"We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright."
Edgar Allen Poe, 1846
Bemoaning book reviews for their mediocrity, elitism, nepotism or often a combination of all three has been a perennial literary world pastime. Whilst perhaps never more pithily summarised than in Poe’s writings for Graham’s Magazine - in scholarly circles the literary review has long been a mechanism by which peers could respond and react. Whilst reviews were often the origins of new ideas and original onward thinking, they were also the root cause of plenty of cases of one-upmanship and many a career-long squabble. Nevertheless, in a purely academic sense, the ‘review’ has been foundational to the practice of knowledge formation, dissemination and debate. Words can be examined. Words can be prodded. Words can be unpicked for their explicit or covert meaning.
The whisky book review can claim no such lineage – constructive or otherwise.
Most of the appraisals of whisky books I have read undertake little more than a verse-by-verse regurgitation of the chapter index and a passing comment on the quality of the paper stock used. Mmm the aroma of fresh print. They usually start or end (or both) with a positive observation on the level of praiseworthiness of the writer - past achievement being automatically equitable to the innate ability of always being able to pen quality prose (if only). And in many cases I’m left feeling fairly convinced that the reviewer hasn’t fully read said whisky book. They probably meant to. They likely took solace in a comfy chair with both the book and a dram in hand…and then slowly but surely the dram won out.
It’s easy to understand. I believe that in order to properly (as properly as is possibly) review a whisky, it is a requirement to have already sampled a lot of whiskies previously. In the same vein - in order to properly review a book, it is a requirement to have already read a lot of books previously. And also be at a least conversant in the form in which book reviews can take. If years of writing has taught me one thing – it’s that a lot of people don’t read a lot of things. Not properly. Short sentences are a requirement. As is the use of both bold or CAPITALS if you want to grab limited attentions.
Whilst it is certainly possible (and oft-times desirable) to detach whisky drinking from whisky thinking - in works of literature that is not feasible. Thinking and writing are inseparable. From the ordering of facts, to the understanding of the motivations of characters or individuals, to imagining yourself in the position of the author or protagonist – some form of thoughtfulness outside of the use of the five human senses is required.
That so few whisky book reviews bother to follow a structured review process (intro, outline, theme exploration, critical analysis and summary) says just as much about the overall quality of whisky books themselves as it does about those who publish reviews about them. All too many books are highly derivative works: the retreading of already well-trodden themes; the regurgitation of facts that are better presented elsewhere or simply a republishment with a snazzy new cover and revised foreword bolted on. This too is generally understandable, writing a book – any book – is an enormous undertaking. Writing a whisky book which is novel (pun intended) and deviceful requires more than a modicum of three dimensional thinking. But it does mean that readers have a lot of chaff to sift through to find the genuinely well-written and/or insightful tomes.
That brings me onto ‘Independent Scotch – The History of Independent Bottlers’ by David Stirk.
Before we begin - caveat emptor: during the writing process for this book I (amongst a few others) provided David with “editorial guidance and expert critique”. You can translate that to: I read the drafts and offered my thoughts, some of which were taken on board, others of which were not. That doesn’t predispose anything of what I’m going to write below – but suffice it to say, I’m not coming to this book review cold.
I learnt things throughout reading Independent Scotch. Things about the weirdnesses and happenstance of the whisky industry. Things about the weirdnesses and happenstance of David himself. And things about how both of these were, at least for a time, intrinsically intertwined. Whilst many a whisky book has been penned which touches upon the world of independent bottlers (or at least acknowledges their existence) this is to the best of my knowledge the first to dedicate all of its run-time to the topic. And it does so in a noteworthy manner - for Independent Scotch is both history lesson and Stirk biography interwoven.
Rather like the best of school teachers who provides you with the facts and then aligns them to understandable real life applications, David frames Independent Scotch as a conversation between whisky’s history and his own. Chapters are neatly interspersed between the even (historical) and odd (biographical), notionally allowing the reader to focus on one or the other – however, the book never feels like two disparate efforts where one would want to take the approach of bisecting its two narratives.
Taking a leaf out of the adage – “if you want to understand today, look to yesterday” – David offers up a thorough (though not exhaustive, for that would likely prove dull) account of the early development of independent bottling, whilst alongside recounting his own tentative steps into the world of whisky. The approach works well, partly because the tone of voice remains consistent throughout, but also due to a strong linkable between both David’s whisky journey and that of independent bottling as a whole. Though at times these are separated by near 200 years, the narrative (both historical and biographical) presents the same sense of adventure. In essence it’s the “why not?” attitude - that sometimes foolhardy, always venturesome allure that to my mind has been and always will be a deeply ingrained part of whisky.
Throughout both the memoir and the chapters which are more historically focussed is the provision of both anecdotes and factual underpinnings. These take the form of either observation or quotation – both researched and newly penned. As well as supporting the fundamental themes of the book (necessity vs. coincidence, trial and error and above all else a passion for whisky) these little bites of the longer past and nearer past all add substantive colour to what could easily have could devolved into a “he said, she said” with added antique evidences. It never does.
The sense of character – both David’s and those quoted not only translate perfectly to the page, but they also clearly point to the attitudes held at those points in time. The rhyme and reason for independent bottling (and the inherent differences between distilleries and merchants) is conveyed with voices that feel entirely relevant to those particular junctures – including David’s himself as a writer at Whisky Magazine, all-round whisky bod at WM Cadenhead’s and latterly as the founder of the indy bottler Creative Whisky Company. As a character study into a person’s motivations for deciding on a full-time career in whisky, Independent Scotch is very much more than words. It touches regularly on the indescribable sensation that all whisky enthusiasts have for exploring the unknown. And when it doesn’t it is still a delightful love letter to whisky itself….even when shining a light on some of the less radiant practices one will still find lurking within the darker corners of the industry.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Independent Scotch is its tightness. This book could have easily outstayed its welcome. It is no small feat to provide the appropriate level of historical backdrop whilst weaving narratives together from the 1880s and 1990s onward in tandem across the book’s 16 chapters. And yet, at the same time, this would be my one criticism – in an effort to maintain the chronicle between both whisky’s and David’s past there are times when the time signatures of tales and quotations are out of sequence to the current chapter’s overarching period. I informed David of this during drafting feedbacks. He rightly ignored me. This is his story, not mine. Nevertheless, as a reader you might find yourself page flicking back to previous chapters to glean a fuller picture of some of the characters and circumstances that are drawn on later.
Before providing us with a coda of as detailed an index of independent bottlers as one will likely ever find committed to paper, David ends Independent Scotch on a somewhat melancholic note. It’s not quite an elegy, but it is nevertheless the chiming of the bell of realism – things change. Covered in honest detail in Chapter 13 which profiles the end of The Creative Whisky Company, but running through until the final pages of Chapter 16 ‘The Future’, David paints a particularly honest picture – of the increasing constraints of supply, of the ordeal and emotional impact of closing the Creative Whisky Company and of the central need to remember “the relationships and the good times…” above everything else. This is an all-important aide-memoire to the book when considering what independent bottling might look like down the line. Irrespective of who survives and who thrives within the new paradigm of whisky its vital to note that everything about whisky is built on relationships – by people, for people.
Perhaps this is David’s Empire Strikes Back….with Han Solo’s fate left hanging? Historically this will certainly be the case. There is always more to come. However as a biography, Independent Scotch can only even take a look at one slice of life. It’s just as well that the slice provided is well-baked, amply filled and topped with just the right amount of spice.
Independent Scotch – The History of Independent Bottlers
David Stirk, 2023
Available until 23rd October from The Spirit Specialist for £19.99