If there’s one universal truth that may be gleaned from The Macallan’s limited releases, it’s that the storied Craigellachie distiller never does anything by halves. Even within the aforementioned rubric — including gems like The Macallan 50 Years Old or Classic Cut — Masters of Photography stands out as a uniquely ambitious project: drawing on the artistry of renowned photographers to bring life and context to an already superlative spirit.

Masters of Photography
Exuding a deep amber colour (ringed by rose gold), the Masters of Photography: Magnum Edition is the result of Whisky Maker Sarah Burgess’s careful calibration of eight different cask types.

Now, in 2018, The Macallan have conceived their most audacious Masters of Photography release yet — the Magnum Edition. Enlisting the talents of six members from the legendary Magnum Photos, The Macallan have created (for the first time ever in the Masters of Photography series) a whisky that is inspired by multiple photographer personalities. Accompanied by a selection of gallery grade images documenting the creation of the new Speyside distillery — every unit sold features a unique selection of prints — the Magnum Edition is an eminently collectible release combining one of the rarest Macallan expressions in the world with a curated glimpse into the diverse talents that make up the Magnum collective.

Masters of Photography
Presented in an archive style gift box, each Magnum Edition is comprised of a limited release whisky; selection of six individually unique prints; and exclusive Macallan Magnum photography book.

Ahead of the Magnum Edition’s release in Hong Kong, we talked to Ken Grier: Creative Director at The Macallan and driving force behind the Masters of Photography series. Despite being mere months from retiring, Grier shows no signs of placidity; taking us through the various facets of the Magnum Edition — from it’s deeply personal origins to the complex flavour profile made with the influence of eight different casks.

Masters of Photography
A Magnum Edition boxset showcasing the photography of Mark Power.
For those who might be unfamiliar, walk us through the history of the Masters of Photography series and why The Macallan thought that 2018 was an opportune moment to feature Magnum.

Photography is an incredible medium: it’s extremely contemporary, relevant yet also flexible. It’s been a constant source of innovation for us, since you never really run out of ideas with photography. When we started Masters of Photography with Rankin (in 2008) the impetus was photojournalism and the usage of polaroid film as a shooting medium. When we switched to Albert Watson, we wanted to execute an art noir portfolio that drew heavily on gallery processes. Then with Annie Leibovitz, it was very much about a Hollywood style: shooting small numbers of large prints that almost double up as precious objects. In our collaboration with Elliott Erwitt, the focus went back to being about documentary photography. And then more recently, the edition we worked on with Steven Klein highlighted the “moving image” for the first time: featuring images where static models were captured using a filmic medium.

Masters of Photography
A Magnum Edition boxset showcasing the distinctive monochrome photography of Paolo Pellegrin.

For the latest edition of Masters of Photography, we decided to use Magnum because of their unrivalled record: since 1947 they have been the world’s foremost documentarians and photojournalists. They’re incredibly imaginative, telling the story of historically definitive events through a series of photographs. In the interest of keeping things fresh and interesting, we then chose six of their photographers: Martin Parr (because he’s quintessentially British); Steve McCurry (one of the top 10 photographers in the world known for his work on National Geographic); Alex Soth, because I think Alex will be one of the world’s truly great photographers over the next decade; Gueorgui Pinkhassov (for his dynamic use of colour and shadow); Mark Power, the backbone of this project and a marvellous documentarian with an eye for both industrial and personal detail; and finally, Paolo Pellegrin, renowned for his dramatic black-and-white photography. We thought using six photographers would give us different perspectives within the project: subtle nuances enabling us to tell The Macallan story in a very holistic way.

What was the genesis of the Magnum edition? Did the opportunity to work with such a world famous cooperative present itself organically?

It was a natural opportunity that was strengthened by my lifelong love of photography: my father was a photographic retailer and we often took pictures together when I was a kid. Moreover, for as long as it’s been running Masters of Photography has been something that’s completely unique to Macallan. Whiskies from this series set us apart: yielding a unique perspective on aesthetics and the creation of beautiful and desirable objet d’arts. Within this context, I’d worked very closely for a long time with two key collaborators: a lady by the name of Valerie Wickes (Creative Director, VIEW) — without a doubt the best art director I’ve had — and a talent manager by the name of Glen Wassall (Founder, LGA). We’ve always been the great triumvirate: coming up with ideas that can hook photographers and making sure it all works from a brand perspective for The Macallan.

Masters of Photography
A Magnum Edition boxset showcasing the photography of portraiture specialist Alec Soth.

A few years ago, Valerie gave me a copy of Magnum Magnum: one of the seminal publications from the collective that’s a kind of “greatest hits” as it were. It was a truly wonderful tome that I’d always loved; and Glen happened to know Tim Payton, Head of Commercial Projects over at Magnum. Over a drink, he said “we’re thinking of who we want for the next Masters of Photography Macallan” and Tim asked “why don’t you use us?”. After that, Glen suggested it to me, Valerie agreed, and we went from there. The idea of “six” was (and remains) extremely important to us: at Macallan we have the “Six Pillars” (guiding principles applied in the creation of all our whiskies); and for the Mario Testino edition of Masters of Photography we deconstructed six individual whiskies for use in the final expression. Therefore, to have six photographers for the Magnum edition was a natural fallout from all that. It gave us a breadth of talent to work with.

