Handbook of Whisky (Broom, Dave),
London: Hamlyn, London, UK, 2000.
Probably the best way to understand whisky is to tour Scotland, as Dave Broom has done, stopping
at distilleries, sampling a dram or two, and chatting with the workers. Sure, you can build a collection
of bottles and sit in your study – well – studying them; tasting, sniffing, writing careful notes, until
you've analysed every scent and flavour. But it's people who make whisky, and as Broom illustrates
in his Handbook of Whisky, though scientists and accountants can explain how whisky is made, it
takes a bit of a magician to actually make it. Broom uses his extensive vocabulary and light hand to
paint vivid pictures of the towns and people he visits on an extensive tour of Scotland's traditional
malt whisky regions. Many myths are questioned along the way, beginning with the much-honoured
theory of regional styles. His Scottish encounters are followed by enthusiastic confabs with the folks
who make blended Scotch, Irish whiskey, American, and Canadian whiskies.
There are hundreds of whisky books and dozens of new ones every year.
Most are derivative editions, recycling earlier authors' thoughts & perpetuating marketers' fantasies.
Broom's avoids this trap. His approach is original, intelligent, and highly enjoyable. Unlike so many
others, Broom has actually written a new whisky book. More than a compilation of facts, Handbook
of Whisky is simply loaded with anecdotes, characters, and information, all hinging on the question:
Is mechanisation changing whisky? Taking a balanced approach, he lets distillery workers tell us why
and why not. It's an easy read, more authored than written, and merits careful attention by the
serious whisky aficionado. Why are some whiskies nutty, for instance while others are fruity?
Well, according to Broom it all starts with fermentation times.
Broom devotes nearly half the book to Scotch single malts, before pushing on to reveal some of the secrets behind blends and blending. "What's often difficult for an outsider to grasp about blending," he writes, "is that there is no fixed recipe." As Diageo's production director, Turnbull Hutton, explains: "If you've got the Walker building blocks right: Lagavulin, Cardhu, and Heavy/Medium Highland, the fact you might be replacing Aberfeldy with something else isn't an issue." (...)
Would you like to read the rest of this book review in Malt Maniacs #108? In that case you'll have to CLICK HERE...
Whisky Tales (Charles MacLean),
Little Books Ltd., London, UK, 2006; 288 pages.
An expanded version of Maclean's Miscellany of Whisky, to which nine new chapters have been added,
Whisky Tales is an eminently readable and fascinating compendium of ruminations and little-known
details collected by MacLean in a quarter century of writing about whisky. With historical notes, songs,
poetry, pictures, and sidebars interspersing 29 chapters MacLean has achieved what other writers
have only tried when mixing diverse whisky material in a single book.
Waymack and Harris, for instance, in their excellent Classic American Whiskeys, proceed neatly through
the history, processes and trappings of Bourbon and rye, then clumsily dump a bunch of cocktail recipes
at the end, as if to add pages. Andrew Jefford in his brilliant Peat, Smoke and Spirit has written two
books then physically combined them into one by alternating chapters on whisky and Islay. It works
a lot better, but MacLean, perhaps because he cuts from so many so cloths, has managed, brilliantly,
to stitch vastly disparate pieces into a single, cohesive whole. That said, and despite the chapters
being neatly sewn together, Whisky Tales is a book that can be opened at almost any page to start
reading, for each chapter stands on it's own. Reader beware though; the just-one-more-page syndrome
kicks in pretty quickly. Some chapters are based on lectures MacLean has given over his career, others
are re-writes of articles published in lesser-known journals, and each includes gems that just didn't fit
into other of MacLean's works. (...)
Would you like to read the rest of this book review in Malt Maniacs #107? In that case you'll have to CLICK HERE...
Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion (Jackson, Michael)
Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, UK, 2004; 448 pages. (Published in the USA as
Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, Running Press, Philadelphia.)
