Ostensibly about whisky (more specifically single malts), it is part-autobiography, part-travelogue of Scotland (with a brief dip down to Chester) and a lot about cars and driving. Rather too much about cars and driving, in my opinion; though it does celebrate Scottish country roads as the best places to drive, which agrees with my own experience and opinion.
And the war, of course: he started doing the research (ie driving around Scotland visiting distilleries and buying whiskies: it’s a hard life as a writer) just as the war was starting, so its events were the constant backdrop to his travels, and he periodically brings them into the foreground. It won’t come as a surprise to many to hear that his attitude is strongly against the war. In fact he started his first trip the day he and his wife cut up their passports (which event I may have drawn your attention to before).
It’s interesting to see that, even when writing non-fiction, Banksie plays the same sort of structural games as in, for example, The Crow Road: he jumps around in time, principally; but it is never hard to follow.
It does, however, show a degree of hurry and under-editing in places; I suspect it was rushed out for the Christmas market, and there are one or two paces where gaps haven’t been properly joined. The most notable of these for me concerns the apparatus of distilling. Banks gives us a brief overview of the steps in the distilling process, fairly early on, and then makes appropriate use of the various technical terms during later distillery visits. All fair enough. But there is one term for part of distillery’s apparatus — the lyne arm — that he starts referring to without ever explaining what it is (I’m fairly sure: it is possible that I just missed that explanation, but I don’t think so).
However, that relatively small matter aside, it’s a fun read, especially if you like whisky: though as I said above, it’s about a lot more than whisky. This book will be good for the Scottish economy, I predict: it has already made me drink more whisky, and I’m sure I won’t be alone.
How I came to get a copy is mildly amusing. I heard about it because they were trailing it as Book of the Week on Radio 4. Then I saw it in a shop and confirmed that it was by the Iain Banks, but didn’t buy it because Christmas is approaching.
Then we had my team’s Christmas meal at work, and we did one of those ‘Secret Santa’ things. And my present was… Raw Spirit! Awesome.
And one last anecdote. In the unlikely event that anybody will be concerned about spoilers for the ‘search’ in the subtitle, I’ll put it behind a cut.
Banksie’s conclusion is, unsurprisingly, that there is no perfect dram, and one person’s favourite will not necessarily be another’s. However, he does give some opinions.
Probably the one he likes most of all on his travels is straight from a cask at the Ardbeg distillery on Islay. Unfortunately, it’s a one-off and all the bottles are already spoken for, so it doesn’t really count. His favourite of all the ones you can actually get turns out to be Glenfiddich’s twenty-one-year-old Havana Reserve. It is aged in Cuban rum barrels. This makes it illegal in the USA, and so leaves more for the rest of us.
So I was on a work trip to Luxembourg a few days ago, and obviously stopped in at the airport shop on the way back. They have an astonishingly fine array of whiskies. And there, right at the end, along with the other Glenfiddichs: Havana Reserve.
A quick phone call (international roaming is a fine thing): “Frances, what do you think of me spending 68 Euros on a bottle of whisky? … OK, you’ll get it for me for Christmas, then? Great.”
And so it awaits me under the tree. I’ll report back on Boxing Day (or thereabouts).