Browsing the shelves
Australia-based SMWS member Murray Hassan has come up with his pick of whisky books to settle down with this season, or add to your Christmas gift list.
Like many of us over this past year, I’ve found myself at home and unable to catch up in person with friends. There is only so much staring at a screen I can do, so I began digging through my collection of whisky books.
It has been a fascinating and enjoyable journey to look back at the writings of a different time, how whisky was viewed, what people knew and wanted to know about it. Much like opening an old bottle, a book on the subject of whisky is a time capsule. I thought of writing up a Top 5 list of classic whisky books, and a Top 5 list of modern classics or recent books of note.
But then I realised that lists of titles aren’t much help to anyone. So as we’re in that season of gifting, I thought it might be worth covering some of the releases in the last few months. These may be helpful, should you need to drop hints to significant others, or looking for gift ideas, or even just to explore yourself.
JARGON BUSTER: The Whisky Dictionary
Whisky, like any other field of interest, has its own jargon, terms and phrases. All of these can be quite confusing, both to those new to whisky or those further along the road. I often find that I need an explanation of something new I haven’t heard of before. The Whisky Dictionary, by Ian Wisniewski, is a book that covers this territory.
As you’d expect from a book with “dictionary” in the title, it is arranged alphabetically, with many terms used in whisky drinking and appreciation, as well as terms used in whisky production. Ian is a writer whose articles have largely been about explaining the production and making of whisky, and he has a clear and concise way of explaining terms and phrases that we’re all likely to encounter. It’s certainly a great reference to have on the shelves, for novice and more advanced whisky lovers, that can be reached for when stumped by a word or term.
ARMCHAIR ESCAPISM: Whisky Island
As we’re all unable to travel much, armchair travel is our best option. It can be made better with a book in hand, and in particular a travel around the famed island of Islay. Andrew Jefford is a noted wine writer, but his first foray into spirits writing was a book titled Peat, Smoke and Spirit, originally released in 2005. It has been reissued this year with a new title, Whisky Island.
This book is structured like a tour of Islay. Each distillery is given a chapter that covers history, the people and the operations, with some tasting notes and descriptors of the distillery’s main or consistent character. But these distillery stories are alternately woven with chapters that tell the wider story of this ancient island, of Pictish settlements, Gaelic peoples, powerful clans and their battles for supremacy.
This all makes for a most enjoyable read, and while it is dated, given recent developments in new and existing distilleries, Whisky Island makes for one of the best armchair travel journeys I’ve experienced. My drinking suggestion: pick a favourite Islay whisky, and see if the words on the page come to life in the glass.
REFERENCE IT: The Malt Whisky Yearbook
A staple of many a whisky ambassador: The Malt Whisky Yearbook is now up to the 2021 edition, and has been published each year for the last 16 years. It is considered by many as one of the most useful and accessible resources on whisky production in publication.
With a focus on Scottish distilleries, it lays out a one-page history of each distillery, recent activity including upgrades or expansions, production details and capacity, and recent bottlings or releases of note. There are later sections on distilleries outside Scotland, and some insightful articles written by the most noted writers in whisky today.
Although I haven’t received my copy as at time of writing, I have always found it to be a credible and valuable reference. To quote our cellarmaster, Andrew Derbidge, it is the next best thing to visiting the distilleries themselves.
WALK ON: A Long Stride
There are a few other books worth noting that are due out in the coming months, that I think will be greatly worth looking at. This year is the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker, and Dr Nick Morgan of Diageo, the parent company of Johnnie Walker, has written A Long Stride – the Story of the World’s No.1 Scotch Whisky. It promises to be quite an interesting insight into arguably the world’s best-known Scotch whisky brand.
SERIOUS STUFF: The Science and Commerce of Whisky
For the serious whisky nerds (I know some of you out there!), two books have just been released: the second edition of The Science and Commerce of Whisky, and Whisky Science: A Condensed Distillation. Both are science-heavy, essentially academic texts on the production of whisky, but ideal for those who would like to peek behind the curtain.
MORE SERIOUS STUFF: Whisky Science – A Condensed Distillation
I’m always keen to know what whisky books you’ve found useful or worth reading, and what you think of the books listed here, so by all means get in touch with me. Happy dramming and reading to everyone!