The whisky bards
January is the month when we celebrate Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns. But who are the whisky bards we should be raising a glass with? We asked Ian Buxton for his ‘sacred trilogy’.
Economists speak of a Kondratieff Wave, a phenomenon whereby economies demonstrate periods of dynamic high growth every 40-60 years, interspersed by lengthy slower periods.
Curiously, we can see something of the same effect in whisky writing.
While there are many fine and notable writers on whisky in recent years, looking to history we can identify three who changed our appreciation of whisky – with their work following the pattern identified by our Soviet economist. I’m thinking of Alfred Barnard (1837-1918), whose major work was published in 1887; Aeneas MacDonald (pseud. George Malcom Thomson, 1899-1996), whose Whisky appeared in 1930, and Michael Jackson (1942-2007), the prolific author of 1987’s World Guide to Whisky and much else besides. Besides changing our attitude to whisky, all three had something else in common and that is that, first and by inclination, they were journalists. Possessed by a journalist’s innate curiosity and, on occasion, willingness to provoke controversy they are also united by a deep and romantic love for whisky which, in my opinion at least, would be deeply wounded by the current vulgar trend for whisky as an investment.
THE ORIGINAL DRINKS JOURNALIST
Barnard is, of course, recalled today for his magisterial volume The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. This series of short descriptive essays was commissioned by Harper’s Weekly Gazette (then, as now, an important drinks trade title) and in aiming to present a description and history of all the whisky distilleries in Britain and Ireland (then part of the UK) he visited 129 in Scotland, 28 in Ireland and four English distilleries.
Subsequently, he was employed by at least six of them to write promotional pamphlets – ever the freelance journalist, he had a sharp eye to a commission – and went on to produce a four volume Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland. He is thus immortalised as Britain’s first drinks journalist. His Whisky Distilleries book has been reprinted a number of times and can easily be found on second-hand book sites.
A LOVE SONG TO THE CRATUR
Whisky then entered some dark times in the early years of the 20th century and little was published that has endured. Aeneas MacDonald’s trenchant and poetic polemic Whisky burst on an unsuspecting world and has long enjoyed a reputation for its passionate advocacy for single malts at a time of complete blended dominance. Indeed, Dave Broom has described it as “the finest whisky book ever” and it remains compelling and relevant today.
MacDonald was the pseudonym of George Malcolm Thomson, a Leith-born writer and journalist, adopted so as not to offend his fervently teetotal mother! In a long and distinguished career working directly to Lord Beaverbook he was an influential press journalist. Following his retirement he wrote a number of novels and historical works and was appointed OBE in 1990 for services to literature.
As a young man he did not shy from controversy, being once described as “the most hated man in Scotland” but Whisky is both a love song to the cratur and an extended metaphor for the then depressed state of the nation. It remains in print in a new illustrated edition with an Appreciation of both book and man which, full disclosure, it was my pleasure and privilege to write.
AN ENTHUSIASTIC CHAMPION
Finally, Michael Jackson who died – too young – in 2007 after suffering for many years from Parkinson’s Disease. For those who knew him and counted him a friend his loss is still keenly felt and, whether they recognise it or not, virtually everyone writing today on whisky owes something to his pioneering work from the late 1980s and on to his untimely death. Michael opened the doors for many whisky writers, both by being generous in his praise and encouragement and by demonstrating to publishers that books about whisky could sell in healthy numbers!
He wrote first and authoritatively on beer but his influence is probably greatest in whisky where it can be argued that his enthusiastic championing of Islay and Campbeltown whiskies dragged them from obscurity. If you do not know his work, then the opening paragraph of his World Guide to Whisky – truly a ground-breaking work – should send you running to find out more.
‘Some spirits are timorous, others feel the need for disguise, but whisky is bold and proud. There are spirits of such aimless material origin that they must be distilled to the point of breathlessness: driven by a colourless, tasteless submission that passes in the West for vodka. They are for drinkers who suffer from Fear of Flavour, an affliction of our times… In its nobility, its profundity, its bigness, its complexity, whisky of either spelling is a pleasure meant for men and women who enjoy drink, and probably food.’
Of course, others have written eloquently of whisky.
One might mention David Daiches, the Society’s very own Pip Hills, Neil Gunn, Charles MacLean and, on production, J A Nettleton.
But, as the foundation stones of any decent whisky library, one turns first to the sacred trinity of Barnard, MacDonald and Jackson. Their legacy will live as long as anyone enjoys this greatest of spirits.