Iain Banks and the wee dram

The sad but unexpected loss of author Iain Banks recently has created more eulogies than I had expected. This is not because I had ever thought his writing was not worthy, but merely that the literati seem only to know one side of him; for myself, I knew only another side.

He liked Whisky. This is not intended to be fatuous (he was, after all, Scottish), but he understood the stuff. I recommend Raw Spirit – In Search of the Perfect Dram, 2003, if you can get a copy and also want to understand the stuff.

It seems the book was a commission, involving him being required, on expenses, to travel all over Scotland, visiting distilleries and drinking whisky. This appalling task was undertaken with necessary zest. Throughout the book the whisky areas are described, together with the various production processes. Then we are presented with accounts of each of the distilleries (often in small groups) together with vivid portrayals of the localities within which they are set, and the people. The equipment found in each distillery is gone into, together with lots of helpful explanations about the variations in the designs of the various stills and the effect it has on the final liquor. Then, of course, the whiskies are described, expansively but in terms we would recognize. I know many of them and found no reason to quarrel with their descriptions.

I loved the book, which told me more than I would have bothered to look for under other circumstances. Written in a clear and engaging style that attracted one to turn over the page, I heartily recommend it. That is the effect a good author will have. That is what is supposed to happen. He will be missed.

Another good book which has much informed me about the mysteries of whisky production is Goodness Nose, by Richard Paterson and Gavin Smith. The former is Whyte and Mackay’s blender, a job he has done all his adult life. This is another person who knows his whiskies intimately. This book, very different from Banks’s, describes his life and how he got into the job, itself an interesting area of illumination. In order to describe what he actually does, he explains the history of whisky distilling. His view is that it was originally an Irish distillation that unsurprisingly spread to Scotland through Irish emigration and resulted in huge numbers of tiny stills being set up, based on homes and farms. Government regulation (taxation) resulted in only recognized distilleries being legal and the emergence of a smaller (but still large) number of legal distilleries; necessarily these were often independent businesses (though some of the old school carried on illicitly or became legal by submitting to excise controls). After the passing of the 1823 excise act there are thought to have been 125 licensed distilleries in Scotland.

Whisky was not a ‘respectable’ drink until the 1840s when the phylloxera aphid struck the French wine trade, with consequential disastrous effect on the cognac business. This was a market the lowland whisky trade moved into quickly. To maintain consistency most whisky is blended with batches of other types and years from one distillery. This arrangement was somewhat altered when from around 1845 grain whiskies began to emerge, which were cheaper and more consistent than malts but rather bland. Usher discovered that grains picked up flavours well when mixed with malts, and so, slowly, began the creation of the blended whisky business that created the famous names of Bells, Teachers, Johnny Walker and so on. They were not bad whiskies, and very consistent because of the hard work put in by expert blenders who made them so, despite ever variable sources.

Whiskies were sold with components that were very young. Two year old malts were good enough for texturing flavours, but it wasn’t until 1915 that the Immature Spirits Act made it a requirement to mature the stuff for at least two years (suggesting some distillers had been happy with less). Over-production in the 1880s caused thinking to be done about how to reduce stocks of high quality but unusable whiskies in bond that had only ever been intended for blending. So began the sale of speciality whiskies of five year or longer maturation, at premium prices. It also increased the production of grain whiskies compared with traditional types as vast stored stocks were run down in the 1890s. The period of prohibition in America had a hugely adverse impact on Scottish whisky production and saw many closures at the same time as a few new, almost industrial, plants arrived, with which smaller distilleries could not compete in this difficult market. It is suggested that by 1930 Speyside was down to just three active distilleries (a mothballed distillery can still blend from stocks).

Blended whisky remained the deal until the 1970s. It was perfectly possible to buy malts but with a few (well known) exceptions they were not very good. As tastes changed a quality market was identified where blended malts of long maturation began to appear in large quantities, most very good. The benchmark for quality was a ten year old date (meaning that the youngest whisky component was ten years old), but far older dates were available from the vast stocks held by the industry and were available in small quantities at high prices (it is perfectly possibly to buy measures of thirty year old, or older, whiskies in London if you are happy to pay £50-£100 a shot for it). So scotch malt whisky is now a very respectable drink. So much so that new distilleries are opening, or old ones reopening, something that can only be done if stocks of old spirits are purchased or rejuvenated. I was at the rebirth of Bruichladdich distillery on Islay the week it reopened. The stuff being bottled was all from old stock in the bonded warehouse, some made decades previously; the new stuff (until matured, a vile colourless liquid, which I tasted and got rid of) was laid down in newly acquired barrels in which it would remain for a decade or more. Whisky making is a long term business.

If you want to know how it is made, and how you go about nosing maybe fifty ancient distillations still in their charred wooden casks to work out exactly what proportion of what is needed to produce the required flavour, I’m afraid you’ll just have to buy the book. It is, however, a very good book! My second book is probably the technically more helpful, but I think Banks is the better read. I have already raised my glass to him.

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About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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