Scotch Whisky: A Visual Storytelling Journey

This story originally appeared on the Gents Cafe Newsletter. You can subscribe here.

In this month’s edition of “Scent of Paper”, we spoke with Horst Friedrichs, photographer and co-author of “Scotch – The Stories Behind Scotland’s Iconic Spirit”, a photographic book narrating the production of Scotch whisky and the stories of its makers.

1. Horst, can you share the inspiration behind embarking on an 8,000-mile road trip across Scotland to explore its whisky-making heritage?

Together with my partner in crime and writer Stuart Husband, we have already produced two books for Prestel – “Bookstores” and “Great Pubs of England”. We wanted to follow the formula we’d established with them and, in this instance, tell the stories of the people whose passion and purpose are fuelling an explosion of interest in Scotch in general and single malt in particular. Our goal was also to shine a little light on the alchemical processes that go into producing such a cherished commodity.

2. The book beautifully captures the essence of Scotland’s whisky industry through captivating photography and evocative texts. How did you approach the process of visually representing such a rich cultural and historical landscape?

I aimed to capture the entire whisky production process, from barley to barrel. There are plenty of similarities between the worlds of photography and distilling: when you’re sealing a cask you’re capturing a moment in time, just like a photographer does when he clicks the shutter. I hope the photos give a flavour of the warmth, the artisanal beauty, and the intricacies of the process.

3. How did you seamlessly intertwine the human stories of those who work in the distilleries with the awe-inspiring natural beauty of Scotland, as well as the intricate elements such as machinery, barrels, fields, grains, copper, and glassware that play pivotal roles in crafting fine Scotch whisky?

The idea for the book sparked from my work as a whisky photographer and my love for Scotland. The land has been truly blessed with its great diversity of beautiful sceneries – from spectacular mountain and moorland views to awe-inspiring lochs, remote islands and wonderful coastline. Going back there to portray the people, culture and landscapes was a great opportunity, and resulted in one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever attempted.

Putting together the book involved an epic series of road trips: we visited and photographed 17 distilleries and the Speyside Cooperage. Despite the intrusion of our shoots and story mining, the whisky folks were always welcoming: it’s been a privilege to meet some of the custodians of these great distilleries and receive their insights on the craft.

4. Throughout your journey, you visited a variety of distilleries, from Springbank in Campbeltown to Ardbeg on the Isle of Islay. Could you highlight a particular distillery experience that left a lasting impression on you?

They all had their own peculiar characteristics, but I’ll single out three. Dornoch, both for the sheer Heath Robinson-esque quality of the distillery itself, shoehorned into an old fire station at the rear of Dornoch Castle, and for the commitment of Philip and Simon, who run it; Nc’Nean, for their dedication to sustainability and their resistance to the stuffiness that can sometimes afflict the industry (they think whisky and soda is a forgotten wonder, their bottles feature embossed foliage rather than the traditional pile-up of antlers and heraldry, etc); and Ardbeg, which, despite (or because of?) its acquisition by LVMH in 2004, retains a funky playfulness, sending spirit samples to the International Space Station to study the effect of zero-gravity on flavour, and producing expressions inspired by punk rock or Game of Thrones.

5. As authors and storytellers, what challenges did you encounter in distilling the essence of Scotland’s whisky culture into a book format?

I must admit that a phenomenal amount of effort is required to put together a book of this kind. God knows how much research and safety assessments we had to do in order to start this absorbing voyage to uncover the unique spirit of single malt whisky production. It’s the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.

6. Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from this journey through Scotland’s whisky-making landscape?

I hope this book appeals to everyone interested in whisky, from novices to connoisseurs, and to anyone who appreciates the labor of love involved in producing anything of value. We’ve covered a wide range of distilleries, from the venerable Macallan, at the pinnacle of the luxury market, to Springbank, beloved by whisky enthusiasts (don’t call them nerds!) for its malting floors and oil-fired stills, and Nc’Nean, the youthful, carbon-zero start-up attracting new audiences and approaches to whisky (younger and more diverse). There should be a point of entry for all, no matter their place on the whisky spectrum.

Never miss a story – subscribe now to the Gents Cafe Newsletter, a bite-sized read about men’s lifestyle to enjoy over a coffee or a nice cocktail.