In July 1909 The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits reported to the Scottish
Parliament that "whiskey is a spirit obtained by distillation from a wash saccarified by the diastase
of malt" and "Scotch Whiskey is whiskey, as above defined, distilled in Scotland." This pronouncement
ended a campaign by malt distillers to have grain whisky and blends, declared "not whiskey" and was
the official end of more than 400 known years of malt whisky as the dram of Scotland. Drowned in a
sea of blends and dependent on the blenders for it's continued existence in any form, malt whisky
quietly disappeared from public consciousness.
When Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion was first published in 1989, the world was just on
the cusp of re-discovering malts and Jackson, already an accomplished beer writer, provided the first
distillery-by-distillery analysis of their flavours and aromas. He was a man in the right place at the
right time, with a pen that drew hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, into the mysteries and joys
of single malt whisky. Long before his fifth and final edition of Malt Whisky Companion hit the stores
in 2004, Jackson had become a cult figure in the whisky world - THE cult figure - and far and away its
best-known authority and most respected writer.
How did he do it?
First through steady, reliable, and descriptive reporting of what he smelled and tasted.
Although he begged forgiveness for his enthusiasm, he did not resort to fanciful malt-o-porn, but
kept his descriptions spare and honest, with room for the reader to exercise his own taste buds.
It seems a right of passage for malt anoraks to spend a few years, first honouring Jackson's tasting notes, seeking and generally finding the flavours he does, then suddenly to grow into their own palates and noses and begin to doubt The Master, only later to return when they recognize the individuality of each palate and the consistency of Jackson's. (...)
Would you like to read the rest of this book review in Malt Maniacs #106? In that case you'll have to CLICK HERE...
Wort, Worms & Washbacks (John McDougall & Gavin D. Smith).
The Angel's Share, Neil Wilson Publishing Ltd., Glasgow, UK, 1999; 211 pages.
The modern distillery manager is as much publicist as whisky-maker, traveling the world conducting tastings, visiting whisky fairs, entertaining distributors, and generally promoting his brand. Who
hasn't sat in rapt awe as Jim McEwan spun a tale of Bruichladdich, catching each eye in feigned recognition? Gifted storytellers these modern distillery managers are. Who has not heard Stuart
Thomson wax on about the wonders that make Ardbeg, Ardbeg with little stops along the way to praise sister distilleries Glens morangie and moray, without wondering how the more taciturn Mickey Heads will fare as his replacement?
But such was not always the case. In John McDougall's time the distillery manager's remit included increasing yields, recovering lost flavour profiles and searching out the little ingenuities that send angels' shares home in workers' lunch buckets. He did attend Vinexpo on behalf of Springbank, but other than that his work as a distillery manager was much more directed at making whisky.
In his more than thirty-five years in whisky, which began at Aultmore in 1963 as a management trainee, McDougall met and worked with most of the characters and lived most of the situations that find their way into the modern promoter's script, but perhaps because he was paid to make whisky rather than talk about it, McDougall has recorded these in a book that is at once rather amusing and quite informative. There are no rip-roaring belly laughs here (OK, maybe one or two), but chuckles abound and in the process the reader gets quite an unexpected insight into the whisky life.
Alcoholism, for one thing, seems an industrial hazard, for barely a chapter passes without tales of prodigious consumption by McDougall, his staff or his friends. But McDougall comes across as a man with his head screwed on straight who prefers getting his hands dirty to sitting in an office dictating correspondence. (...)
Would you like to read the rest of this book review in Malt Maniacs #105? In that case you'll have to CLICK HERE...
The Social History of Bourbon (Carson, Gerald)
The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington Kentucky, USA, 1984; 280 pages.
(Originally published: New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963.)
The Social History of Bourbon relates somewhat chronologically the role played by bourbon in
American politics and history, then bogs slightly as it ends with chapters on whiskey tall tales, a look at the pre-Prohibition barroom, and enumerations of great Americans who tippled and then some.
