Andrew Jefford’s book ‘Peat Smoke and Spirit’ is the most comprehensive account of Islay and its whiskies to appear to date. Published back in 2004 following two years of island-based, almost forensic enquiry, it successfully weds elegant prose and meticulous research to the enquiring mind of the investigative journalist.
The book is unusually constructed in that it essentially alternates chapters on Islay’s history with a chapter on each of the seven distilleries that were in production at that time (baby Kilchoman was still just a twinkle back then). While a historical work, it is also a snapshot of a particular moment, a ‘portrait’, the writer vividly bringing the island characters to life and successfully portraying the strong sense of community. As such, its pages are populated with real people, people who will be recognised by the thousands who have visited the island over the years and been fortunate enough to come into contact with those who contribute to its DNA.
While it offers a good read to anyone with any interest in Islay, for whisky enthusiasts it is simply packed with pages full of the kind of information that needs to be dug for. It is information not routinely shared.
Every fact and figure you ever wanted to know but were too scared to ask is listed for every distillery. Around sixty five different parameters are examined, ranging from the weight of each mash, to the capacities of the stills, to the percentage of branded malt that is entirely aged on Islay. This last is one that some distilleries take very seriously, but this is not a universal characteristic. A reading of Jefford will reveal all.
That Jefford has indeed made a significant contribution to the whisky debate over the years is partly due to the quality of his writing, but also, we would suggest, because of his passion for, and deep knowledge of, wine. The wines of the world are inextricably bound up with a sense of place, with what the great French wine-makers describe as ‘terroir‘. Terroir is an imprecise concept that encompasses the influence and inter-action of soil, sub-soil, exposure, orientation, climate and micro-climate on the growing of a plant. For the world’s vintners that means the vine, but at Bruichladdich we believe that it also applies to barley, and that the quality and provenance of the barley used in whisky distilling has a direct influence on the character of the spirit.
In ‘Peat Smoke and Spirit’ Jefford, was among the first to directly address some of these issues and to question the still prevalent whisky industry mantra, i.e. that nothing really matters apart from the skill of the stillmen and maltsters, the nature of their equipment, the quality of the wood in maturation, and age. In his book, Jefford not only questions this received wisdom, he calls for the quality and variety of the barley used to be taken seriously by the malt whisky industry. Ten years on, he continues to press people who matter on questions of ‘malt whisky and place’, while the increasingly sophisticated whisky connoisseur is able to try expressions that include ‘Organic whisky’, ‘Islay Barley‘, and even ‘Bere Barley‘. Increasingly, the whisky enthusiast is in a position of being able to contribute to the debate about ‘Malt Whisky and Place’ from direct experience.
Andrew Jefford will chair a public debate entitled ‘Malt Whisky and Place ‘in the Senate Room of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London at 6.30pm on Wednesday 30th January. Panel members will be Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich Distillery, Dr. Nick Morgan of Diageo and Georgie Crawford of Lagavulin Distillery.