Connoisseurs of both Shakespearean theatre and fine spirits will be pleased to learn that a new kind of whisky pairing has arrived: a dram to go with your drama.
London-based designer Alexis Burgess has orchestrated a new whisky collection that draws on one of the playwright’s best known works, Macbeth. Burgess has been working with whisky for years through his practice Burgess Studio, whose clients are mainly in the old and rare Scotch space. As he grew more familiar with the dynamics between distilleries past and present, he found there were parallels between the industry and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with its “stories of allegiances and collective endeavour, but also ruthless ambition and intense rivalries”.
And so the idea for a Macbeth-inspired whisky collection was born. The collection comprises 42 whiskies supplied by whisky bottler Elixir Distillers based on characters that appear in Macbeth. The whiskies are being released across multiple ‘Acts’, nine of which are in Act One. It’s the first project from Burgess’ new company Livingstone, which he has launched as a space to work on concepts outside of his client-based practice at Burgess Studio.
Burgess enlisted none other than Quentin Blake to create the illustrations for the collection. He’s worked with the beloved illustrator for over 20 years on various books and exhibitions (as well as on James Blake’s 2016 album, The Colour in Anything), though the illustrator’s involvement in commercial work has become a rarity.
The contrasts within Quentin Blake’s work made him the perfect collaborator on the project, says Burgess. He points to his illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, with their often dark undertones, which he says Blake could have tackled in several ways. “One of them is absolutely horrific and then there’s Quentin’s way, where he can retain the humour that Dahl has,” Burgess tells CR. “So if you think about it in the context of illustrating Macbeth for a project like this, he has the same sensibility. He can bring out the darkness of the characters without it becoming entirely morbid.”
Blake, who says that he has long been interested in Shakespeare, decided to reinterpret the play’s many characters as birds. “I woke very early one morning (I do draw in bed a lot) and by 10am I was able to phone Lexi to say that I had done some pencil drawings. These were later redrawn with a scratchy Indian ink standing at my desk,” he said. Birds made good stand-ins for people, “because they have two legs like us and I can draw all kinds of human characters without drawing specific individuals. So that, here, the depiction of Macbeth doesn’t have to remind you of some particular production of the play.”
The fact that the characters are portrayed as birds might seem strange at first, Burgess tells us, but like stage productions, “it’s a theatrical device. In the same way that sometimes you go to see Shakespeare and they’re all dressed as policemen or it’s set in the 50s or whatever. It’s allowed.” He adds: “The funny thing about it is sometimes you show people the bottles, and if you don’t tell people [they’re birds], they don’t even notice. They’re so anthropomorphic.”
With the drawings complete, each character in the play was given its own flavour profile with the help of renowned whisky writer Dave Broom. These were given to Elixir to source whiskies that felt right for each character, before Broom created character descriptions for each whisky in the final selection.
Broom likened the whole experience to a theatre production, in which he worked with Elixir to “cast and produce whiskies as the characters of Macbeth based on Shakespeare’s writing, with Livingstone and Sir Quentin Blake as the artistic directors responsible for set and wardrobe”.