When selecting personalities for a new whisky in the Masters of Photography range, what qualities does The Macallan look for?

Broadly, when we select a photographer it’s all about freshness. I’ve always viewed the Masters of Photography series as an ongoing concept; and therefore it’s pivotal to seek out people who are continually creating, innovating and who have an evolving body of work which centres around a topic that is of relevance to The Macallan. At the same time, we look for creatives who are connected to the brand, who understand it and who are enthusiastic about our projects. To be sure, it’s obviously essential that we find individuals who are highly skilled in their preferred photographic style, but we place just as much importance on people being happy and eager to work with us. Our collaborators have to be comfortable when we give them creative freedom — there needs to be an ability and inclination to embrace that. We’re certainly not going to tightly art direct these guys and say “you must go here and shoot that building”. We rely on their maturity and their innate desire to tackle challenges and produce something that is unique.

Masters of Photography
A Magnum Edition boxset showcasing the photography of Martin Parr.

In the case of the Magnum edition, we chose the six photographers for very specific reasons. Steve, because of his natural eye for individuals and elevated perspective. Paolo, because of his distinctive character as (principally) a war photographer. Mark, for his deeply technical, refined and detailed perspective. Martin, because we knew that capturing the quirk and oddity of the people who make up The Macallan would be important (at the peak of the new distillery’s construction we had over 400 workers on-site from places as diverse as Poland, Romania, Ireland and Austria). Alec, for his enormous capacity to see things in a quiet, interesting and still way. And finally Pinkhassov, because of his inimitable quirkiness: the guy’s like a jackrabbit jumping around, shooting prodigiously fast. His style is very in-the-moment: a different more abstract way of shooting.

The personalities had to work together, the styles had to work together, but all six individuals had to share the common ethos of wanting to do something great. I did actually once turn down a very famous photographer who wanted to work with me, because he said “it doesn’t matter what I shoot. At the end of the day, it’s all about my name”. That’s no good to us, you’ve got to have a commitment and wish to do extraordinary work. The Macallan (as a brand) should always help our customers to go beyond the ordinary: it should enhance your life; relationships; the dinners and parties you have; and the way you view the world.

Although the practice of the respective Magnum photographers is reflected in the (gallery quality) prints included in this edition, did their creativity find its way into the spirit itself?

The idea of Sarah Burgess (Whisky Maker, The Macallan) was to select individual whisky casks that represented each photographer’s character. She looked exhaustively at each photographer’s portfolio, got to know their personalities, and then selected casks accordingly. I’ll give you a few examples of this. In Paolo’s case, he’s been involved in capturing some extremely dramatic conflict-led images — everything from the Arab Spring to Iraq. Sarah picked a cask for him that had a very strong and specific character. Very often, the note imparted by whisky drawn from that cask is black cherry. It’s got great intensity — very much like Paolo, who is himself a serious yet immensely caring character. In the case of Martin Parr, we picked a cask with an overarching oak component — representative of the strength and single mindedness of his creative persona. In Mark Power’s case, we actually selected two casks. Mark’s a very interesting guy, he shoots in a superwide format yet manages to incorporate loads of macro details. So we thought it would be fun to attribute two casks to him: embodying his skill at documenting both the bigger picture and minute details. We also chose a cask for Magnum itself which we thought represented The Macallan in its fullest and roundest sense, expressing the parallels between the two brands.

Masters of Photography
A Magnum Edition boxset showcasing the photography of Steve McCurry.

Pinkhassov’s cask is interesting: we did a bit of an experiment with him whereby we picked a Rioja cask. That’s not conventional Macallan because it’s not ex-sherry, and the red wine adds a touch of vibrancy to the final expression. There’s a certain quirkiness to using a red wine barrel in the creation of a Scottish malt: mirroring Pinkhassov’s unusual background as a Russian living in Paris. In the case of Steve McCurry, he’s a well-traveled photographer widely known for his unusual perspective on things, so we chose a cask that had an exotic spiciness (i.e. ginger) imparted upon it. Finally, for Alec Soth — a quiet, observant photographer whose work often exudes a sense of rootlessness or ennui — we used an American cask, which imparts very soft and gentle hints of citrus.

Do you see the art of photography as playing a crucial and ongoing role in future for The Macallan?

I’d like to think so. Obviously, I leave the business in September but I think Masters of Photography should continue on. There is a willingness and realisation that we’ve got something very special. It’s akin to being a sponsor (such as Mercedes) who are synonymous with Formula 1: you’ve got to take a medium and work with it for many years before you attain that kind of status. Hopefully, during my stewardship, projects like the Masters of Photography series have helped us achieve a consistent degree of excellence in that vein.

Masters of Photography
A Magnum Edition boxset showcasing the photography of Gueorgui Pinkhassov.

The Macallan Masters of Photography: Magnum Edition is available now for HK$26,460. It is limited to 2,000 editions globally. For more information, visit The Macallan online

Randy Lai
Editor
Having worked in the Australian digital media landscape for over 5 years, Randy has extensive experience in men's specialist categories such as classic clothing, watches and spirits. He is partial to mid-century chronographs and a nice chianti.