The movie world is full of storylines that are fuelled by Scotch. It’s not often, though, that you find a film that’s actually about whisky itself. The Amber Light is a new release (amberlightfilm.com for screenings) that puts whisky at centre stage. Written and narrated by Glaswegian writer Dave Broom, this 90-minute documentary is a love letter to Scotland’s national spirit. But it’s also a celebration of the culture that created it: the communities, the craftspeople, the alchemists, artists and dreamers.
Accompanied by a hypnotic post-rock score, Broom journeys to Islay, the west-coast island where people first began making a primitive form of Scotch – usquebaugh – around 700 years ago. As the camera sweeps over the coastline, we learn that distilling used to be a female domain, an art somewhere ’twixt cookery, medicine and witchcraft. Early forms of usquebaugh were flavoured and often coloured with botanicals – more like a modern-day gin. In one lovely sequence, Broom goes foraging with a botanist for plants to make his own usquebaugh, which he cooks up over a fire in a miniature still. In the fading light, Broom and his companions toast each other with drams in pink-edged scallop shells, just as early distillers would have done.
The Amber Light explores Scotch whisky’s relationship with literature. But instead of wheeling out the clichéd Rabbie Burns, Broom drafts in Ian Rankin to read a poem by the 18th-century writer Robert Fergusson – one of the first writers to document whisky’s place in Scottish culture. “I don’t understand all of that,” Rankin says drily, “but it’s lovely, and it’s musical, and it’s definitely about whisky.”
Broom, an avid record collector, has also filled the film with music: in a tobacco-stained Edinburgh pub, folk musicians Alasdair Roberts and his band The Furrow Collective perform a fragile lament about the perils of drink; in the coastal town of Kirkcaldy, musician James Yorkston tinkers around in a studio brimming with cranky old instruments.
The second half of The Amber Light looks to a new generation of “farmhouse distilleries” that are springing up in Fife. Broom meets Francis Cuthbert, farmer and founder of Daftmill, a distillery that grows all its raw materials from scratch; and Stephen Marshall, a distiller who owns the Futtle craft brewery, which boasts a gigging space and record label.
There is surprisingly little about how Scotch whisky is made, or even how it tastes. If you’re looking for a primer on distillation or regional styles, The Amber Light is not for you. But if you want to understand how “boiled beer”, as Broom puts it, came to capture the imaginations of people around the world, this slow-moving, thoughtful, warm-hearted film tells you all you need to know.