Elixir Distillers is a creator, blender and bottler of fine spirits. Co-founders and owners Sukhinder Singh and Rajbir Singh - who in 1999 founded The Whisky Exchange, one of the first online whisky specialist retailers and now one of the most significant drinks retailers in the world - have assembled a team of spirits enthusiasts with immense product knowledge, who seek to create delicious, characterful spirits combined with beautiful design. Its expertise is primarily in Scotch whisky – and rum as well as Irish, Japanese and American whiskies and tequila. Their core brands include Port Askaig, Elements of Islay, Single Malts of Scotland and Black Tot rum. They are building a new distillery on Islay, Portintruan, due to open in 2024, which will perfectly complement Speyside’s Tormore distillery in their portfolio.
Sukhinder started collecting miniatures in the mid-1980s before progressing to full-size bottles a few years later; a decade on he was one of the largest collectors of whisky in the world. Since bottling his first cask of whisky in 2002, Sukhinder has sought the most exceptional casks to release independently, initially through his company Speciality Drinks, and since 2017, Elixir Distillers.
Head Blender Oliver Chilton has worked with whisky for over 15 years. Having started out in the original Whisky Exchange shop in London, his palate helped secure a role selecting casks for independent bottling, leading the way to the creation of Elixir Distillers. Oliver is responsible for the purchase and management of all new make spirit and maturing whisky and rum stocks, as well as wood policy and spirit development at the Portintruan distillery on Islay and Tormore distillery, and the blending and cask selection for all products and partnerships.
Elixir Distillers currently exports its brands to more than 30 international markets.
How did you become involved in the Macbeth project?
Lexi Burgess presented the concept and imagery, and Dave Broom had already begun to interrogate the play for clues and hints as to how the characters - their backgrounds, souls and motivations - could become distinctive whisky flavours.
The Livingstone idea of Macbeth in whisky held so much appeal for us at Elixir Distillers: truly cohesive in its structure, ambitious in its scale, and deep-rooted and far-reaching in its scope to present the incredible range of flavour in Scotch whisky in a single collection.
One collection, six series, 42 whiskies - was it a daunting task?
Enjoyably challenging… As an independent bottler and business that owns whisky stocks, we are custodians, dedicated to finding the best place for each one. Usually we would be looking at an individual brand and, knowing its identity and character intimately, create a whisky to suit.
With Macbeth, every single bottle has its own character, so it is like dealing with the complexity – and flexibility – of more than 40 brands together, thinking in small batches and at scale.
This project also called for more abstract thinking than usual.
Was the structure of the play useful?
The completeness of thought into how to interpret the cast of Macbeth into series within the overall collection – The Leads, The Thanes, The Ghosts, The Witches, The Murderers and The Household - has enabled us to select rare and limited expressions through to more accessible whiskies.
It was an opportunity to draw from every corner of our own whisky stocks and long-standing relationships throughout the industry, and a privilege to be bottling these whiskies illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake and his vibrant, highly original take on the play.
How did you find working to such an usual brief?
I have always loved Dave Broom’s writing – his poetic nature and lyrical style make his thoughts on whisky beautiful to read, and an interesting counterpart to my own tasting notes, which I also tend to approach in an expressive way.
Dave’s translation of the language and characters written by Shakespeare provided a chance to explore distilleries across Scotland and the full gamut of flavours within their whiskies.
His commentary contained sufficient certainties and posed plenty of questions to give us both clear direction and a good degree of freedom. This worked well as a brief to interpret and inspire the choices for their whiskies, creating the spark to send us off in a peated or non-peated direction, vegetal and herbaceous or dark and dusky - then, picturing the darker characters shrouded in clouds of smoke, deciding how that should appear…
How did you set about finding the whiskies?
