By Ray Pearson
This is the fifth in a series of articles highlighting books about Scotch whisky. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
There are literally dozens of reference books dealing with the general subject of Scotch whisky. Some focus primarily on yearly business trends within the industry, others are geared to history of distilleries, tasting notes for the brands, or detailed “nuts and bolts” descriptions of distilleries.
The two most ubiquitous references are Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, now in its 6th edition, published by Dorling Kindersley, London, and Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, now out for 2012, published by Dram Good Books, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Both give clear and concise explanations of hundreds of expressions of single malts, blends, and whiskies from around the world, and also the backstories explaining hows and whys of all aspects of enjoying and understanding the whiskies – from barley to barrel to bottle.
More specialized reference works:
For Business: The Malt Whisky Yearbook, published by MagDig Media, Ltd., Shrewbury, Shropshire is filled with statistics. We learn rankings in world consumption of whisky (France, the US, Spain and the UK are the world’s leaders), distillery capacities, sales forecasts, lists of major retailers by country, descriptions of independent bottlers, and profiles of distillery personalities.
For Distillery Technical Information: The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, by Misako Udo, published by Black and White Publishing, Ltd., Edinburgh. Here, in 600 pages, is everything anyone would ever want to know about a distillery, whether working, mothballed, or silent. The history of a distillery’s founding and ownership is chronicled, along with a myriad of facts pertaining to production – type of barley, yeast and casks used, quantity and size of washbacks, shape of the stills, and official offerings of the distillery. The minutiae is overwhelming and best exemplified by a lengthy paragraph detailing Glenturret’s long-gone cat, “the most famous distillery mouser in history”, and Touser’s ascension into the Guinness Book of World Records for catching nearly 29,000 mice, and innumerable rats, rabbits and pheasants.
For History: Scotch Whisky – A Liquid History, by Charles Maclean, published by Cassell Illustrated, London. This book begins, “’To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt.’ Here we have it: the first written reference to distilling in Scotland [in 1494]”. From here, Maclean takes us through the first 500 years of Scotch whisky – as Dickens would write, through “the best of times and the worst of times”. Artistic photographs of beautiful copper stills, macro shots of the whisky’s beading around a glass’s interior, and reproduction of period posters, adverts, and paintings make experiencing this book as enjoyable as a good single malt!
Perhaps the granddaddy of historical reference books about whisky is Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, first published in January 1887 by Harper’s Weekly Gazette, with a reproduction edition published in 2003 by Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh. In the Preface, Barnard writes “The object of this Work is to give a familiar description and history of all the Whisky Distilleries of Great Britain, the product of which brings the largest revenue to the Imperial Exchequer of any industry in the Kingdom.” Interestingly, some of whisky’s major players are not covered in Barnard’s exhaustive trek around “the Kingdom” because they were not yet established or operational. In describing the Mortlach Distillery, he writes, “The village [Dufftown] is screened by Benrinnes, and there are two beautiful glens in the vicinity, Glenfiddich and [Glen]Dullan. The former is one of the loveliest straths (valleys) in Scotland, and the latter contains some fine bits of scenery … surrounded by a drapery of waving foliage.” Glenfiddich Distillery would not release its first malt until the end of 1887; Glen Dullan was founded 10 years later.