Sunday, 30 October 2016

"The Finest Whisky Book Ever": A Critique

"The finest whisky book ever," is awfully high praise, especially when the adulator in question is himself one of the most prolific whisky writers to have tramped the third rock from the sun. Yet those are the words of Dave Broom, writ large across the cover of the recent reprint of Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald, as appreciated (in no uncertain terms) by Ian Buxton.

I had heard this quote attributed previously, along with the no less glowing tribute from Charles MacLean which adorns the back of the dust jacket. It seemed as though token apotheosis of MacDonald and his tome are requisite to prominence in the Whisky Canon; even the author of my favourite blog was getting in on it. 

I myself had never formerly read it. Having scarcely been in print since its initial publication in 1930, copies were not exactly thick on the ground. Moreover, I have a lamentable tendency, in the face of such worship, to become slightly leery and suspicious. So I didn't go out of my way to find Whisky. But yesterday, in Waterstones, finding myself faced with a copy, I came over all what-the-heck. Ten quid later I was out on the chilly autumnal streets of Reading clutching my small bag and making a bee-line for the nearest coffee shop.

In fact, the slim volume (only 150 pages, so you've no excuses) was consumed alongside the coffee, and then subsequently a plate of Momo at Reading's unimpeachable Sapana Home, and a pint (not of whisky) in a wingback chair beside the hearth at a canalside pub. By the end of my gastronomic adventure I had polished off Whisky in its entirety, appreciation and all. Having now had twenty four hours to digest it, it falls to me here to examine the thorny question of whether it merits the veneration so lavishly bestowed upon it by such exalted luminaries of aqua vitae.

Let's start off with the contribution of Mr Buxton. I've read, and enjoyed, several of his books, notably the 101 series. His tone, in those works, is rather accessible and certainly personable, albeit with a slightly irritable and curmudgeonly edge at times. (Though that's probably expected of an author whose book titles contain the words 'Before You Die'. Besides, who am I to talk on the curmudgeonly front?) In his appreciation, however, there is a notable difference in how Buxton comes across. For starters, it's more scholarly; there are flashes of Buxton's lighter side, but for the most part it's rather heavy going. Academical, very reference-heavy, and somewhat dry. That being said, the salient points are thoroughly covered; the back-story of Aeneas MacDonald (whose real name was George Thomson) being of particular interest.

Buxton's own deep admiration for Thomson is evident throughout the thirty-odd page introduction. I suppose it would be odd for an appreciation to be written by someone who wasn't a fan, and to Buxton's credit he remains largely objective, particularly when describing Thomson's unsavoury work prior to Whisky. Whilst it is clear that Buxton struggles with the notion of his hero having written some blatantly racist pieces, he makes no attempt to hide the fact. And, as he points out, this racism does not spill into Whisky, and Thomson himself acknowledged and disavowed his former views later in life.

One comment further, before we abandon Buxton for MacDonald. I do wish he had opted for appendices, rather than footnotes. Whilst the notes offer useful and frequently fascinating commentaries on MacDonald's text, pointing out fallacies and indicating where whisky practices of MacDonald's 1930 have moved on (or not) the use of footnotes does distract from the flow of the text. I know you aren't necessarily under any obligation to read them, but human nature being what it is, you're almost certainly going to. And as we will see, the flow of the text is rather important. So I do think that back-referencing at the end, rather than continually 'pressing the pause button' would have been my own personal preference. 

But that's the aperitif covered; on now to the main. Does it justify the hype?

Well, define 'finest'. If you're looking for the lowdown on every contemporary Scottish distillery, with washback counts, PPM specs, histories, cuts and tasting notes then you are to be disappointed. Indeed, if you are looking for a meticulously researched book which presents only accurate facts you are to be disappointed; the work is littered with fallacy. As Buxton points out in his appreciation, we can't even be sure that MacDonald/Thomson visited distilleries. Although he was certainly in correspondence with them; he makes the enviable remark that it is easy enough to write to a distillery with your specifications of age and style, and have the requisite bottles sent your way posthaste. 

Nor is MacDonald anywhere near what you would describe as objective. The book, to a very great degree, is a scream of rage and pain. Rage at the inferior way in which whisky in 1930 was perceived. Rage at the people and practices which he perceived to be responsible for this state. (Many of which would strike a chord today; amongst his chiefest gripes is a lack of transparency in whisky labelling and information.) Most of all though, he rages against grain whisky: "tasteless...neutral industrial spirit.' Indeed he argues against such stuff being classed as whisky whatsoever; for MacDonald, only malted barley distilled in pots is worthy of the title.

