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Film and TV

Sam Heughan Is in Good Spirits

The Scottish actor reflects on his homeland, the pleasure of a good drink, and the endless appeal of New York City.



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I HAVE AN obsession with the color green. It’s a color of opposites. Green is life, growth, and health. It’s also sickness, greed, and envy. It’s good and bad at once. And it’s everywhere this afternoon as I sit down with actor, producer, author, and entrepreneur Sam Heughan — most recognized for his starring role in the Scotland-based time travel drama “Outlander.” His shirt bears a green tartan pattern, somewhere between jade and emerald. To my right, the glass bottle of his new gin is a transparent seafoam. Above my head is the leafy expanse of a tree, planted in the courtyard of New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. The gin we sip tastes green: grassy and alpine, fresh as menthol and bright as a sour apple. Most vividly is the green in my mind’s eye: the wet, rich, misty green of Scotland, a place Heughan speaks of with rapture.

Missing home is what drove Heughan to launch his spirits brand Sassenach, after the Scottish Gaelic word for an English person, or rather, an “outsider.” “When I was in London away from home, a jobbing actor, missing Scotland, I remember my first time trying a single malt whisky and I had such an emotional reaction,” he recalls from across the table, his bright blue eyes wide. “It reminded me of Scotland.”

I remark on the gin’s legs, thick and viscous, streaking the sides of my glass. Heughan nods, “I increased the strength. It just gives it a bit more weight. I love a bit of weight on my tongue.” Toasted oats give a creamy feel to the cornucopia of flavors present in the liquid: pine resin, heather, blackberry leaf, blaeberry — and, again, that sour green apple. “There’s no citrus in Scotland. That’s why I chose apples,” Heughan explains. “I remember as a kid, picking them and throwing them at people, eating them, then being really ill because they’re so sour.”



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Heughan’s family — his mother, brother, and uncle — still live in Scotland. His uncle used to have a ceilidh band. “[Ceilidh is] a traditional Scottish dance,” he explains. “It’s madness. Everyone’s drinking whisky and the dancers get faster and faster and there are lots of spinning people around.” Heughan listens to a lot of Scottish music. He later sends me a song called “Blackbird” by Martyn Bennett, known for mixing dance tracks with traditional Celtic music. I tear up at its aching slants. “It makes me homesick for a home that’s not mine,” I message him. “That’s Scotland,” he writes back. “It does that to people.”

“It’s one foot in the present, one in the past,” muses Heughan about his country, adding a splash of tonic to my gin, whose flavor now reveals a pleasant salinity. “The castles. So many great battles. You can feel the history. I think that’s what makes it so magical.” This history is inextricably linked to ritual, observed in Scotland to this day. Take Beltane, a pagan ritual beginning serendipitously on Heughan’s birthday, April 30. “You’re supposed to stay up all night and wash your face in the fresh dew when the sun rises, then go to bed and dream of your future spouse,” he describes. “It’s all about rebirth and nature.”

We talk about other parts of the world that have shaped him, as I remark on his fusion accent: a bit Scottish for sure, but mixed with something else, sort of American and British, too. America’s opportunity and diversity captivate Heughan. He came here for the first time at 18, hostel hopping in San Francisco. “I remember looking at the Golden Gate Bridge for hours, playing my cassette of ‘(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding over and over. I was living on $5 burritos — one a day. It’s all I could afford.” He speaks of Hawaii with reverence — the local culture’s connection to wildlife and the sea. He spent time with a fisherman and his family there who taught him the Indigenous way to fish: “Gut it straight away. Take out the heart, say a prayer, and throw it back into the ocean immediately to allow the soul of the fish to live on.” New Zealand also moves him. He was there recently and learned about tā moku, the art of Māori tattooing. “You sit with an artist and tell him your story. He chooses where it goes on your body and makes it there and then. He stuck [the initial sketch] on my left forearm here, and it was all about my mom and my brother and the absence of my father.” He wants to return to New Zealand and get the tattoo next time.


My gin has opened up even more, spreading out into softer, aromatic florals as Heughan uncorks a bottle of his whisky. “People have called you a global heartthrob.” I begin, “Is that a role you’re —”

Who has?” His eyes grow bigger in feigned shock. (Fun fact: the Sam Heughan fanbase even has their own name — “Heughligans.”)

“Someone I talked to in the subway.”

Right, right,” he nods gravely, pouring new glasses.

“Do you,” I continue, taking a sip, “feel comfortable in that role?” The whisky tastes like a spicy Werther’s caramel.

“My character is what some people aspire to, and I understand why. He’s this incredible human being who’s just so in love with his wife and does the most romantic things. Selfless. People then think you might be that person. I’m certainly not. But it’s something to aspire to.”

“Are you comfortable,” I press, “being an object of desire?” Heughan shares that in earlier years, he was treated in a way that would no longer be tolerated. “I’d be asked, ‘What’s under your kilt?’ or ‘How do you get your abs?’ I wish I did have abs! We were just in a different industry. I don’t have resentment or a grudge. But I would like to be seen for the work that I do, rather than my looks.”

While he’s still based in Scotland, Heughan also has a house in LA, a city he’s not exactly sold on. He toys with the idea of New York as his next home base. He loves it here. “The cocktail bars. Cycling along the West Side. SoHo. The river. Getting a ferry. I’m so into ferries! I’ll go to Staten Island, then come back again. We got a helicopter the other day back from the Hamptons — I don’t like helicopters. They’re not meant to fly. However, seeing the Statue of Liberty from there, it’s so good. New York could be my city.”

I show Heughan around some local spots that evening. We sit at the bar of Superbueno for mezcal drinks and tacos. The music gets louder and so do the crowds. Mouth full of al pastor, I semi-shout a question in Heughan’s direction, asking if he ever gets overstimulated. “No, not really,” he replies simply, between chewing. At 6 feet, 3 inches, Heughan towers over seemingly everyone. Maybe it’s calmer up there. There’s an overall good-natured quality to him; it’s soothing to be around.

We head to another bar, Mr. Fongs. The air is thick with the smell of trash and rats dart to and fro. A subway thunders overhead as we walk below a bridge in Chinatown. “This is awesome,” Heughan murmurs. We order the bar’s specialty: salty plum old-fashioneds. “I want a place where the second I walk out my door, I’m right in the center of all of it,” he says decidedly, whistling a little at the (notoriously strong) drink. “Right in the middle.”

Heughan is noticeably unadorned. I suggest some rings and an ear piercing for his New York era. A candle light flickers against his cheek, evoking another world — someplace old and rural and rugged. At this moment, I see his character, a fantasy projection of the leading man. But really, we’re just in Chinatown, weighing the pros and cons of earrings on men. “Sadly I don’t think I’m quite cool enough,” he sighs, “to pull that off.”

Our Contributors

Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer. Under the New York Times’ creative agency, she helped lead the relaunch of Departures Magazine, where she then went on to become the food editor. Her background spans editorial, brand, and books.

Diana Markosian Photographer

Diana Markosian (born in Moscow, 1989) is a Russian-American photographer of Armenian descent. Her work explores memory and place through a layered, interdisciplinary process that uses photography and video. Her photographs have been published in National Geographic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.

Robert Ormerod Photographer

Robert Ormerod is a photographer interested in telling stories. He is based in Scotland, working across the U.K. for titles such as National Geographic, The Guardian Saturday magazine, The New York Times, T Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg Businessweek.

Tom Craig Photographer

Tom Craig is a photographer and director whose work has been featured in Vogue, i-D, and Vanity Fair. His work is driven by a desire to tell stories and the urge to travel. His work often blurs the line between fashion photography and straightforward reportage.


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