Unlike travel and reference books about Scotch whisky, which are great for discovering specific bits of knowledge, whisky literature books are meant to be savored. Enjoyment comes from a unique turn of a phrase, vivid descriptions, humor, improbable situations, and even the physicality of the hand-held book. Here are some of my favorites:
© 1947, Chatto and Windus, London
Arguably, this is the most well-known book with whisky at its core. Based on an actual event, the reader is absorbed into the Hebridean lifestyle in a riotous account of a whisky-starved island being on the receiving end of thousands of cases of Scotch coming to shore from a shipwrecked freighter. In reality, the S.S. Politician, ran aground off the island of Eriskay, after leaving the island of Barra. In the book, it is the S.S. Cabinet Minister, and the characters of the fictional islands of Big Todday and Little Todday that provide the action, humor, and charm of this snapshot of intoxicating fun.
Around the Orkney Peat-Fires
W. R. Mackintosh
© c. 1967, The Kirwall Press
These stories first appeared in serial form in The Orcadian newspaper around 1900. Recollections of notable Orcadians, anecdotes about smuggling, stories of the press-gang (impressing seaman to man the Royal Navy, a custom dating to the 14th Century), and tales of witches, whet the imagination.
Besides the chatty (bordering on gossip) writing in this book, I love its feel. It has obviously been printed by the letterpress method, causing each page to have a texture, where the printing plates were pressed into the paper – a tactile feature woefully missing from today’s books.
S. W. Sillett
© 1965, Beaver Books, Aberdeen
The Secret Still
© 2002, Berlinn Ltd, Edinburgh
Both of these books tell of clandestine still operations, whisky makers, purveyors, and consumers. Sillett takes us back to the early 1500s, and “distils the very spirit of Scotia and its people …” We learn that in 1777, there were no fewer than 408 working stills in Edinburgh, with only eight of them licensed. And this, about Glenlivet (the region, not the brand): “From Glenlivet, which was unquestionably the mecca of illicit distilling, bands of anything up to 30 men trudged south, by way of the Whisky Road and Ladder Trail, to Perth and Dundee, where they were able to command a high price for their spirits.” Smith recounts the claim that Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson based the pirates in Treasure Island on illicit distillers at work around Braemar in the 1880s. Long John Silver was, in fact, a miller in the town who supplied distillers with barley.
The Scottish Smuggler
© 2003, Berlinn Ltd, Edinburgh
Smith includes more tales from smuggling’s 18th Century “Golden Age”, to modern times. One of the contemporary stories is about Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn. Flynn was at one time contractually banned from drinking during the making of movies, due to his alcoholic excesses. He would appear on set with a bag of oranges, and devour them during filming. What the studio did not know, of course, was that the oranges had been injected with as much vodka as they could absorb! Not really a whisky story, but fun, nonetheless, and true to the smuggling theme of the book.
Two other books of the genre include
Scotch Missed – The Lost Distilleries of Scotland
© 1993, Neil Wilson Publishing, Glasgow
© 2006, Little Books, London
Townsend profiles over 70 distilleries which once flourished in every region of Scotland, but are now shuttered, non-existent, or transformed into other uses. Some of St. Magdalene Distillery’s buildings, for instance, have been retrofitted into modern apartments. MacLean’s book is filled with a potpourri of lore, lists, and lyrics about whisky. Interesting tidbits include one about U.S. President George Washington sending troops to quell opponents of the excise tax in 1794, but then establishing the George Washington Distillery in 1797. His operation was one of the largest in colonial America at the time. Perhaps the most profound passage included by MacLean is this quote from Master Blender, Dr. Jim Swan:
Is as miraculous as the change from caterpillar to butterfly.
The chrysalis is the oak cask.
Uncorking the Past
Patrick E. McGovern
© 2009, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London
The author begins by telling us alcohol does not exist only on Earth. Astronomers have found massive clouds of ethanol in interstellar space including one near the center of the Milky Way, about 150 quadrillion miles away.
Before going back thousands of years to China, Egypt, India, Africa and Europe and their relationships with the development of alcoholic drinks, McGovern offers this: “In 2003, some 150 billion liters of beer, 27 billion liters of wine, and 2 billion liters of distilled spirits (mainly vodka) were produced worldwide.”
The book is filled with drawings, maps and photos showing ancient vessels, stills, methods, and trade routes.
MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky
© 2004, Little Books, Ltd., London
Scotch Whisky – Its Past and Present
© 1969, William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., London
Whisky Dream – Waking a Giant
(The story of Bruichladdich’s rebirth)
© 2008, Berlinn Limited, Edinburgh
Scotch on the Rocks – A Novel
© 1991, St. Martin’s Press, New York
© 1930 (original), Porpoise Press, Edinburgh
Raw Spirit – In Search of the Perfect Dram
© 2003, Random House, London
Spirit of Adventure – A Journey Beyond the Whisky Trails
© 1992, Mainstream Publishing Co., Edinburgh