Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

(Iain Banks, 2004)

After reading most of his Culture SF novels and enjoying them all (except Feersum Endjinn) as well as the dark psychological novels set in Scotland, I'd been looking forward to reading his first foray into non-fiction. It helped that this work was about single malt whisky, for which I am gradually acquiring a taste.

I have to say that it was something of a disappointment. The book is a combined reflection on his life, tour around Scotland, review of the products of the many distilleries to be found there and commentary on the developing war in Iraq. That commentary was hardly the most insightful and it trivialises the war somewhat to have these snippets interspersed with tales of various drinking exploits and jolly japes with his mates. He might have been better advised to leave them out, because I was not left convinced by the commentary. True, he did cut up his passport as an act of protest, so he is not without seriousness in his attitude to the war, but I'm not sure that a book of a life time of drinking tours of Scotland is the time and place to give the war due seriousness.

There was a lot of humour of the "you had to be there" kind, as he recounts his exploits with his mates - inventing drunken "words", telling tall tales of his younger days. There were some nice stories mixed in, of course: I liked the way that he met his wife, they way she contradicted his expectations as to what a woman should be like by being a fan of real ale and drinking him under the table. The multiple tales of driving around in flash cars, musing on Scottish roads and the natural speed at which to take them just got a bit much. Some travel writers inspire you to take the same journeys and meet them (most notably, the late Pete McCarthy) but I doubt that I'd get on with Mr Banks and little of what he wrote created any desire to visit Scotland.

As for the whisky, well he did drink a lot and was forthcoming in his comments, but it turns out that I already know of and like most of those he preferred: Talisker, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and Laphroig. I did learn of a couple of others I would like to try, such as Ardberg. Funnily enough, when was in Christchurch last week, I noticed that there is a whisky shop in Colombo Street, which had both Ardberg and Bruichladdich in the window. Peering into the interior, there was evidence that they do tastings, so I'll need to check them out next time I'm up there. I also see that the Islay Whisky Society runs an annual three day whisky school, for around $1000.


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