Once immersed in the characters of Macbeth, they were there in the back of my mind whatever I was doing. I capture all the information about our inventory in an online platform (including spreadsheets and voice notes) so I always – even through my mobile – have access to information about every single cask at my fingertips. Often it was calling in samples from parcels of the Elixir Distillers stocks with a particular character in mind, occasionally the serendipity of working through another group of samples and one instantly summoning a name.
Could you talk us through the first releases?
It was imperative that King Duncan held the requisite status and gentle character. Over the many years we’ve been searching for casks, we have, on occasion, been fortunate to find those truly rare occurrences of whiskies of great age that retain great elegance. This Glen Grant, distilled on Speyside in 1965, fits the bill perfectly: the beautiful light fruit of the spirit, the suggestion of forest floor, dusty books… an abundance of sophisticated flavours that are created only after decades in the finest wood.
Linkwood is an all-time favourite distillery and it was a thrill to find a 31-year-old expression of this Speyside Single Malt Scotch whisky, distilled in 1991, that worked so perfectly for Lady Macduff – although I would probably have had to rewrite Macbeth if there wasn’t a place for
this amazing whisky.
For Menteith, a nobleman who marched to oppose Macbeth, we have selected a malt from the ruggedly beautiful Benriach Distillery, which shines bright in various woods. It is a treat to find it so perfectly expressed, aged 31 years, in these high-quality Bourbon barrels: all the hallmarks of a classic fruit-driven, floral Benriach, with rich caramel and cinder (a nod to the dark) delivered
by the casks.
There is complexity in Angus, who is among the thanes who switch allegiance from Macbeth to Malcolm over the course of the play. Our choice of distillery here, Glen Garioch has a fascinating tale of its own - the early 1990s saw a return to slower production that you can taste in the weight of the spirit. Florals and spices are balanced and tempered by the unctuous mouthfeel.
For The Ghosts, the link to silent, ghost distilleries was obvious and the selection of grain whisky offers a delicacy that reinforces the ethereal qualities of these apparitions. This is shown in the First Ghost to be revealed, a Single Grain Scotch whisky aged 31 years,
distilled at Cambus Distillery.
We’re launching with a smoky Islay Single Malt Scotch whisky aged 19 years for the First Witch. This is a fantastic example of a distillate I adore from high up on Islay’s Kildalton coast, with a rich maturity delivered using Pedro Ximenez casks. As we develop The Witches, we’ll embrace the blending analogy with the fourth release, Hekate, ruler of the witches, as a blend of the first three.
The murderers travelled from the outer reaches of Scotland, so we have turned to island whiskies: a Single Malt Scotch whisky aged 18 years distilled on the Isle of Mull for the First Murderer. None of the Murderers (or Witches) are named in the play; we have carried through to the whiskies - no distillery names, just regions, to retain the air of mystery.
Ardmore, unusually for a Highland distillery, creates a consistently brilliant peated whisky, yet it has often lived in the shadows as a single malt. I am pleased to bring this gem to the stage as one of The Household: for Seyton, beholden to Macbeth, it has been matured in a cask from its intensely smoky Islay cousin, yet retains a fresh, herbaceous quality.
Thick and heavy, Blair Athol is a spirit that loves to perform in richer wood profiles. For the Bloody Sergeant, a hardy soldier loyal to King Duncan, we married bourbon hogsheads, bursting with vanilla and toffee, with ex-wine casks to build in layers of fruit and tannin, all accentuating the robustness of this Highland malt.
How would you describe the experience of working on the Macbeth collection?
Every element of this project is special and it is wonderful to be part of something so holistic. I loved seeing Quentin’s drawings – such a recognisable style, they evoked a feeling of nostalgia yet were remarkably fresh. His work has a social aspect too, providing a touchpoint that
brings people together.
For me, this is a natural fit with our world of whisky. Whisky is just a drink, but also so much more. I’ve grown up in the industry since I was 18 and its ability to create enjoyment, excitement and kinship continues to grow and make a profound impact: the old and familiar used in a new way, and the communities that build - around our distilleries, the sharing of history, knowledge, and of course the whiskies themselves.