Balvenie – The Intelligent Hand

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Craft is the word of the moment. The alcohol industry alone gives birth to a new ‘craft’ product every second and as Bono was (probably) heard saying: “every time I clap my hands, a new craft beer appears in the local drinking hole.” It has become a buzzword in recent months as absolutely everything is offered in it’s ‘craft’ variant. From the latest ‘craft’ coffee served with ‘craft’ biscuits to ‘craft’ burgers and even ‘craft’ pasties (I kid you not! It had something akin to onions sauteed in the tears of a holy cow and mustard taken straight from the frosted feathers of a phoenix). I’m pretty sure I have even seen Tennents on a craft beer list, but in London maybe it is! Don’t get me wrong, I love that smaller breweries (etc.) are getting a chance to shine. In fact, I would have been at Craft Beer Rising this very weekend, had not my dastardly parents decided to stem my alcoholism and insist on visiting me in London. Craft beers provide more choice, more experimentation and higher quantities; which means a happier Edinburgh Whisky Blog team. However, the increase in quantity has not run parallel with an increase in quality, despite  costs being substantially driven up by the tag ‘craft’. I was quite intrigued then, when Balvenie invited us to see ‘The Intelligent Hand’, a documentary based on finding the true nature of craft around the world.

The Intelligent Hand was premiered at the Princess Anne BAFTA Theatre

The Intelligent Hand follows five separate craftsman from across the globe:

Biren Vaidya, jeweller, Mumbai, India – The Rose Group
Isabelle Wen, fashion designer, Taipei, Taiwan – Isabella Wen Fashion
Rick Kelly, luthier, New York, USA – Carmine Street Guitars
Maxim Sharov, handbag maker, Moscow, Russia - Maxim Sharov
Paul Bergamo, bell-founder, Normandy, France –  Cornille Havard 

Each of these artists is followed for a section of The Intelligent Hand, which is 45 minutes in length. Although given only a short time each, it is easy to see the passion that they pour into their work. My original interest lay in watching Rick Kelly, the luthier, who used salvaged lumbar to make bespoke, high quality guitars. Guitars are always pretty cool, but when you add the history of the salvaged lumbar, the romance and dedication of the hand-carved wood and the slight imperfections of the knots and chips in the finish; well that is when you get something that is truly rock and roll!

Campanology, the study of bells, does not have quite the same street rep as handmade guitars might, but, as Paul Bergamo and his crew showed in The Intelligent Hand, they should have! Crafting the bells for Notre Dame is a pretty epic feat, and the film-makers caught all of the blood, sweat and skill that goes into making these bells pretty well. It is pretty intense when molten liquid and bare arms are both involved, especially when angry French men are running around swearing constantly in the background. The documentary had me on the edge of my seat and in my (not very film-knowledgeable) opinion director Oliver Cheetham and producer James Rogan have done a great job. Here is a link to The Intelligent Hand trailer, I really recommend a view when it is out.

Biren Vaidya (Second from right) and the crew of The Intelligent Hand answer some questions with the ever charming host Sam Simmons (centre)

The name of the documentary, The Intelligent Hand, was inspired by a quote from the Bell-founder Paul Bergamo. He said (in French):

“What’s really powerful and beautiful about craft is that these are professions that require a great theoretical knowledge, because we work with very technical things. But also what I call ‘the intelligence of the hand’ – things and know-how that you cannot write about, things that are handed down from worker to worker, from person to person.”

The craft of making whisky is one such example. Walk into any distillery in Scotland and you can see the decades of craftsmanship in the mash tuns, the stills, the washbacks and in the casks. If you have been to Balvenie you can understand why a visit to that particular distillery inspired James Rogan to make a film. It could be argued that it is one of the most heavily invested in traditional craft. The distillery has copper-smiths, still-men, coopers and its own maltings all on sight to choose from. It also has David Stewart who, with 50 years of experience at the distillery, is as much a master craftsman as he is a master blender when he creates each new release. I admit, I have kind of distanced myself from the romantic side of whisky recently, focusing more on the marketing and aesthetic side of the industry. But after seeing The Intelligent Hand I feel like I have been able to revert back to the simple pleasure and adventure of a dram and enjoy it for what it is. For a look at the craft behind whisky you can watch the Life of Craft film here (SPOILER ALERT: CHRIS HOBAN IS IN THE FILM!).

A Luthier making his guitar at the premiere – I think it cost around £10,000!

Craft is something that should be nurtured and maintained. The new craft wave in the UK is great as it is inspiring people to try their hand at making products they may not have otherwise. Unfortunately, some people have jumped on this bandwagon and are diluting the image of the craft scene with inferior products and are basically just using it as a buzzword to charge more for their products. The Intelligent Hand did show me that high quality craftsmanship is expensive; I probably couldn’t afford anything comfortably from any of the craftsman in the documentary (no matter how much I want a Notre Dame sized Bell!) However, it is also an art and so should be admired as such and respected or viewed with pleasure even if unattainable. I don’t mind paying a premium for something that I know has been made with passion and skill. I just hope that the high quality, carefully crafted products are not lost under a sea of over-priced, Carling-esque entries that drive up the price of everything else.

Graeme Gardiner

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