Scottish actor Sam Heughan stars as Jamie Fraser in the television drama, Outlander, with whom he also shares a love of Scotch whisky. Unfiltered caught up with Sam to find out more about how his passion for Scotland’s national drink led to him becoming a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Classic opening question, Sam – what was your first experience of whisky, and was it a happy one?
Growing up in Scotland, at any social occasion – whether it was a ceilidh in the local town hall, a get-together with friends or a village Hogmanay party – whisky was always present and seemed to warm everyone standing in the cold, enjoying each other’s company. My first taste (a well-known blended half bottle, sipped illicitly from a coat pocket) was disbelief in how anyone could drink (and enjoy!?) something so vile. But as I hit my late teens, I discovered single malts and started to enjoy and experiment with them.
I remember moving to London after graduating from drama school and my first winter there was spent feeling rather lost and yearning for home. A warm pub in north London and a large dram of a famous Speyside (they don’t sell Scottish measures!) filled me with such emotion and awakened the understanding that whisky can be enjoyed on many levels. It conjured memories of home, stories shared and distant friends. It became a regular event, meeting friends (old and new) in London and sharing our passion for whisky.
You used to work in a bar, so you must have been able to develop your whisky knowledge there.
I’ve worked in many bars as a jobbing actor, in London and Scotland, mostly as a cocktail barman for a friend’s catering company. We made many different drinks and served some fine wine and champagne. Yet always the staff at the end of the night would lean towards a simple and delicious quality spirit, rather than the complicated cocktails on offer. We began to appreciate the ingredients in each drink and realise that quality is the most important factor.
You also worked serving whisky and sushi – any recommendations for good pairings?
Recently on a press tour for Outlander in Japan, I was lucky to eat in an exclusive small sushi bar in downtown Tokyo. A family business, the son was 16, twice my size and an expert sushi master (and Kendo warrior!) At the end of the meal I was served (what I thought was dessert), a bowl of “strawberries and cream”. It in fact turned out to be raw fish guts and fermented tofu… you can imagine how that tasted! However, the sushi master also offered us some Hakushu – a slightly smoky Japanese single malt. He claimed it was an excellent pairing with the “dessert”. It was, and certainly the part of the meal I enjoyed the most!
How did you become a member of the SMWS?
I quickly became a bit bored with the regular high-street whiskies, and wanted to experiment more. Japan, Taiwan, India…I realised not just Scotland made amazing whisky. However, when I found the SMWS I was so happy – the ability to try rare cask strength whisky, based on its flavour profile and not on its brand name, was a great incentive.
28 Queen Street or The Vaults?
My family used to live in Leith near The Vaults, but I do like to drop into 28 Queen Street whenever I’m in Edinburgh. It’s dangerously easy to pass away an afternoon there…
Have you been able to get the cast and crew of Outlander to share your whisky passion?
Everyone on set is a fan of whisky and at the end of some long night shoots a few can be found sharing a dram before bed. Our showrunner Ron Moore is a great fan and I’ve managed to damage his collection a bit. My co-star Caitriona [Balfe] is Irish and there’s always a good bit of banter. I love Irish whisky too – Redbreast 21 is smooth and easy to drink but I recently tried some amazing English and Welsh whisky as well.
If you could use the stone circle of Craig na Dun to travel back in time to any period of whisky production, where and when would it be?
In Outlander, my character Jamie now has a still and is making whisky in North Carolina in the late 1700s. We could almost imagine he is one of the first bourbon makers, adapting his recipe to suit the local ingredients. I love that the Scottish culture is so strong in America and there is a deep bond between the countries. It was only a few generations ago that people immigrated from Scotland to settle there. America is a land of mixed cultures and immigrants. The whisky is a reminder and secret of their past homeland. My company, Great Glen, may have something to reveal about this unique bond soon…
What inspired you to get involved with that?
I set up the Great Glen Company to produce products that I believe in, using my heritage and passion as inspiration We are currently working on my brand of whisky with our first announcement due soon. First stop is obviously the lifelong dream to having my own dram.
To share Sam Heughan’s love for single cask, single malt whisky from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership