The challenge with any documentary about whisky is to raise it above the level of being just an extended VisitScotland advert. Scotch: The Golden Dram raises red flags from the title alone; it’s already got that sense of twee idealism, of a mythical Scottish drink with a magical glimmer. Never mind that whisky is now a worldwide industry and sometimes the golden colour is artificial… The title is a statement of intent that the film never shies away from, presenting a romanticised view of whisky and the industry with little of the corporate shenanigans that define much of the wider industry.
The film then doesn’t start convincingly, offering footage of kilted men tossing cabers, moustachioed gents sniffing whisky and highland dancers moving in slow motion. It’s soundtracked, of course, to Gaelic tunes and the sound of Scots around the world rolling their eyes. The film is the debut feature by the fittingly named Andrew Peat (nominative determinism, or did he change his name?), clearly a labour of love yet too aimless and formally dull to really make an impact. At its worst, it feels like the filler video they show you at the start of a slick distillery tour.
Anyone who has actually done a half-decent distillery tour will, as such, find much of the film redundant, as vast chunks of footage are given over to the process of making whisky. On the plus side, this means giving some credit to the barley farmers who produce the often overlooked main ingredient of the drink. Yet this focus on process leaves a lot of the film feeling remarkably dry. Cementing the romantic ideals of the film, it rarely shows the vast industrial equipment, instead showing old home stills and manual malting floors.
Nostalgia plays a big role in the film, perhaps fed by the director’s memories of attending university in St. Andrews. The film opens with reminiscences about passing distilleries on your walk to primary school, while the film also features a long, pointless section where people recall their first dram. There’s little substance to any of it and it’s tiresome to see some of the top figures in the industry churn out platitudes like “we’re alchemists”, which I feel is unfair to the people who work hard at the science of distilling. Given that it isn’t, in fact, alchemy, where is the nitty-gritty of the craft?
I do believe that whisky distilling is an art as well as the science, but if that is truly the case, then it is a craft that deserves a film with a little more artistic flair. Instead, it languishes with talking heads and repeated footage of tuns, bottles and peat collection. Anecdotes go on for too long and the ongoing tribute to whisky legend Jim McEwan is not quite focused enough to carry the film. (It also leaves one wondering if Bruichladdich paid for the movie). You’ll gain much more respect and insight into the distillery just by reading Malt’s interview with some of their craftsmen.
By the time it got to a section about how women like whisky, too, the film had unfortunately lost me. I couldn’t work out whether the section was groundbreaking or patronising, although I strongly suspect the latter.
Perhaps I’m not the target audience. For people who aren’t lucky enough to live in Scotland, this is an accessible look at what goes into the making of whisky. Plus, there are interesting insights into the people who make bottles for the premium price drinks and a nice debunking of the term “master” that’s one of the few refreshing moments of honesty in the entire documentary. It’s successful, at least, in taking us from grain to glass and it’s clearly made with a lot of affection.
It’s fine to celebrate whisky; it really is a terrific drink and Scotland is right to be proud of it as an export. But a film that’s trying to tell the story of whisky requires something with a little more complexity. After all, some of the great minds of the whisky world claim that the secret to a perfect dram is depth – the film makers should have taken note.
It’ll work fine as an introduction to the whisky-making process and some of the big names of the industry, but anyone with more than a surface level investment in whisky will find Scotch: The Golden Dram to be lacking in depth, flavour and finish.
Nathanael Smith is a freelance writer and critic based in Edinburgh, with a particular love of animated cinema. He knows a little bit about whisky but talks like he knows a lot. Partial to peat.