Carson, who died in 1989, was an entertaining writer, a journalist, advertising man and later a social historian, with a knack for exactly the perfect obscure word. He was born and raised in the Illinois Corn Belt and in an earlier volume dealt not with corn whiskey, but with the lowly corn flake. Although sub-titled An Unhurried Account of Our Star-Spangled American Drink, the book fairly rolls along and one can almost hear Carson dictating it to himself in a playful Appalachian-American accent.
The earliest American distillates were rum, made from Caribbean molasses, and apple jack
(calvados), from ever-increasing orchards. But with the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants,
many of whom brought stills, interest shifted to distilling grain alcohol as they had done at home. The stony soils of Maryland and Pennsylvania were most suited to growing rye, a spicy European grain, and here rye whiskey became the staple. But as people headed down the Shenandoah Valley and crossed the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky they grew Indian corn, or maize, which produced much more alcohol per bushel and yielded a sweeter whiskey.
Incidental barrel aging occurred during long months of river transport to southern markets, particularly when whiskey awaited spring flooding before shipping. However, once aged whiskey began to command higher prices the word 'old' quickly found its way onto cask heads. (...)
Would you like to read the rest of this book review in Malt Maniacs #104? In that case you'll have to CLICK HERE...
How to Blend Scotch Whisky (Barnard, Alfred)
Schoebert's Whisky Watch, Hanau, Germany, 2005; 36 pages.
(Originally published: London: Sir Joseph Causton & Sons, pre-1905.)
When Alfred Barnard, in the employ of Harpers, set out some 120-odd years ago to report on
the distilleries of Scotland & Ireland for their Weekly Gazette, he knew relatively little of making
whisky, and certainly nothing of what made a good one good. As he proceeded to visit each
distillery, his knowledge grew, though as Richard Joynson points out in his introduction to the
2003 edition of Barnard's better-known The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which
compiles those Weekly Gazette articles, he never mentions the shapes of the stills he sees on
his journeys, nor makes any mention of cask management.
However, Barnard's weekly appearances in Harper's during the mid-1880's lent him widespread
credibility so it is not surprising that Mackie and Company, distillers, blenders, and bottlers, would
engage him to write an account of their blending facilities and three distilleries. The publication
year of How to Blend Scotch Whisky is not known, but presumed to be a couple of decades after
Barnard began his whisky journey, and certainly his familiarity with the influence of wood had
It is a short book, text filling only 25 of its 36 pages but it is loaded with nuggets, apparently
directed at those who blend whisky or buy it in bulk. Judicious use of high quality and well-aged
grain whisky is salutary to a blend, but the majority of London merchants ... ... ...
Would you like to read the rest of this book review in Malt Maniacs #103? In that case you'll have to CLICK HERE...
At the moment the first two book reviews are still buried in the ADHD section (the frozen archive covering 1997-2006).
Until the new, refurbished site is done, I've included those reviews on this page;
Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (Banks, Iain)
Century, London, 2003; 368 pages. (This review was first published in Malt Maniacs #10, 'old calendar')
Cutting up your passport to protest government policy is like cutting up your welfare check to protest poverty.
Except, getting a replacement passport is a whole lot easier. But that's how Banks begins his quest for the
perfect dram. He and wife, Ann, mail their destroyed passports to Downing Street, protesting the war on Iraq,
but thus confining themselves to the country whose policies they so abhor. It's a thread that clumsily weaves
its way through the first half of the book, then disappears until suddenly recalled when it comes time to sum up.
Banks' brilliance for evocative images shines through vividly as he recounts a train ride through Faslane and
along Loch Long in the three paragraphs beginning middle of page 350. Would that such examples were more
common, but there's a lot of hard slogging up to that point. Too bad, because that is where this book could have
excelled – as a travelogue of Scotland. The central theme is the search for the perfect dram – and malt lovers,
before they invest a lot of time reading, will want to know the search ends early on at Glenfiddich distillery- but
that theme is really just a pretext for Banks to indulge his love of cars and his life as a successful writer.
