Why should buying whisky be my only vice??
I am very proud to say that it is not just me in the Scotty’s Drams household that has a problem. I am not making out that all who live in my house are dysfunctional, indeed we are all fully functional – sort of. But just as I have a problem in not being able to go to a whisky shop or distillery without making a purchase, my long suffering wife has a book addiction.
This is a great affliction to have, as books are things that we take time to read and understand. Being the often grumpy fellow that I can be, part of me eschews the modern fashion for everything being digital, though I don’t need reminding of the irony that I write a digital blog. We recently had a conversation at work about putting maintenance details into a digital diary on the computer, but for me I decided that I didn’t like it. While I can see there are one or two benefits for it, the issue for me is that I feel that I don’t take in as much detail compared to reading a hard copy. It’s annoying in a way, as I can’t see why I have that disconnect in liking a hard copy only, but for me having something in front of me that I can pick up, put down or most importantly – read anywhere I like gives me something more tangible to gather information from.
At this present time I don’t have a lot of opportunity to be reviewing whisky, but I did think that I can share with you the experience that I get from reading books about the whisky industry. While I am planning on writing more reviews on silent distillery whisky going forward, I just haven’t had the time or energy to do it. I’ve hit a road block on the very first whisky that I tried when I realised that it required a bit more research than I anticipated, and involved me buying three books. I won’t be surprised if some of you wonder with the lack of output recently if I had to learn to read again, which is a fair comment though things took longer than expected.
But how do we really learn about whisky? Not everybody has the opportunity to go to a whisky distillery regularly – and even then, you aren’t going to learn too much as the process is essentially the same wherever you go. In most distilleries it will follow the process of milling, mashing, fermentation, double distillation and often cask filling followed by maturation. All that really changes are the times and volumes. As a veteran of many distillery tours I can say I only now learn perhaps a bit about the history of that distillery, any quirky tales and perhaps have a bit of craic with the tour guide. As I’m usually driving, the excitement of a tasting has to be done at home. You might be surprised to learn that I have only tasted at one distillery in the past 4 years, and that was Tomatin. And the samples from nearly every other tour sit in my study. (Sorry to any tour guides that are reading this!)
So for me, what better than a book to learn more about the whisky industry? I’m not just meaning about the drinking of the spirit, but I need to sate my fascination for the history of the industry – something that you can’t avoid while driving through Speyside on a regular basis. Surrounded by glens and small hamlets, it is easy to imagine all the tales of the illicit stills often told by some of the guides when recanting the history of their distilleries. Cardhu, Glenlivet, Balmenach and Glenfarclas all have a history of unlicensed whisky production. There is plenty of information out there, you just have to look for it.
This is where I bring you my latest whisky book purchase – Illicit Scotch, by S.W Sillett, published in 1965, and republished in 1970. It was mentioned briefly in another long out of print book that I needed to buy in order to research my first lost distillery review. While I didn’t think that it would contain much information about the distillery I was researching, I felt that it might provide a bit of context. For me, it didn’t reference anything I needed to know for my article, but what I can tell you is that I did spend an entire afternoon reading the book almost from cover to cover. I had started by reading a chapter while having lunch the day after it arrived, but the following day the book had me hooked, and it wasn’t put down until the final page had been read.
I’m not a book reviewer, but what I can tell you is that this book gave me a perfect insight into the start of many of the legal distilleries that now operate in the Highlands and Speyside. It was also an eye-opener to read of the ingenuity of the illicit distillers, the smugglers and the hard lives of the Excise man or ‘gauger’. It also details a lot of facts that will be useful when writing further articles that include the history of some of the distilleries, but for me it was the quality of writing that made this book a joy to read. I am going to have to clear out some of the dross on my bookshelves and give this the pride of place.
What irritates me about a lot of whisky books is that they aren’t really designed to be read cover to cover. As much as I value the Malt Whisky Year Book with each release, how many of us can actually say that we read it cover to cover? I read the articles within, then cherry pick the details of the distilleries that I am interested in. I see it as a reference book more than anything else. I’m going to be brave and go a step further and mention the annual Whisky Bible by Jim Murray. Sadly now discredited because of some of the language contained within, how many people really read it? The copies I have were only to see what he thought of some of the whiskies in my collection.
But regardless of this, the one thing I love about books is the ability to fall down a wormhole. From the references of one leading to the purchases of another, it’s so easy to get fully absorbed in a book. It’s a bit like those who completed YouTube when doing isolation as part of the Covid pandemic. I’d start on one thing and end up looking at something totally different. And to this end, it’s no different. I’ve been motivated to buy more vintage whisky books to see what authors were saying at the time when single malt whisky wasn’t as popular as it is now. My fall into this particular wormhole may delay the issue of more blogs, but hopefully will increase the quality of the ones I do write. After all, it’s definitely quality over quantity that matters, eh? No point in battering out insipid thoughts several times a week.
The vintage book worm hole led me to a guy called Robert Bruce Lockhart, whose family owned Balmenach distillery. As mentioned before, I’ve become interested in the history of illicit distilling and Balmenach has such a history. RBL was quite a character, having been involved in Malaysian rubber plantations, a player for a Moscow football team, was involved in a plot to kill Lenin, and became the head of the Political Warfare Executive during WWII. Apparently he was also quite popular with the ladies, perhaps as a prequel to James Bond or Captain Flasheart. I’m sure we’ll be hearing of this gentleman later, especially as I have a less common Balmenach awaiting opening in the very near future.
Lastly, with the purchase of more whisky books, comes another plus point – no longer can my wife assume that parcels that arrive are whisky bottles!
Yours In Spirits
All Photos – Authors Own