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Raw Spirit – in seach of the perfect dram

I’m not a great fan of those kind of “tour” TV shows or books where a well-known personality gets paid a silly amount of money to go and travel at the publisher’s expense, visiting stately homes or similar. Usually because they either preach at you, try dazzle you with their cleverness, or more frequently they are just plain boring.

However, I’m a bit of an Iain Banks Sci-Fi fan, and I’m fond of a good glass of whisky, so when I was handed a copy of his book “Raw Spirit – in search of the perfect dram” as a present, I put preconceptions aside and popped it in the bag for a holiday read after a quick look through the introduction, in which Banks himself describes it as a quest, a book about a country and people he loves, about himself, his family and his friends, and the social context of whisky, rather than being a series of tasting notes.

But that could still make for a fairly sterile text; fortunately Banks has a droll sense of humour as well as offering a cutting running commentary on the contemporaneous Gulf War II and the political sense of the various leaders involved. I have a feeling that no-one will be giving this book to George Bush for a present.

It’s by no means a technical manual, in fact it’s more a series of rambling anecdotes loosely connected in spirit (so to speak) that intersperse the distilled text (ok, enough of the puns – if you read the book you’ll see the connection) as he zooms round Scotland visiting 100 different distilleries, and sampling the products of all of them, as far as I can work out, usually with outside help too.

The basic detail on the manufacture of whisky and a little of the history of the liquor was just enough to keep an amateur dram drinker like myself happy, as well as teach me some new words (‘expressions’ for example) with which to impress friends. And naturally enough, the tasting notes offered me some thoughts about where to spend some money too.

The zooming also caught my eye. Banks is a self-confessed petrolhead and has a variety of cars to call on (as well as a bike, so that’s alright!) to visit the distilleries, so the book is also guide to the GWR (great wee roads) of Scotland and the techniques of driving and riding them. Not always where one might expect – taking a CB500 through a disused railway tunnel isn’t the most obvious choice of route. And occasionally crashing cars too.

The second chapter gets off to a good start as he heads off to Islay. Now, I’m not a fantastic expert on malt whiskys but Islay malts are definitely ones I do know and like. I’ve got four different bottles on the shelf here and I’ve sampled all of the standard Islay expressions (see, there’s that word I learned – just hope I used it in the correct context). It’s also nice to see he agrees with me about Islay malts, but I do wish I had the depth of wallet to try some of the rare and expensive old malts he manages to track down!

Anyway, it was something of a journey for me too, following him round the map of Scotland from distillery to distillery via GWR after GWR. Without being up there on a bike to ride the roads, I had to content myself by saying to myself: “ah yes, I remember that one” or “damn, missed that one when I was up there”.

But the whisky itself was something I could get locally. After four days, temptation got the better of me and I made a trip to the vintners and came back with a bottle of Auchentoschan Three Wood to sample. Triple distilled (the last surviving whisky that is triple distilled) and matured in bourbon, oloroso and then Pedro Ximenez casks. Banks isn’t particularly impressed but it’s one I’ve never tried so I give it a go. Hmmm… not bad, but I prefer my Islays, or even Glenmorangie. Meanwhile one website reports “heather and honey notes” in the flavour. Now, I’ve tasted honey, but I can’t ever recall eating the plant!

I have a feeling that just as soon as I’ve indexed the book, firstly some more bottles will be appearing on the shelf over the next few years, and secondly that I’m long overdue a riding holiday on the great wee roads of Scotland.

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