The inherent beauty of the whisky wrapped up in one seriously lovely tome? Yes please. We talk to Jon Purcell, author of The Art in Whisky, about how he went about capturing the soul of the spirit we all adore.
They say we’ve each got a book in us. Stories to tell, places to document. Jon Purcell certainly has, but his mission to document the making of whisky goes far beyond putting pen to paper.
We first met Purcell at the Jura Distillery during Fèis Ìle (different island, we know). He’d been in the same tasting session as us and was carrying a mysterious-looking bag around with him. We got chatting and he revealed his cargo: a stunning (and sizeable! It runs to 300 pages, measures 350mm x 350mm and weighs in at 10kg) coffee table-style whisky book, authored by his own fair hand.
I say ‘authored’. As we flicked through the book in the old Jura maltings it wasn’t the copy that stood out. No. That’s because The Art in Whisky is a compelling love letter to whisky delivered through the medium of photography, narrated by the global landscapes, distilleries and people behind the spirit. The visuals are so sumptuous they almost drip from each page.
A photographer by trade and a long-time whisky lover – “it’s always been my social drink of choice,” he tells me later on – Purcell self-published the book. Driven by a fascination for the category, the opportunity to get under the skin of distilling and distillers around the world, and an urgency to create something genuinely beautiful, he has devised something striking. He’s visited Scotland, Ireland, Japan and beyond, and has even featured the likes of the Speyside Cooperage and still-maker Forsyths. The book is so irresistible that a ten-minute chat at the end of a tasting was never going to be enough to get to the bottom of the story behind it. So we caught up a few months after the festival to deconstruct (not literally!) The Art in Whisky.
The actual idea for the book came to pass when he was having dinner with a friend. “We were saying that there are hundreds, probably thousands, of beautifully written, incredibly well-researched whisky books,” he tells me when we meet for the second time. “But all of them are based on words, nothing based on pictures. I thought at that particular point in time that it would be a really nice thing to do.” This was just over three years ago. 24 months of photography followed. The result? A lavish book available in two editions (black, and one with a gorgeous cover made from actual copper) that you really can get lost in. And one that demands a dram as you pore over the pages…
Master of Malt: How did The Art in Whisky all come about?
Jon Purcell: [After that dinner] I went away with the idea and researched it a little bit more. I took myself off up to Islay to see whether I could come back with the sort of imagery I had in my head. The very first distillery that I happened upon was Bowmore. I spent a couple of days there and came away with some really, really lovely stuff and thought that we could definitely develop it. At that point I said ‘yep, let’s go for it, we’ll definitely do a book’.
MoM: The book is full of real behind-the-scenes distillery shots, but there can be quite a lot of red tape to shoot inside! How did you get around that?
JP: I can’t remember how many risk assessment forms I’ve filled in! One of the things I decided to do right at the very beginning was shoot only in the available light, so I wasn’t trying to get lights or a flash in or anything like that. So it was really me and a tripod and maybe a ladder. But that [the red tape] in itself started to shape the way the book was going. Because if it really was like banging your head against a wall, eventually… When I started I tried to include everybody, but realistically that would have been stupid. And also it would have been incredibly repetitive.
MoM: When you say natural light, did you have a vision for the mood you wanted the book to give from the start, or did that evolve?
JP: Yes I certainly did, and that came from the time I spent at Bowmore generally seeing what you could do and what you couldn’t do, and what was achievable. Trying to come away with the most atmospheric shots. And trying to steer away from the kind of commercial photography that’s done in distilleries to me always seems a little bit overblown. The fact that they’ve got permission to be able to light something often means that things end up looking quite artificial. And I really didn’t want that, I didn’t want things to look like an ad. I knew from the get-go that I wanted to shoot in black and white; there’s a particular feel which I quite like which is quite contrast-y. And I wanted to, if I could, shoot on film. That was for me, I wanted to slow myself down. If I’m doing something for myself, which this pretty much was in the beginning, it made sense to enjoy the process as well. So, as and when I could, I was using a 5 x 4 film camera and just using film. When it started it wasn’t really a commercial project, it was a labour of love. I wanted to produce beautiful prints as amazingly as I could.
What do you think is the most photogenic part of a distillery?
