Books about spirits and distillery visits are often fascinating, occasionally boring, but one thing they seldom do is make you laugh out loud. Whiskies Galore by experienced whisky writer Ian Buxton is definitely an exception. There are laugh-out-loud moments on almost every page, and even in the footnotes and photo captions – you just can’t miss a word of this wonderful book.
Perhaps I’m biased because the book, like this website, brings together two things I love – travel and distilleries. Buxton’s managed to combine the best of both and produced a book about whisky that also belongs in a bookshop’s travel writing section too. He promises (or warns) the reader up-front that this journey around Scotland’s island distilleries will not be filled with detailed tasting notes on every expression a distillery produces. There’s nothing wrong with books which do that, and the author is perfectly capable of doing it himself in the many whisky pieces he writes for newspapers and magazines – but this isn’t that kind of a book.
Nor is it a book that praises every distillery and every whisky, and recounts their histories from publicity material. If he doesn’t like a whisky, he says so. If a distillery makes a dubious claim about its past history, he fact-checks and writes about it. Few punches are pulled.
His journey begins on Arran and takes in Jura, Mull, Islay, Harris & Lewis, Raasay and Skye. Islay gets three chapters, which is hardly surprising given the number of distilleries it has, and it’s good to see Raasay included. Buxton was able to chronicle the development of the island’s first legal distillery, and by a nice coincidence the distillery opened on the weekend of the book’s publication. Some footnotes and Stop Press additions to the text let you know that the book is as up-to-date as can be.
One thing I love about the world of distilling is that it involves so many great characters, and Buxton revels in telling their stories. There are many people who have a great passion for their craft. (Passion is a word the author dislikes enormously, although he does find himself using it despite himself.)
I could quote endlessly from Whiskies Galore, there are so many memorable and funny lines and scenes. Buxton interweaves memories of his childhood visits to the islands, on holiday with his parents (to whom the book is dedicated), with the research visits for this book. Even the unusual occurrence of a traffic jam on Islay becomes an amusing anecdote when related by Ian Buxton.
He also has an eye for detail, and mentions that he sees a metal plaque with the name of Ronnie Lee on a mill at one distillery. He’s told that this is the name of the man who does the maintenance on the mill. Then he sees the name again at another distillery, and his enquiring mind leads him to arrange a meeting with Ronnie Lee at his factory in Hull. Lee turns out to be a former weightlifter who’s now responsible for keeping many a distillery mill running. He is, as Buxton describes him, a true whisky hero.
As is Ian Buxton, who’s to be thanked for producing the most entertaining book about whisky that I’ve read in a long time. I won’t argue with The Guardian, which calls him ‘One of the great whisky writers’.