There are many joys to be found in pottering around a second-hand bookstore. One of them comes when you stumble across old gems, the kind of book that provides a snapshot of another era. In fact, the kind of book that you wouldn’t find on the shelves of any ordinary bookstore. Given that many drinks books these days tend to be retelling the basics, suggesting what to drink, or are merely sedatives in disguise, it’s hard to discover a whisky book that is about something else entirely: the very soul of aqua vitae.
When I was on holiday recently I stumbled across Return to the Glen: Adventures on the Scotch Whisky Trail. The photos alone were enough to convince me to buy it. Published in 1981, Return to the Glen was written by Richard Grindal. He was once a consultant to the Scotch Whisky Association after serving as executive director for some twenty years. He was also a writer of detective fiction, under the name of Richard Grayson. The pictures were taken by an internationally renowned photographer, Catherine Karnow, who was based in New York City – and for me, it’s the photos especially that make the book such a delight to open up.
So what’s the book about? Well whisky I suppose is a good starting point. But I’m not sure the book is so much about whisky per se as about the people who made it, and the locations involved. Terroir, you might say, before the word became fashionable. Put all the various chapters together and it’s like one of those magic eye puzzles in which something leaps from the page. It’s about the soul of whisky: heritage, landscape, characters. There’s an understated passion.
It’s broken up into the basics: the anatomy of Scotch, where whisky comes from, what the industry is like now (or rather the 80s), then takes a trip around some of the locations involved, from Islay to Speyside, before finishing off with various recipes. It’s also about the people in those communities, as well as the kind of people who actually drink it today, which marks it out as rather different. Refusing to be self-indulgent, the book acknowledges the sisterhoods and brotherhoods of whisky drinkers who live in the real world.
Grindal writes in an informative, almost autobiographical manner. It’s not just whisky, but whisky and people as seen through his eyes. Unlike one book that will go unmentioned, it isn’t powered by ego, wherein the writer is telling you what you should be thinking and bringing a false agenda to the table in order to sell more copies. This is companionable stuff. It’s a casual, bar-room conversation. It’s encouraging you, the reader, to go on a journey with him.
Whisky is introduced as through a natter with a friend, and instead of blandly describing locations, Grindal evokes his experiences. The difference is that you start to understand how the landscape functions. It’s almost a psychogeographic portrait of whisky.
On his arrival to Islay: “The pilot circled the airfield suspiciously, making certain that none of the grazing sheep below him hand wandered on to the single runway. One of the duties of Angus, who worked at the airfield, was to go out in a pick-up truck a few minutes before the daily plane was due to arrive and shepherd straying sheep to safety. But on Islay, time has a good deal less urgency than the Spaniard’s mañana…”
His time on Islay is a snapshot of how things used to be. He meets Bessie Williamson, “the only woman at that time to own a distillery in Scotland”, and who tours him around Laphroaig as well as the rest of the island. We get to learn her thoughts on the powers of local water, and she introduces the effects of peat. From Islay to Speyside, and tales of illicit distilling to modern distilling, and more of the processes are described. Note that the book isn’t front-loaded with methods of distillation, which may bore the newcomer, but are instead peppered throughout the book in a more digestible manner. It speaks volumes of Grindal’s confidence in writing. Among other distilleries and characters, we get to see snapshots of Macallan, and the early impact of advertising – such as Allan Shiach, one-time entertainment man in the US, who came to inject his expertise and enthusiasm in building the Macallan brand. What makes it all the more potent is to be reading this book 30 years later, where that branding has taken on a whole new level of success.
It’s only towards the end of Return to the Glen that we get more of a detailed history of Scotch. It’s about the drinkers, too, and how it’s drunk – be that at golfing events or simply in a bar. And even in Glasgow, we get history and context: the decline of shipbuilding, and the rise of whisky companies. Finally Grindal ends with whisky cocktails and recipes – things that the reader can then go away and try for herself.
It’s curious how all the ingredients are in a totally different order to most whisky books – and yet it works really well. It’s a different, more potent blend I think. It’s partly a nostalgia trip, for a time that I certainly never knew. You get to see the world as single malts began to rise up in terms of their marketing and positioning, though even then it was clearly still speaking to a minority of drinkers. It’s also interesting to see how women were positioned as equals to men; it’s almost a given women were the minority with regards to making the stuff, but in Grindal’s book whisky is shown as a drink that appears to women and men, young(ish) and old, in equal measures. It’s a hugely inclusive and generous book.
What I loved about Return to the Glen most is that it reminds me why I love Scotch whisky. Now, I love world whiskies and have long been a champion of them. But there’s just something rather special about Scotch whisky. An exceptionally long history, with many tales involved. The landscape of Scotland, rolling hills, running streams. Something about when Scotch whisky lovers come together to enjoy a dram, and there’s a moment of shared appreciation through the ages. Hard to really put my finger on precisely what it is, I guess, but Return to the Glen does something to stir a Scotch-drinker’s soul. This book really is a delight to read – you could probably find a copy through online second-hand book dealers.