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Ethics and Whisky Photography

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Some years ago Tom Kennedy, then director of photography at National Geographic magazine, gave me my first assignment in Scotland. What a gift. I've returned to Scotland over and over, and relished every minute of it.

Out of a profound sense of journalistic duty during that first assignment I gave myself the task of learning all I could about the whisky industry. That led me, by and by, to the Lagavulin distillery warehouse on the Isle of Islay, a heavenly job if ever there was one. The "angel's share" wafted heavily over us as we stepped into the musty warehouse, lined with rows upon rows of whisky casks, quietly and patiently biding their time till the whisky was just right for bottling. In the case of Lagavulin that would be 16 years. (And not a day less.)

After getting the shot all lined up and the lighting set and tested, the stillman pulled out a hefty sample of the aging single malt and took a wee sip, noting that all was well and it could go back to sleep. Then he turned to me and asked if I'd like a sample myself! Well, yes, actually I would. It was wonderful, even if it was only 15 years old. Then the sample, germs and all, went back into the cask (where the alcohol would have another year to make it quite sterile and safe).

But I'm haunted, all these years later, by the journalistic ethics of taking that wee dram. Should I have refused? Should I have paid? Was I corrupted? (Actually, I had been corrupted long before that.) These are the things I ponder as I sit here tonight, dreaming of the distilleries of Islay, nursing a wee dram of the Lagavulin, and trying in vain to muster up a healthy dose of guilt.

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