The Angels' Share, a Scottish film directed by that great portrayer of gritty social realism Ken Loach, took the coveted Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The story revolves around a whisky auction, a group of young Glaswegians, and a 'unique cask of Islay's Malt Mill' that comes to a sticky end in some Irn Bru bottles.
The story is fictional of course, and the cask of Malt Mill a fantasy, but the script contains enough genuine whisky lore to make it interesting to those of us who care about the world's most fascinating drink. Malt Mill was a real Islay distillery. Built in 1908, it resided on the same site as Lagavulin and ran spirit for the last time in 1962. It was never intended to produce a single malt, but was instead a big flavour constituent for beefing up blends. There are (almost certainly) no casks of the stuff lying about anywhere, and (almost certainly) no bottles of it either, because it was never bottled.
However, there is a little twist to most whisky tales, and Malt Mill is no exception. Back in June 1962, someone took a sample of the last spirit and put it in a bottle, wrote a label by hand, crudely sealed it and put it in a cupboard. The contents of this bottle are therefore not whisky, but new make spirit because it has never spent the requisite three years in an oak cask. It does represent a little piece of history however, and 'The Angels' Share' has given it a special significance. It is now as close to whisky stardom as a bottle of spirit that is not even whisky could ever get.
Ken Loach had originally planned to shoot much of the film on Islay, and had even visited us at Bruichladdich to check out locations etc, but unfortunately the logistics of bringing the hundreds of people involved in shooting a feature film defeated everyone and the idea had to be abandoned. A shame. However, five of the cast (Paul Brannigan, William Ruane, Jasmin Riggins, Gary Maitland and Charlie MacLean) were over on Islay last week to witness the bottle being reverently placed in a specially commissioned cupboard and have their photographs taken with their liquid co-star.
It was apparent from the photocall that the young actors (and Rebecca O'Brien the film's producer) have all developed a keen interest in the complexities of the whisky world, peppering Lagavulin distillery staff and co-star Charlie (who plays himself...) with questions. Why is the level in the bottle so low? Can the angels help themselves through the glass or have they sneaked it out over the past fifty years through the seal? Why is the liquid that brownish colour? Why can't a syringe be inserted and a little withdrawn so that we can taste what it was like? Why can't there be more bottles stashed away in cupboards on Islay? Surely this cannot be the only one?
The whisky industry being what it is, the answers to these questions can be complex. Because Malt Mill was made in the days when single malt was not exactly a well-developed concept, drinking it neat may have invoked something fishy. Barrels of rotten herring were suggested on the day. Or it may have tasted of something else entirely. We will (probably) never know. Unless somebody, possibly in some Islay attic, finds a hidden stash? We have all heard the old stories of lemonade bottles stuffed down the trouser legs of stillmen as they came off shift. The contents of which will all have been drunk at the time... Surely....?