So much of the book is about cars, in fact, that a clever editor, with minor cut and paste could probably re-release a renamed Raw Spirit to car
aficionados undetected by malt heads who read the original. Except some waggish car buff would probably suggest this could almost be a
book about whisky. Raw Spirit began as a publisher's idea. Get a well-known author to travel all over Scotland tasting malt whisky (it's much
in vogue these days) and writing about his adventures. Banks accepted readily, much to the envy of his friends. To avoid post-tasting
mishaps, a driver was to be employed, but Banks soon dispensed with that idea. He likes it too much behind the wheel himself. North to
Orkney, west to Islay and Jura, through Speyside and many points in between, Banks visits most operating distilleries and samples wares from all. His tasting notes are rarely extensive, but echo the popular books about whisky.
He loves the much-promoted notes that members of Malts-L would scoff at.
Banks is known for his ability to make complicated literary constructions work elegantly, but he appears to have taken a break from that discipline in this, his first published work of non-fiction. Though he amply demonstrates his skills at stringing words together, without a plot and not having characters to develop, the book has a tendency to lurch from thought to thought. Many of those thoughts do not involve whisky. For instance, he takes almost a page to debunk the idea that his first novel, The Wasp Factory, was autobiographical, calling on such noted authority as his mother to testify he did not have an abused or troubled childhood. We learn later, though, that he did, and still does enjoy blowing things up. To Banks, and he is the real topic of Raw Spirit, life is an adventure, but a sophomoric one.
Perhaps Banks' knowledge of whisky is not enough to fill 368 pages so must be supplemented with whatever he can find, or perhaps he is trying to construct a book that deliberately reflects the free flowing, rollicking good times he has drinking with his buddies. Core Banks fans and readers who've been known to say "Glenfiddich, now there's a whisky" may enjoy this aspect of Raw Spirit, but the malt connoisseur may wish to heed a signal that appears on page five when Banks sublimates the tastes of single malt to its being "a legal, exclusive, relatively expensive but very pleasant way of getting out of your head."
In short, Raw Spirit is a chronicle of Banks' adolescent idea of fun (jumping from balcony to balcony on tall buildings while drunk, rolling Porches, etc.) The book could be about whisky but it could just as easily be about cars or what it's like to be a successful writer who gets to do pretty much as he pleases whenever he pleases, but is a little short on ideas. The Scotland travelogue which dominates is quite good. Overall it's a workmanlike effort, but self-indulgent with no great inspiration. His interjections about the war on Iraq are tedious and very much dated already. If you must have it, wait for the paperback.
Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History (MacLean, Charles)
Cassell Illustrated, London, 2003; 288 pages. (This review was first published in MM #14 - 'old calendar')
In a television commercial, a somnolent professor drones to his moribund class.
"History," he mumbles, and suddenly a sprightly young thing jumps up shouting "History??
I love history!! First something happens, then something else, so sequential.
Thank you First Guy for writing history down. Let's go study."
Charles MacLean did not have the benefit of First Guy's words when he penned Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History. Although MacLean makes reference to scholarly works on distillation from around the year 850AD, the very early
beginnings of whisky are lost in time, so MacLean focuses on the first 500 years of recorded Scotch whisky history.
His enthusiasm matches the young history student and MacLean succeeds in injecting that enthusiasm into a
rollicking good read packed with anecdotes and peopled by some rather strange characters.
The average aficionado's knowledge of whisky's history could probably be summarized thusly: The first whisky was likely distilled in Ireland; about 500 years ago Friar John Cor became the first recorded person to make whisky; the word whisky comes from "Usquebaugh" or "uisge beatha," Gaelic for aqua vitae or water of life; Glenlivet was one of the first popular single malts; Glenfiddich brought malts to the world's attention; and somewhere in the 1980's a bunch of distilleries went out of business.
