Search Perfect Dram

Iain Banks: Raw Spirit: In Search Of The Perfect Dram (Arrow Books: ISBN: 978-0-09-949027-5)

“Maybe I’m just getting older. Before too long I’ll be one of those wee old guys who wears a bunnet in the car…while looking out for a lay-by with a view of the water so we can get out the camping-chairs and me and the missus can have a nice cup of tea. Goodness knows there are zillions of worse fates, but the prospect still fills me with mild horror”

A quote from the middle of the book, and at that point I had to put the book down for a while, because Iain Banks never got a chance to reach that feared state.

Let me get this out of the way now. This is not going to be, in any way, an unbiased review. Iain Banks is one of my favourite authors, and wrote my favourite series of sci- fi books, the amazingly optimistic and yet so vividly full of human emotion “ Culture” novels. He also passed away earlier this year from cancer. This article is more a testimony to his life than a proper review, though I will give it my best shot.

So, why did it take so long to put this review up? Well one, I had to read the book. Two, before reading this book I had to read Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. Consider Phlebas as it is the first Culture novel and Look To Windward as it is my favourite for the note perfect emotional ending. Though is does need Consider Phelbas to be read first to get the most from it.

So those were my first dedications to Ian Banks, and now I return to the book at hand, and a book closely linked to the interests of this site. Searching for the perfect dram.

However this book is not just about whisky, in fact by page count I think you would find it hard to say it is even mostly about whisky, though whisky is the line running through it holding it all together.

It is more a tale of Scotland, of the places, the people, the Great Wee Roads (GWRs) that Iain Banks enthuses over, the history and of course the whisky. It is written with such friendly prose that you find yourself dragged along with it though, even on topics that would not normally catch your interest. I, for example, have no interest in cars, but even I could enjoy the loving descriptions of the vehicles and the roads that Banks took them down in his travels.

It is that which separates it from most whisky books. Most books are written full of technical knowledge and details of the craft, but with a workmanlike prose. Iain Banks shows his background in fiction writing and manages to infuse every description with life that makes the landscapes and history pop out in front of you, filling the people with life and character. It conveys more in a few words than most books do with a range of glossy photos and praise – somehow the inherent majesty of the landscapes come through crystal clear in the carefully paced prose.

Woven throughout the book are the expected details of any whisky book, the tasting descriptions, the how to of making the spirit, the different expressions, the guide to tasting, guide to pronunciation (which by itself makes the book worth carrying around). These all layered against the increasingly over the top exhorting against the ban of photos within distilleries that occurs throughout the book and other such humanising quirks. All of these details are written in a friendly conversational manner that are easy to read and slip past your eyes without you even realising you are learning as well as enjoying. You find the technical details mixed with tales of just how Bruichladdich ended up with the unlikely setup of Broadband access over on Islay, or an impassioned diatribe against people who rhyme Islay with outlay.

What made this makes such a good book to look at to remember Iain Banks is that it is a book where he shares his views, events of his life and his friends, and more than anywhere else I’ve seen you get a feel for the Iain Banks behind the books. You get his tale of a doorstopping by the Daily Mail after declaring “Drugs, Just say yes”, his views on the then just starting Iraq War (the second) , or his joys in drunken urban climbing , he doesn’t censor himself for fear of putting off a reader that disagrees with him. Even in cases where I do disagree (I for example find Michael Moore annoyingly manipulative in the way he works, even on topics I agree with him, while Iain Banks seems to be a fan) I find his writing enthralling. There is a lovely self effacing nature to his writing which allows tales such as one about the enjoyment of a very unusual Forty Year Old Laphroaig whisky to sit comfortably, as if tales told to friends around a bottle of good single malt.

Due to the mix of elements nearly everyone will find a chapter, at least, where the focus is not on their preferred element. There may not be enough talk of the whisky, or more personal life than you would prefer, or on cars, or whatever. If I had to criticise it, it would be that the search for the perfect dram can seem almost an afterthought at times, and without that linking theme the narrative may seem to wander. However then, and especially now in retrospect, I find it hard to hold these wandering moments of day to day life insight against the book.

So, no I have not done a very critical review today I am afraid, but that was not the point, the point, in Mr Bank’s words, is that

“It’s not just about whisky, because drinking whisky is never about just drinking whisky; we’re social creatures and we tend to drink in a social context, with family, friends or just accomplices. Even if we resort to drinking alone, we drink with memories and ghosts”

And so at a Whisky show shortly after Mr Banks death we raised a toast to his memory with his beloved spirit. Goodbye Mr Banks. You are missed.