Are You Tasting the Pith? - 2nd January 05
Andrew Jefford's thoroughly enjoyable Peat Smoke and Spirit - A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies is one of those wonderfully Reithian books that you come across every now and again - it really does inform and entertain, in a way that someone like (for example) Bill Bryson never quite does. Don't get me wrong, I like the hirsute emigré's books just fine, but they sometimes feel a little whimsical to me. Nothing wrong with a bit of whimsy, but it's nice to balance it out with a bit of brain food now and again.
The book is thoughtfully arranged as a timeline history of Islay (pronounced "eye-luh", as I'm sure you know by now), interwoven with seven glasses of fine single malt, one from each distillery. In truly democratic style, the distilleries are approached alphabetically, rather than geographically, but the geographic peculiarities of the island are addressed, both generally, in terms of its unique geology, and specifically, by walking the water supply of each distillery from its source to the stills themselves. The fact that a couple of the water courses had decomposing animals in them has made me eye my drinks cabinet with unusual suspicion, although repeated samplings have produced no ill effects.
The history of Islay, although I'm no expert, seems thoroughly researched, and is engaging and, at times, amusing. One of my favourite characters, Talbot Clifton, is a figure so improbable as to have been lifted from Ripping Yarn. Becoming a laird of Islay in 1922, on purchase of the Kidalton Estate, he embarked on a series of ill-conceived adventures across the globe, discovering new species of mammal, and then shooting and eating them. Fantastically, he and his companions also ate mammoth excavated from the permafrost. For someone who was clearly a lousy, ill-prepared explorer, he certainly got up to some adventures.
The sections on the distilleries and the tasting notes too are thorough and sensible, devoting more space to the easily available expressions, and briefly hinting at the glories of casks that you and I will only ever read about. If the notes, and the tone of the prose in general, sometimes gets a little flowery, then this serves only to reinforce the romantic notions of life on Islay. Should you get too carried away, however, then there is always a pithy reminder of the toughness of life there; farming on the island is described as being akin to standing under a cold shower, tearing up fifty pound notes.
Thanks to Leeanne for buying me the book, and to Mr. Jefford for writing it. Two thumbs up.
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