Scotland and its Whiskies

by Michael Jackson

Published by Raincoast Books

144 pages, 2001


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The Spirit of Scotland

Reviewed by David Middleton

 

Michael Jackson has an enviable job. He writes about what most of us just think of as a pleasurable activity, whether it be a social tipple or a weekend bender. He has also set himself an enviable task: to roam the Scottish countryside, tasting the drink for which Scotland has become famous and writing about it in the process. Visiting the places where distillers have been plying their trade for generations, where copper stills create the elixir of the gods. I am, of course talking about whisky and so too -- in loving, gentle, happy tones -- is Jackson. In Scotland and its Whiskies, Michael Jackson traipses through the Scottish landscape stopping at the places that are famous for their single malts and describing just what it takes to make a good scotch, and no doubt downing a few good ones himself -- in order to contrast and compare, I'm sure.


The Scotland that Jackson travels is a land not enough people get to come in contact with, including some Scots. Jackson is an accomplished tour guide and, in Scotland and its Whiskies, we follow along in great wonder. Traveling through a countryside some of us only thought we knew, for Scotland is more than just a land of damp days, foggy moors and wild haggis, and this is more than simply a book about whisky and how it is made. Scotland and its Whiskies is a romantic travelogue through a country of extraordinary beauty and diversity and Jackson views it with admiration, taking ample time to stop and smell the heather along the way.

Jackson goes beyond the explanation of how to distill a good scotch and delves into the real philosophy behind single malt. He takes his time to walk us through the very landscape that intimately influences the drink we know as Scotch. More than just a book about whisky, it's a sonnet to the culture and country proud to be able to say that Scotch cannot be made anyplace else on earth.

To the Scottish people who spend their days perfecting the art of whisky making it is indeed more than usquebaugh: the water of life, it is a way of life. And, indeed, whisky makers while not living in the most adverse conditions, find themselves in some of the remotest parts of the country -- being battered by a windswept sea or in the middle of a snow-covered glen -- just to find that special something that makes their whisky unique from all others. Traveling the length and breadth of Scotland, Jackson takes us on a journey of the heart viewed through a lovingly crafted bottle of amber liquid.

Why "water of life"? Perhaps because distillates were first deemed medicines, a judgment that persists amoung some of us. ...The phrase "water of life" in the context of drinks is not uniquely Irish or Scottish. It occurs in other terms, such as eau-de-vie (used in French as a generic for spirits) and the Latin aquavit (still employed in Scandinavia especially, sometimes spelled akvavit). Vodka, a diminutive for "water", is an abbreviated version from Slavic tongues.

The book itself is more than a joy to look at and Harry Cory Wright's beautifully reproduced photographs describe a Scottish countryside of great diversity, wealth and grandeur. Finishing off the book is a short compendium of whiskies and a brief but useful glossary of terms.

For those of us who have not saved up enough pennies for that rainy day visit to the Scottish countryside, then the next best thing would be to spend an evening curled around a wee dram, reading Michael Jackson's Scotland and its Whiskies. For a Scottish boy like myself, it's comfort between two covers. | October 2001

David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and, being a good Scot, occasionally enjoys a wee drink.