JP: I don’t know really! I mean the stills are incredibly evocative. That’s where the magic is almost visible, isn’t it? But I guess, realistically, the people. And I think that’s the thing that charmed me more than anything else in this project, the people who are involved in the industry. Their enthusiasm and their pride and being swept along by that is what kept me going. When things were tricky and it looked like it was falling apart, there’d be somebody else that I would speak to when I was on a shoot who would say ‘this is a really brilliant idea, you absolutely must do it’. And that was catching.
What type of distilleries did you like shooting most? New ones, old ones?
JP: I guess the really old ones with the wonderful old machinery have a certain sort of charm. But no, I think it would be very, very hard to actually say that I have a favourite type. The challenge was trying to come away with pictures that weren’t repetitive. One of the things that was the most challenging was the editing process. When we felt that we had enough material, it was then cutting it down into something that would be digestible, as it were. Because we knew that we would be going for a very heavy paper. I wanted to use a paper that emulates proper photographic paper.
Tell us a bit about the processing.
JP: This is an old-fashioned printing technique and it’s copper selenium toned. Once you’ve printed the photograph it then goes into yet another bath which has got a solution of copper and selenium in and that reacts with the silver which is left suspended in the gelatine that gives you these intriguing tones and colours and hues. It was this link with copper that’s so important to whisky – the fact that copper leaves a little bit of itself within the liquid that we end up drinking. So there were two nods to it really; one in the copper and selenium toning and the second one in the cover of the copper edition. It was quite important to me as well that there’s a seamless kind of almost cinemascope way of presenting each spread [every page opens flat with the print running across].
The photography is clearly stunning. Did you write the copy, too?
JP: I did yes. It started off that it was going to be a collection of essays from industry experts but then that all started getting quite political because people’s marketing departments started getting involved and they’d say, ‘well we don’t want our piece sitting next to so-and-so’s piece’. And that was quite frustrating because all I ever felt, whenever I was in a distillery, when I was with the guys who have the boots on the ground, that it is one big club and everybody helps everybody else. So pulled the plug on that idea and it seemed a bit silly not to be the person who was actually putting it down. But I didn’t want it to be like a blog, I didn’t want it to be like a travelogue, I didn’t want to hector people who knew stuff already. So it’s a very conversational chat.
MoM: How long did you spend at each distillery?
JP: Honestly as much time as they would give me. And I always explained to them that I needed as much time as possible, and I probably wore my welcome out at most places! What I would like to think really is that this is a bit of a backstage guide for people, that the pictures, they’re the vistas and the things that they saw but they couldn’t necessarily record themselves because they’re not allowed to, or because they don’t necessarily have the technical knowhow. I wanted things to look as natural as possible; you’re there for a while until people get used to you and they’ve dropped their guard a little bit and then you’re able to get stuff which has got more of a feeling that is human and more of a feeling that’s natural.
MoM: What are you hoping will happen with the book? What’s the ambition?
JP: As an advertising photographer I don’t get credited for my work, normally. There are massive campaigns and billboards that people drive past every day but I don’t get any recognition for that. So I guess the first thing was that I wanted to actually put my name to something that I would be proud of. Something that felt honest and something that felt quite transparent as well. And then I had this idea that it would be really nice to produce something in this throwaway society that was you’d actually want to keep. Something that might even be an heirloom, something that might go from one generation to another. And I think the most satisfying thing was we had a private launch and one guy bought two; he said ‘I’m buying one for me, for now, and this other one I’d like you to dedicate to my son. He’s 18 months old and I’m going to give it to him on his 18th birthday!’.
Mission accomplished! Before he leaves, Purcell mentions he’s planning a bourbon edition and perhaps Tequila and rum editions. Then he shows us the copper-bound edition of The Art in Whisky. It’s even heavier than the black edition, but what especially appeals is the patina on the cover, the tiny changes that build up over time as the book is held and enjoyed. It’s intentionally reminiscent of the stills themselves. And it’s beautiful. Job well done, indeed.
The Art in Whisky is available from Jon Purcell’s Spiorad Publishing now, the Black Edition priced at £450, and the Copper Edition priced at £1,250. Both are limited editions.
All images courtesy of Spiorad Publishing.