“There seems, in fact, to be something rather like a conspiracy of silence among the proprietors of the different brands of whisky, a conspiracy to prevent the consumer from knowing what he is drinking.”
So wrote Aeneas MacDonald on page 128 of his book “Whisky”, first published in 1930. Much of his text resonates today and this high-quality reprint, published by Birlinn, makes essential reading in the context of our transparency campaign.
This slim little volume is a glorious polemic, and today’s readers are helped enormously by the introduction and text annotations offered by spirits scribe Ian Buxton who deploys his pen as scalpel, exposing both the unfortunate innards of the original author and cutting to the chase.
The book largely avoids the modern tendency to be encyclopaedic that currently dogs the genre. We are led instead by poetry and principle. There are some lists, of distilleries and stuff, but they are mostly towards the end and the impatient can safely file them for another day.
Aeneas MacDonald was a pseudonym used just the once by George Malcolm Thompson, a graduate of Edinburgh University who appears to have been so scared of his teetotal mother that he thought he had better hide his true identity. Thompson was a proto-Nationalist, a neo-Jacobite, convinced that his beloved Scotland was in terrible decline, and that this descent was personified by the steady degeneration of the Scotch whisky he loved.
Buxton affectionately describes it as a “Whisky snobs book” which is perhaps why it appeals to me so much. Well received by the critics at the time, one of the central tenets of the tome is that whisky is not about getting drunk, indeed he says “too many glasses are emptied foolishly” by: “whisky-swillers”. For MacDonald, the spirit is no: “mere brute stimulant.” He is scathing of the influence of the poet Burns whose: “eloquent praise is lavished on the heating, befuddling effects of whisky”. Ian attempts to rescue the reputation of the bard in his notes, but not entirely convincingly, for this reader at any rate.
Whisky for MacDonald is about an elevated sensory experience: “it belongs to the alchemists den”. He can also be very rude about the English: “ale-sodden Saxons” or wine dilettantes: “smellers of corks and gobblers of names”. Some of this is very funny.
But most of all he is interesting and relevant. Old-school Laddies will cheer his ferocious attacks on those encroaching on the purity of his beloved spirit: “exchanging a past illustrious and obscure for a present infinitely more prosaic conducted in the full glare of modern commercialisation and with all the devices at the disposal of a highly capitalized, well organised large scale industry”. Written in 1930 that can still make some of us squirm a bit in 2017.
For MacDonald, single malts are the only spirits worthy of the name ‘whisky’, and he was writing long before the term had been even coined. For MacDonald grain spirit made in a Coffey Still is: “industrial alcohol”. Blending true whiskies made in a pot still with grain spirit is: “commercial vandalism”. This is incendiary stuff to the, currently influential, group of apologists who proselytise blends.
Read what he has to say about the importance of where barley is grown, of the insidious effects of foreign grain. He waxes lyrical about barley varieties and the: “obscure association between the qualities of sea air and the whisky produced in it” while musing about the “geological bearings of all this”.
But it is his beautifully argued case for transparency that is perhaps most heartening to Laddies, be we old-school or otherwise. He eviscerates the language of foggy tradition over several pages but then succinctly sums up with: “The present policy of mystification only arouses the suspicion and wrath of the intelligent consumer and gives the unscrupulous proprietor an unfair advantage over his honest rivals.” Well said sir…
“The finest whisky book ever” says Dave Broom on the dustjacket of this very fine read, and frankly it is hard to disagree.
“Whisky” by Aeneas MacDonald is available in hardback from Birlinn at £9.99