Of other knowledge, most would say that it's not whisky until it has aged at least three years, and there is an 'e' in Irish whiskey, but not in Scotch whisky. Well, MacLean takes nearly 300 pages to fill in the blanks and there's nary a dull moment as smugglers, gaugers, politicians, home distillers, boards of directors, colourful entrepreneurs and a host of others slug it out for their piece of the action. The history of Scotch whisky has been one of constant struggle: the struggle against time and weather, against governments and gaugers, against thieves and competitors and sometimes against logic and reason. It's all there, waiting to be discovered in A Liquid History.
Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History begins, quoting the Exchequer Rolls of 1494-95 which provide the first written reference to distilling in Scotland. "To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt." A boll (like a bushel) is a measure of volume which for malted (bere) barley, would weigh about 240 lbs (almost 110 kg.) and could be expected to produce about 200 litres of raw whisky. Useful details like this, which might interrupt the action, are often found in endnotes. Though scholarly, A Liquid History appears intended to be read rather than used strictly as a reference.
Making whisky began as a way to preserve surplus grain which would otherwise rot in the damp storage conditions that prevailed 500 years ago. Excess grain was mixed with water and fermented naturally into a primitive beer. Although less so, the resulting beer was itself somewhat perishable until Europeans discovered the preservative property of hops. Hops don't grow in Scotland, though, but by distilling these early beers, the alcohol content could be raised to a level where decomposition was prevented. Somewhere along the way, preservation of excess crops as the primary motivator gave way to the pleasures of drinking whisky which in times of crop shortages brought competing pressures.
The pleasures of Scotch whisky were sometimes justified by the supposed salutary effects and for a long period, whisky was viewed as a medicament, if a somewhat pleasant one. The convivial benefits were no doubt the true source of its popularity, but its role as an elixir proved most beneficial to its trade during the US prohibition years when boat-loads of Scotch whisky found their way to ailing Americans. This folk medicine, (or more often 'nudge-nudge- wink-wink' justification), has re-gained some respectability in recent years with the discovery that whisky does indeed have some anti-oxidant properties. The association of Christian churches with the temperance movement is itself tempered by descriptions of early sermons promoting the drinking of whisky rather than the demon tea. My, my, how times do change.
Alcohol was not first distilled as a beverage, and whisky too had other, earlier, uses. Alcohol is an excellent solvent and early Scotch whisky was often flavoured with spices, herbs and berries. Preserving those scents, flavours and medical properties may well have been the original purpose of dissolving them in whisky. Another early use for whisky, we learn, was to improve "incorporation" during the manufacture of gunpowder. The early use of gunpowder, in turn, to determine the "proof" of whisky is well-known. Years later gunpowder was also proved useful in the production of whisky, albeit tangentially, by George Smith who always carried two pistols to protect his lucrative whisky business in Glenlivet. It is the characters, like Smith, who so vividly animate this book.
Since 1644, when the Scottish Parliament first instituted excise duties on it, whisky has been a government cash cow, and much of the folklore and tradition around making whisky derive from the circuitous logic of politicians. Do you prefer Highland whisky to Lowland? Well be advised the line dividing Highlands from Lowlands was established to demarcate and give a break to the distilleries least likely to escape taxation. As circumstances changed, so did the location of the line. While Glengoyne, for example, now calls itself a Highland whisky, it was long located in the Lowlands. A simple re-location of the Highland line allowed Glengoyne to distil in the Highlands, but mature in the Lowlands right across the road. The distillery itself has not moved.
Technical changes in whisky production processes have occurred throughout its history, although not all technical changes were improvements. As often as not change was driven by a desire to beat the tax man, and many of Scotch whisky's conventions are there not because traditional means produced a better spirit, but because laws directed or drove production in certain directions. For example, when duties were based on an assumption that stills could be charged but once a day, distillers found ways to charge them every few minutes. Large, shallow, flat-bottomed, pot stills ran almost continuously. This rapid distillation was great for profits, but not for quality. In the Highlands, meantime, escaping the gauger meant being able to pick up and move on a moment's notice. Highland stills were thus small and portable and the whisky much richer and oilier.
