For book fans, few need an introduction to Iain Banks. He was one of Britain’s bestselling writers, of mainstream and science fiction. He also wrote a book about whisky, called Raw Spirit. I say whisky, it was also full of political rants and personal escapades, but the loose idea behind the book was that Iain travelled around Scotland’s distilleries ‘in search of the perfect dram’. Not a bad gig to get, really. I loved the book when I read it about a decade ago. In fact, when I worked in bookselling I met Iain not long after I had read it. He was doing a book signing at a rival store, but popped in to sign stock. He was a thoroughly lovely bloke to chat to.
Sadly Iain died of cancer last year. So, at a recent science fiction book convention in London, Worldcon, there was a memorial whisky tasting in Iain’s name. It was led by Billy Abbot, whisky writer and scribe for The Whisky Exchange. He’s also a science fiction fan. This is pretty much where my two worlds collide, as I’m a genre novelist myself, and I was there on business that day wearing my writer’s hat. Curiously, my agent even features in Raw Spirit itself. When Billy let me know he was holding a tasting (as well as bringing a dram or two for me to try afterwards), I thought it’d be rude not to.
For those of you who haven’t read Raw Spirit, it’s about one of the most fun trips around Scotland. As Billy pointed out, as a book on whisky it’s probably not that accurate, as there were some mistakes and PR-fed exaggerations. The book is not even all that much about whisky, as so much as part-biography and travel writing, with poetic descriptions of whisky and of distilleries in between. But this was the book that got Billy into whisky – which has now become his career. I dare say it’s encouraged a fair few other readers to become fans of single malts as well. Billy said that what made Raw Spirit stand out was that other whisky books were a bit stuffy and took themselves far too seriously. That’s an important point to note, as such a tone can be very off-putting to those new to the subject. But Raw Spirit was fun. It was accessible. That’s something that can be forgotten when we get quite wrapped up in finding obscure whiskies, or searching for complex ways to talk about a humble dram.
The tasting aimed to cover a few of Iain’s favourite whiskies from the book. During the event, Billy gave readings of Iain’s descriptions of the distilleries whose product we were tasting. As this aimed at a wide audience – with a lot of newcomers in the crowd – the presentation was focussed on providing a general overview of how whisky is made. All in all I thought it a very nice approach, framing it around Iain’s words, and yet leaving a platform so that others could follow in his footsteps, all interspersed with curious tidbits of information.
So what about the whiskies? Well, I didn’t take notes at the time, but we tasted: the Highland Park 12 Year Old, Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old, Old Pulteney 12 Year Old, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, SMWS 73.65 ‘Tarts in a tea house’ (Aultmore) and finally the Glenfiddich 21 Year Old Gran Reserva. Most of these were distilleries or whiskies that Iain had commented on at length in the book, but also provided an array of taste profiles to give punters an idea of just how varied whisky can be.
Though I’d had a few of those whiskies before, of all the drams I thought the Glenfiddich (a touch too mouthwash-y) and Royal Lochnagar didn’t quite do it for me this time. However, the ‘Tarts in a tea house’, a single cask Aultmore, was ridiculously good. It had qualities that reminded me of whiskies from Karuizawa and Hanyu in Japan. It’s confirmed two things: (a) I really, really ought to join the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and (b) Aultmore is a bloody good and interesting whisky, and I’m going to hunt down more of its independent bottlings.
After the talk, Billy found me – he pulled out a couple of hip flasks with Lagavulin Feis Ile 2014 (much better than the 2013) and a cask strength Laphroaig, both of which were belters.
This was a fine way to spend a couple of hours. Iain’s fans were enthused about whisky, and many lingered long afterwards to explore the drams or to quiz Billy. I could genuinely see the passion in their faces, and I knew that more than a few were going to explore the world of whisky in more detail. For me it was good to finally put a face to someone I speak to on Twitter and also to try some cracking whiskies. But most of all it was just nice to raise a glass to the memory of one of Britain’s great writers.