Are You Tasting the Pith? - 5th September 04
A bit of a departure this week. Rather than writing about drinking, I'm writing about reading about drinking.
Iain Banks' travelogue of the search for the perfect dram is hugely enjoyable. There's no doubt that the big man can write a bit, and he seems to know his subject matter beyond the usual "as a Scotsman, he knows something about whisky" blurb on the back cover. And the glee that any of us would feel at being asked to undertake an assignment like this (being paid to do something you love) shines through in the prose and structure of the book.
I say in the structure, because as well as letting himself revel in the joy of the job at hand, Mr. Banks gets bogged down with a running commentary on the Gulf War II. These inserts do help to place the narrative in time and, to a certain extent, space, but are sadly so irrelevant to the main thrust of the story that they merely jarr whenever they crop up. I know that these issues are important, but the attempt to salve the conscience of an extended jolly around Scotland in wartime by including a social commentary seems crude, to say the least. An expansion of his forays into Scottish history might have been more relevant and enjoyable.
However, that's not to say that this isn't a thoroughly enjoyable book - it is. Knowing that 350 pages of prose about him just sampling whisky might drag a bit, the journey is lifted with the inclusion of old friends, reminiscences and (my favourite) the modes of transport used to visit the distilleries. The fleet is large, and covers all modes of private transport. Bikes, planes, boats and automobiles all feature, providing another irony; the war that he repeatedly discourses on is about oil, and the use of a BMW M5 or a 'chipped' (souped-up) Land Rover as methods of transport is neither apposite nor, by his criteria, politically correct. It comes as a surprise that he doesn't occasionally use a high horse to reach the remoter producers. These issues are less important to me than to him, but again, it slightly undermines the occasional sanctimony of the "war inserts".
But back to the drink. The search for the perfect dram does eventually narrow the hunt to one whisky. Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil the book by telling you how it ends (although if you're that desparate, email me), and although the final decision came as a surprise to me, I was convinced enough by the thoroughness of Mr Banks' methodology and experience that I will pick up a bottle of his favourite at the earliest opportunity.
By way of conclusion, one superb moment that sticks in my mind is when he discovers exactly how big a dram is. A distillery guide suggest that this arbitrary and imaginary unit should be "a measure that is equally pleasing to the guest and the host". Indeed, the journey of the book is as enjoyable as a good dram itself - sometimes warming, occasionally a little harsh, but usually enjoyable, and providing a cosy glow after a while.
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