Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:05 am

Scotch and robbers

He seldom makes comedy, and whisky is a serious business. But Ken Loach’s new film distils the two, beautifully

The distinguished British filmmaker Ken Loach is not renowned for comic capers, but his latest film reveals that he might have hitherto hidden talents in this department. While not exactly slapstick, The Angels’ Share is full of the joys of life, and the joys of whisky. Not since Whisky Galore! has the amber nectar played such a fundamental role in a movie; here, in The Angels’ Share (the name refers to the two per cent of whisky lost to vapour in the cask), whisky is the saviour for a group of Glaswegian petty criminals who use it to change their lives. In selection at Cannes, where the director railed against the censors’ cut of swear words, the film already has rave reviews.

Ken Loach at the Whisky Exchange in London©Eva Vermandel

Ken Loach at the Whisky Exchange in London

While Loach is reluctant to suggest that the distilling process is a metaphor for his characters’ evolution, it plays a more significant role than mere plot device. “The comparison is with Kes,” he says, referring to his landmark 1969 film about a kestrel and a lonely schoolboy. “The bird, obviously, is the free spirit that the boy can never be. But we never talked about the metaphor at the time. The audience just has a sense of it.”

The astonishingly layered business of the modern whisky trade in Scotland provides the film’s backdrop, with the central characters experiencing tasting sessions, quizzes, tours around distilleries, auctions of rare whiskies, and of course the serious affair of drinking the stuff.

Is the director himself a fan? “Small sips are very good, but it’s a bit strong for me,” he admits, with a somewhat shameful laugh. “It’s the aroma I prefer. I find that very enjoyable. I learned a lot about whisky in the making of the film.”

Such as? “Such as the fact that the colour of whisky actually comes from the wooden barrels in which the spirit is stored. And I learned how many nuances there are in whisky, that it’s not just something to throw down your neck. Although there is a fair BS quotient in the way it is described sometimes.”

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The storyline in The Angels’ Share hinges on the discovery and auction of a cask of what is probably Scotland’s rarest single malt, Malt Mill. I wonder if this whisky actually exists. “Oh yes,” says Loach. “Well, it did. The Malt Mill distillery closed down in the 1960s, and only three bottles of it are said to exist in the world – although it’s thought that two of the three are fakes. And so if a cask were to turn up, it would be worth over £1m.”

The resident whisky expert on the film, writer and consultant Charles Maclean, explains that in spite of the name, the whisky was “never drunk as a single malt”. The distilleries themselves might have existed since 1865, but it’s only in the past 30-odd years, says Maclean, that single malt whisky has been drunk as such, on its own.

“In the mid-19th century, single malts were considered too strong for the English palate,” says Maclean, who has an on-screen cameo as whisky guru Rory McAllister. “Blended whiskies (which mixed grain and malt) were developed in order to have a broad appeal. All the single malts went into blends. Effectively, they disappeared.”

Malt Mill was a distillery built within the Lagavulin complex on the island of Islay in 1908, and operated until 1962. According to Maclean, the distillery “has mythological status among whisky collectors”. It was perfect for the plot of the film.

Loach filmed the £3.5m feature across Scotland, using three distilleries for the action. “Glengoyne is the exterior of the first distillery and Deanston provides the interior. And Balblair is the setting for the auction. It’s an hour’s drive north of Inverness. To the west, it’s just mountains. It is really like a dream location, a fantasy world, with only one road south,” Loach says.

Did he get any nice casks of whisky from the distilleries for his trouble? “Oh, no. Not at all. There is no product placement, that would be unacceptable,” says the famously principled director. “Yet we were touched by the welcome we had at the distilleries up there. You don’t normally get that in filming.” Maybe they knew it was going to be a comic caper. “No, they didn’t know it was a feel-good film,” says Loach.

Does a comedy feel different to make? “You know, filmmaking is the same process whatever you’re making – in that you just try to be truthful about the characters and the situation. And when you are making a comedy, you are anxious whether it will be funny enough to the audience, and funny in the same way that it is to you. There’s always a degree of anxiety in filmmaking.”

He should rest assured. The film works brilliantly, and apart from its merit as entertainment, it serves as an enthusiastic pointer to anyone thinking about visiting the Scottish distilleries. I suspect it’s bound, too, to get people trying some of the hard stuff.

‘The Angels’ Share’ is on general release from June 1

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