Book Review: Iain Banks Raw Spirit
In search of the perfect dram
- Book, 384 Pages (paperback), £6.99
- Publisher: Arrow ISBN 1844131955
What they say
As a native of Scotland, bestselling author Iain Banks has decided to undertake a tour of the distilleries of his homeland in a bid to uncover the unique spirit of the single malt. Visiting some of the world’s most famous distilleries and also some of its smallest and most obscure ones, Banks embarks on a journey of discovery which educates him about the places, people and products surrounding the centuries-old tradition of whisky production. Using various modes of transport – ferries to the islands, cars across the highlands, even bicycles between bus stops – Banks’ tour of Scotland combines history, literature and landscape in an entertaining and informative account of an exploration in which the arrival is by no means the most important part of the journey.Raw Spirit – In search of the perfect dram by Iain Banks
What I say
One of the first books bought for me as a present to a burgeoning Whiskyphile. Recommended to my Fiance by a colleague at work, who had heard that I was interested in whisky, who was also interested in whisky and found this book an enjoyable read. I was even more thankful to receive it as I am also a massive fan of Iain (M.) Banks’s science fiction writing and Culture novels. In fact I would count ‘Use of Weapons’ as one of my all time favourite reads and I had followed his career and avidly read most of his books since my high school days. I was astonished to discover he had written a book about whisky published in 2003!
I found ‘Raw Spirit’ a fascinating and inspirational and slightly humbling. I had managed to live in Scotland since 1994 but had barely scratched the surface when it came to travelling within and around Scotland. I had been as far north as Loch Tay, as west as Loch Lomond*. I had travelled the A701 and A702 southwards to the M74, or via Carstairs by rail, on my frequent journeys returning to Manchester. Of the East coast of Scotland I had fished from Eyemouth to Arbroath. Yet somehow I hadn’t managed to visit a single whisky distillery during my first 10 – 12 years in Scotland!
*Actually in a Banks style digression I remembered later that in September 2003 I drove the 220 miles round trip to the Mount Stuart Classic Car meet on Rothesay and back.
On a beautiful September day I fired up my Triumph Tr7 “The Pimpmobile” and set off for the Colintraive ferry. Up the western side of Loch Lomond we passed an ever increasing collection of Vintage cars gently steaming and slowly expiring in the heat and slow traffic. We were clearly joining the vintage and classic car rally route. Onto the A82 and a lengthy delay occurred because poor Barry from Eastenders was being filmed meeting his grisly end on the side of a ‘Scottish Mountain’ during the upcoming Christmas special episode.
Finally released after the Rest and Be Thankful and only the wild sheep to dodge on the A886 as we descended the beautiful Scottish countryside down to the Colintraive Ferry. In fact the short crossing was shared as half the ferry was set aside for the rally and so I ended parked next to a Tr5, behind a Ferrari Dino, and numerous other Rally Classics that more than stole the limelight. Finally off at Rhubadoch and a brief stop in Rothesay for a breakfast from the bakery we almost ended up in Park Ferme for the Rally until the guides noticed at the last moment we weren’t carrying a number and directed us back to the visitors car park.
A fantastic day out was had, Robbie Coltrane was there driving folks round the island in a classic Ford Mustang for charity. I enjoyed getting to sit in the driver’s seat of Jay Kay from Jamiroquai’s metallic pink Lamborghini Diablo with purple suede interior, despite feeling like I was inside a vagina, probably not the colours I would have picked. As well as exploring the Marquis of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart or ‘Johnny Dumfries’ own museum, replete with much of his Lotus Formula 1 Team mate Ayrton Senna’s memorabilia and sitting outside the Jaguar XJR9 he drove with Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace to claim victory at the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours. On the way home we detoured west after the return ferry journey to visit Inverary for Fish and Chips, and I’m sure I returned to Inverary several more times in the following years making this my most westward point until visiting Islay in 2014.
Reading Iain Banks’s book inspired me to start visiting all the distilleries I could, and particularly as he had, by travelling the beautiful roads and countryside of Scotland wherever possible. Before reading this I had managed to visit maybe 2 or 3 of the more local distilleries, whereas now we have visited ~ 60 of the (approximately) 120 active distilleries in Scotland and many of those on numerous occasions.
Of course Banks states from the outset that there clearly isn’t a Perfect Dram, however along the way he does sample each of the distilleries he visits and attempts to draw up a shortlist of some of the finest whisky available. The book is also set around the current events of the time and the schedule of the author – who makes no excuses for the fact that he is overjoyed to be being paid by his publisher to travel and sample and enjoy great whisky with friends and family wherever possible.
This is as much a book about whisky as it is about driving and scenic or driver’s roads throughout Scotland – in no small part due to the passions of the author. Written as short chapters detailing each trip or journey, calling to mind one of my friends challenges the year I was reading this, who was attempting to bag all of the Munro’s [Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet].
Having long been a fisherman I had added map-reading and navigation to my watercraft and weather-reading during my adolescent years, and loved the romanticism of planning out the most efficient routes connecting places to visit. So began a period of constantly taking alternative routes so we could just happen to stop by at Distillery X or Y, factoring in operating seasons and opening hours (and the all important Café opening times for essential refuelling).