By Ray Pearson
This is the third of a series of articles highlighting books about Scotch whisky. Future articles will spotlight books essential for research, food pairings, history, reviews of specific brands, music, and whisky-related novels. We hope you enjoy this new series and would love to hear your comments.
Perhaps the most well-known book with whisky at its core is Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore, © 1947, Chatto and Windus, London. This riotous account of a whisky-starved island in the Hebrides being on the receiving end of thousands of cases of whisky coming to shore from a shipwrecked freighter is based on a true event. In reality, the S. S. Politician, ran aground off the island of Eriskay, after leaving the island of Barra. In the book, it was the S. S. Cabinet Minister, and characters of the fictional islands of Big Todday and Little Todday that provided the action, humor, and charm of this snapshot of intoxicating fun.
Around the Orkney Peat-Fires, by W. R. Mackintosh, first appeared in serial form in The Orcadian newspaper around 1900. This 6th edition compilation © c. 1967, was published by The Kirwall Press. Recollections of notable Orcadians, anecdotes about smuggling, stories of the press-gang (the practice “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 e-books.
Illicit Scotch, by S. W. Sillett, © 1965, Beaver Books, Aberdeen, and The Secret Still, by Gavin Smith, © 2002, Berlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, are both rich with stories of clandestine settings, 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.” Gavin 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.
Also by Gavin Smith, The Scottish Smuggler, © 2003, Berlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, includes more tales from smuggling’s “Golden Age” (who knew??) of the 18th Century, to modern times. A favorite story 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 a whisky story, but fun, nonetheless!
Other books of the genre include Scotch Missed – The Lost Distilleries of Scotland by Brian Townsend, © 1993, Neil Wilson Publishing, Glasgow, and Whisky Tales, by Charles Maclean, © 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 even lyrics to songs about whisky. Interesting tidbits include one about US 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. Master Blender, Dr. Jim Swan is quoted by Maclean: “The transformation of new spirit into mature whisky is as miraculous as the change from caterpillar to butterfly. The chrysalis is the oak cask.”