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It's Not Whisky Production... It's Alchemy

A review of Philip Michael Wolfson's Liquid Genesis and the extraordinary lengths involved in creating his spectacular sculpture.

Might it stand the test of ages?

This is a not uncommon way of appraising creative work, sometimes even of deciding if something is in fact art. At Glenmorangie – where our whisky has stood the test of time, where our whisky can improve with time – we are fascinated with this, attracted by the creative spirit, alert to things which are very well made (Unnecessarily Well Made being the way we describe our work and maybe serving as a measure of art too).

Against this background we commissioned an artist to produce a sculpture for us. Based on a shared ethos, a joint ambition to create only what is Unneccessarilly Well Made, we commissioned Philip Michael Wolfson. Before establishing his own studio in the late 90s, Wolfson was Head of Design for dual RIBA Stirling Prize winner, the celebrated architect Zaha Hadid. These days though Wolfson most readily identifies as a sculptural artist and his work intrigues us.

Following the commission he came up with SoundForm FLUID, a physical object developed from a soundwave, specifically the concrete visualisation of the sound wave generated when Glenmorangie is poured into a glass. In its finished form the sculpture has a functional basis. It functions as a bar and is the ideal sculpture for Scotland’s favourite single malt whisky producer.

Wolfson explains:

“To prepare for SoundForm FLUID we made measurements with an oscilloscope and did drawings of the wave created when the whisky is poured into a crystal tumbler with ice in it. ‘Wait’, they said. Glenmorangie can be served with ice, but we’re looking for the traditional serve which is Glenmorangie poured straight into a glass, no embellishments. So, we went for the sound with no ice! Then I learned that many experts add a splash of water to their whisky in order to release the flavour. But we didn’t include that in the sculpture. We just followed the line of the single sound, the pouring whisky. The jagged area is the sound of the liquid hitting the glass and as it settles it becomes the bar top.”

We liked his work so much we decided to commission another piece from him. This time Wolfson visited our distillery in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to produce a 2.5 metres tall sculpture, an iconic piece he called Liquid Genesis. In its soaring proportions Liquid Genesis echoes the form of the legendary stills at our distillery: they are the tallest in Scotland and it is in them that the transformation occurs in the whisky-making process.

Wolfson was amazed when he first entered the stillhouse and set eyes on the celebrated copper giants. His reaction was not unusual. Often there’s a noticeable silence amongst visitors to the stillhouse, not unlike that experienced in galleries and museums (we’ve been told), a moment of calm appreciation, of pleasant surprise too because these working machines are also things of great beauty.

“I stared at them and began to see the idea behind Liquid Genesis, a moment of alchemy, captured and frozen in time,” says Wolfson. “I saw their incredible height, these huge vertical elements with sinuous curving pipes, their rich copper materials. They are stunning and they truly inspired me. So the idea behind Liquid Genesis is really to do with alchemy and the transmutation of materials, because that’s what happens inside the stills.

“Visiting the distillery I saw the Tarlogie Springs too, Glenmorangie’s precious source where the water which goes into the whisky bubbles up from underground, from hundreds of years ago. And I felt that this is the creation effect.”

Wolfson’s designs are intriguing and there’s always much complexity behind them. He is an artist who goes to Unseen Lengths in pursuit of his vision. With Liquid Genesis there was the great idea, but then there were demanding technical issues around the complex curves and the difficulty of producing them in reinforced steel. So Wolfson isn’t just an original thinker. There’s a technical brilliance at work too. He’s pioneering and he takes his craft very seriously indeed. Wolfson is devoted to creating designs which can truly claim to be Unnecessarily Well Made.

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