The whisky making process has never been static, but has been constantly evolving as it continues to do. Among many others, one giant step forward came with the development of the patent still allowing continuous distillation of grain whisky which opened the door to the production of blends. Blended whisky now makes up about 95% of all Scotch whisky sold at retail. Also among the significant changes are those of the past twenty-odd years many of which took place in distant boardrooms rather than at the distilleries. The book meticulously describes the closings, openings, mergers and acquisitions that changed the corporate face of malt whisky in the past few decades. It also documents the logarithmic growth in demand for malt whisky in the past two decades, but not before reminding the reader that as far back as 1871 Laphroaig, Aberlour, Glenlivet and Glen Grant were sold in London as 'single whiskies'. Those who lament current production changes would do well to bear whisky's long history in mind.
MacLean gives the nod to Ireland as the first place to distil whisky and notes that most of the whisky sold in Scotland even into the 1860s was Irish whiskey. Interestingly, the Scottish spelled whiskey with an "e" until just less than a hundred years ago. In Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History numerous other well-know facts are explained (or explained away). One comes away from A Liquid History having learned, from a historical perspective, not so much how to make the best-tasting whisky, but why Scotch whisky, both malts and blends, tastes as it does today.
MacLean has divided the first 500 years of known Scotch whisky history into 12 logical, consecutive time periods, which in turn, fall neatly into twelve chapters. Recording the history of Scotch whisky in fewer than 300 pages has certainly left some stones unturned, or less well-turned than the author may have wished. Every first edition has some typographical errors, but few as delightfully entertaining as this truncated sentence on page 270: "Loch Fyne Whiskies was founded in the picturesque and historic town of Inverary in 1992 by Richard Joynson, who until then had been a fish."
An engaging and informative read, A Liquid History is printed on heavy paper and colourfully illustrated. Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History carefully treads a line between text book, headed for the school library and popular work for the whisky buff. Highly recommended to both.
One of the great things about reading is the fact that you can combine it with
certain other leasurely activities like sunbathing, listening to music and sex.
Or drinking whisky! And if you're drinking whisky, you might as well try to
read a book about whisky. (As long as the letters don't start to dance in
front of your eyes.) Fortunately, there are hundreds to choose from, and
we even reviewed a few of them. You can find plenty of book reviews in
our archive - and a smaller selection further down this page.
You may have noticed that many popular books are not included in
the selection below. That doesn't mean that we don't find those whisky
books worthy of review, just that we only have so much time.
And that's precisely why there is one whisky book that many maniacs
find truly indispensable: the Malt Whisky Yearbook - edited by Ingvar
Ronde and updated every year. Arguably, the positioning somewhere
in-between a book and a magazine is a tad confusing, but it's great!
There are quite a few professional and semi-professional writers among the
certified malt maniacs, but until recently we didn't actually pay a lot of attention
the dozens of whisky books that are published each year. A lot of us felt that books
were not necessarily the most effective way of spreading whisky information in a time when
there are literally thousands of whisky web sites around the world. Nevertheless, some of the
maniacs argued that 'linear' whisky books still serve a purpose in this modern, interactive day and age.
Most of these reviews were submitted by Davin de Kergommeaux (Canada) and Johannes van den Heuvel (Holland).
Whisky Tales (by Charles MacLean)
You can find plenty of book reviews
throughout the archives of Malt
Maniacs, but in 15 years we've also
experienced plenty of website
crashes and reconstructions. That
means that you'll have to rummage
through all 115 issues if you want
to find and read them all.
You can find an overview of the
most recent book reviews in this
Malt Maniacs archive at the right.
You may notice that some authors
are malt maniacs, but don't worry;
they didn't review their own books.
Please visit our sister websites
Malt Madness and WhiskyFun for
more recent whisky book reviews
that were written by Johannes van
den Heuvel and Serge Valentin.
Or the new Malt Maniacs website of course, where you can find all the fresh material from 2012 onwards...