While there are many parallels between the worlds of whisky-making and art, the two rarely meet in a literal, visual sense. And perhaps for good reason. Is it even possible to portray the essence of a whisky on canvas? MoM went to BenRiach’s ‘tasting by painting notes’ masterclass to find out…
Last summer, Scottish single malt BenRiach approached landscape artist Ellis O’Connor with a pretty unique challenge: create three pieces of art inspired by the three distinct cask types – bourbon cask, sherry and virgin oak – that make up BenRiach 10 Year Old. Being an oil painting maestro, O’Connor finessed the task; combining the “woodiness and drama” of the Scottish Highlands – BenRiach’s home – with the tasting notes and colours associated with each cask, as well as the colour palette found in the liquid.
“I start the blank canvas with [a layer of] dried kelp and dried seaweed,” the artist, who hails from the Outer Hebridean Island of North Uis, explains. “There’s a lot of it where I live and it goes into a really lovely texture. For the bourbon cask, I worked a lot with the different notes – there’s a warm vanilla note in that cask that I really like, which you can see in the yellow colours coming through. It’s quite subtle, I didn’t want them to be too intense. It’s the mix of the dark drama of the Highlands with the palate shining through in the hues.”
Compare that to the sherry cask, which O’Connor found to be “a lot darker and spicier, with raisin and hazelnut notes, which I really liked. That one has a lot more red, almost ginger colours shining through. Again, they’re all quite subtle, but that’s how the whisky comes across – with lots of little notes that you can taste later on.”
This was the lightest, O’Connor says, with sweet, vanilla notes – almost like candy floss at times. Each painting is made up of four layers of oil paint, which allows her to bring through so many different hues. “The art is quite abstract, you can see lots of different things in it, and I’m passionate about that as an artist,” O’Connor says. “That’s what art is meant to be about.”
And the same can very much be said for whisky. Primarily, because our sense of smell is so personal. “We’ve all got a different olfactory epithelium – the 10 cm2 at the top of your nose – so we have different sensitivities,” explains Dr Rachel Barrie, master blender at BenRiach. “My vanilla might be your coconut. Or, you know, my date might be your apricot.”
And so many other variables can impact the liquid – the cask it was aged in, the mood you’re in, etc – that there can be no ‘right’ way of enjoying it. “If you add a few drops of water, it will make a change,” says Dr Barrie. “Like the ever-changing nature of painting and layering, by adding water to the whisky, you are going to disrupt the composition in some way. Some aromas will leap out and some will hide away.”
Your surroundings make a difference, too. “The environmental influence is fascinating,” she continues. “When I go to Jerez, I actually find more of the sherry character in BenRiach 10 when I’m nosing it. When I go to Taiwan, it’s pineapple cake. It’s incredible. Whisky is arguably the most sensorial experience you can get in terms of the diversity of aromas and tastes.”
Then, there’s the link between aroma, memory, and emotion. “Our sense of smell is the most underused sense, but it has the strongest connection to our limbic system,” Dr Barrie adds. “It goes straight to the primitive part of your brain that is gut instinct. That’s the journey that you go on when you smell or taste any food or beverage.”
Crikey. There’s a lot going on. How the hell does she manage to cut through the noise and make whisky? “You have to know the spirit inside out – to really appreciate the spirit off the still first and foremost, and understand how that’s going to work in different cask types” Dr Barrie explains. “What are its different facets? For BenRiach it has a wonderful balance of fruit and malt.” From there, she says, it’s like painting, because you are relying on your senses and instinct to create.
“I’m a scientist more than an artist, but I would say ‘the science is the art is the idea’,” she continues. “Science is a way of deeply understanding the character and how a liquid the whisky comes to be. It’s understanding the influence of the mineral-rich water in the springs beneath BenRiach. It’s understanding the influence of the atmosphere and the unique geography of the landscape. But it’s also exploring and creating with the paint pots that are the casks. In that way, I’m painting with flavour rather than with colour.”
After sampling each cask type for ourselves, the paintbrush was passed to MoM. We consulted our tasting notes. We sipped BenRiach 10. We even stared blankly into space for a short while. And 45 minutes later, this is the result.
Oh dear. In our defence, it looked far better after a few drams. Ignore the fact it’s garbage for a moment, if you can, and consider the bigger picture (pun intended). It’s about taking unique and personal sensory data – in this instance, taste and smell – and transforming it into something tangible. And that’s what art is. So, to answer our initial question: Is it possible to portray the essence of a whisky on canvas? Yes, very much so. With art, like with whisky-making, some people are more talented than others. But ultimately, it’s all subjective.
Even so, we’ll stick with the day job.