Which brings us to another point. Whisky is a somewhat misleading title for MacDonald's work. More accurately, it would be called Single Malt Scotch Whisky: An Opinion. Yes, Irish is briefly touched upon, and yes, blends are mentioned. He also professes a fondness for blended malt (though you have to make your own inferences as to when he is referring to blended malt as opposed to blended whisky) and as we have seen, whisky blended with what he would term 'grain spirit' is dealt with in no uncertain terms. Bourbon, or American whiskey, is briefly sneered at, with the implication that using the term 'whisky' (his spelling) to describe it was causing MacDonald some degree of pain.

So: inaccurate, incomprehensive, predominantly subjective and heavily blinkered. 

And yet.

All of that may be forgiven of Aeneas MacDonald, because at its best, Whisky reads more beautifully than anything written on the subject before or since. The first chapter, in particular is poetry. It's lyricism. It's a rhapsody on what MacDonald believes malt whisky is - can be - should be - must be. From his pen drips the very essence of the Highlands; it is, as much as it is an ode to whisky, an ode to Scotland itself; the peat bogs and rugged coasts and quiet glens where antique smugglers distilled their spirit in secret. It is startlingly evocative, especially to someone who has lived in the Highlands, and spent so long driving and walking around them.

Curiously, MacDonald's prose is often at its best when lambasting; the ardour with which he deplores (he loves saying 'deplores') those who market whisky, those who drink whisky without appreciation and those who indulge in label snobbery is woven into near-rhythm. Here is where Buxton's footnotes become an irritation; here is where you want nothing to break the spell MacDonald weaves. Where difference of opinion becomes irrelevant, and all that matters is the text and the images it evokes.

His mastery is hamstrung slightly when he comes to describe more prosaic subjects; the mechanical processes of making whisky, for example, and 'recent' industry history. But none of that matters when you turn the page and find yourself lost in his outpouring of what whisky is, if you only take the time to listen. Here there are no nauseating notes of purple petunias or demerara sugar or any of the other nonsensical trivialities with which too often whisky is stripped of its identity in our obsessively archivist modern world. This is whisky with passion and soul and purpose and place. An elemental drink; a thunderous orchestra carved from the land itself and transmuted into a glass through copper pots and oak casks.

Of course, the whisky world has changed considerably since MacDonald's work was published in 1930. Distilleries have been built; others have been lost. (Though with no small satisfaction I noticed that Port Ellen was not ranked in MacDonald's top four Islays.) Practices and styles have moved on; new worlds and varities of whisk(e)y have charged our glasses. Single Malt, of course, is now far more available than it was to MacDonald, though the transparency argument rages on. Yet there is so much still to recognise in MacDonald's text; distillery names familiar to us all, ways in which the drink is manufactured - even, if we're honest, many of the groups of people he so poetically and vociferously decries.

If MacDonald were to write his book today, I doubt whether it would be published. His research would have to be more thorough, his personal attacks stripped back. The subjective would give way to the clinical and the objective. The poetry, to a very great degree, would be sacrificed for information. Such is the stark nature of the digital age, in which whisky is often made a creature for dissection; in which being able to rattle off still capacities is rated as highly as sitting in quiet contemplation and letting a glass speak, uninterrupted, of itself. (Perhaps those footnotes are emblematic...) Where currants, sandalwoods and vanillas are flashed across five minute Twitter Tastings (God knows what MacDonald would make of those) and where the crowning of a 'Best Whisky in the World' fires online auction prices into apocalyptic obscenity.

In many ways I imagine whisky writers feel they have their hands tied. I remember reading an interview with Dave Broom in which he commented "I hate scores - but my editor makes me give them." Modern whisky writing is a profession, like any other, and writers are slaves to the demands of their editors, publishers and a market increasingly hungry for distastefully 'quantifiable' information. No, to rage and blast as he does in Whisky, MacDonald would have to take to the internet, where raging and blasting has reached its tumultuous apogee. But what blogger writes with the finesse of MacDonald? In Whisky, rage is made poetry. Online, it is almost invariably crass.

So perhaps all those writers see in Whisky a lofty ideal to which they can only privately aspire. Perhaps they envy a level of written prose with vibrancy, heart and depth which the information-obsessed demands of the public necessarily strip from their own. But I hope that, like me, they simply revel in the beauty of language skilfully used. And in his "mountain torrents and scanty soil on moorland rocks and slanting, rare sun-shafts" remember why they fell in love with whisky in the first place.

The finest whisky book ever? I'm not sure. The most fulfilling I have read? Unquestionably.



  1. Your writing always thrills me! I hope you make your blogs into a book someday! Lovely review, makes me want to read the book, for sure!

    1. Thanks so much Catherine! I think they're far too scruffy for anything so grand, but it's very flattering of you to say!