something of the forest floor on the finish, which recalls Menteith being drawn into the final conflict against Macbeth. Meanwhile, for the Bloody Sergeant – a wounded character who reports on Macbeth’s success in the initial battle – they selected a 10 year old Blair Athol, aged in bourbon hogsheads and red wine casks, with the latter imparting metallic tannins that hint of blood, and a peppery bite of gunpowder.
The range of whiskies available in Act I makes a promise that it will be interesting to see fulfilled in subsequent releases, and the joy of Blake’s illustrations make the collection irresistible. In this first instalment two sketches that truly seize the imagination are the cavorting First Witch, and Macbeth’s armourer, Seyton, who appears festooned with spears, clubs, swords and shields. We can only hope that as the releases continue there will be not only the whiskies, but additional merchandise, such as clothing, and an illustrated and annotated script.
The pricing of the collection means that while only serious collectors are likely to purchase a complete set, some of the bottles will be accessible to most whisky enthusiasts, with two bottles coming in at under £100 each.
• For more information or to make a purchase, visit the Whisky Exchange