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Authors: Iain Banks

Raw Spirit

BOOK: Raw Spirit
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About the Book

About the Author

Title Page




Introduction – Out of our Heads

1: These Drugs of Subtle Virtue

The Land Rover: a paean

Great Wee Roads: a digression

2: Does not Rhyme with ‘Outlay’

Pronunciation: a word

Once upon a time: distilling as cottage industry

Distillery aesthetics: a highly partial overview

Childhood: a sentimental detour

3: Exploding Custard Factories

Whisky: the how-to bit

Notes: a note

4: To Jura

Willy’s Definitive Dram Definition

The Toby’s Party/The Balcony Scene story

5: The Heart of the Water

The midge: microscopic megascourge

Les and Iain’s Guide to Sensible Sailing

Loch Shiel: an appreciation, with reservations

Cask Strength

Drinking: you’d think it would be obvious

And that’s one of the good ones

6: WhiskyLandWorldVille!

Altitude problem

7: Break for Curry

Scotland: land of contrasts (not)

The Highlands: their identification and use

Highway the hard way: a road bore writes

8: Fear and Loathing in Glenlivet

The Jag: all the fruity flavour of yesteryear

Substances: the usual disclaimer

9: The Awemsys of Azshashoshz

Azshashoshz: that etymology in full

Head crash: talking on empty

McCartney: the case for madness

Ditto Brown: telling who your real friends are

10: Welcome to the Land of Heederum-Hawderum

Happy cars: in defence of anthropomorphism

What Happened to My Car

11: The Smell of a Full Scottish Breakfast in the Morning

much? Nested digressions around Aussie wine

Writers: What Not to Say

Stop Press Handy Anti-Midge Tip

12: Porridge and Scottishness, Football and Fireworks

Fitba and the Greater Morality

13: Just the Whole Gantry, Then

Why Roger and I have mixed feelings about Brad

14: The Ends of the Country

Welcome to the Free World

Illegality: a thought experiment

Orkney: a Handy Hint on blending in

15: Tunnel Biking

Last rant before the end

Redman’s Blues

16: A Secret Still

Further Reading

Pronunciation Guide


About the Book

Iain Banks is widely acknowledged as one of Britain’s greatest living writers, and as a Scotsman he knows something about whisky too. In
Raw Spirit
, Iain combines these two passions with a third, travel. Result: a unique journey around his native land: his goal, to find the perfect dram. And the perfect dram, surely, must be a single malt.

Along with a curious bunch of fellow travellers in a selection of cars, planes, ferries, trains, bikes and shoes, he journeys to remote shores and hidden glens, discovering the breathtaking and often inaccesible distilleries where tiny quantities of malt whisky are produced. He finds people engaged in centuries old tradition where eccentricity is the norm: it’s a journey of a thousand ‘cheers’ and subsequent wobbly walks, of unpronounceable place names and daft customs and superstitions. Will Banks prevail? It’s a tough job but as he puts it: ‘Someone’s got to do it, and I’m damn sure it’s going to be me.’

About the Author

Iain Banks was born in Scotland in 1954. He came to widespread public notice in 1984 with the publication of his first novel,
The Wasp Factory
. Since then he has gained enormous popular and critical acclaim with further works of fiction and science fiction. In 1993 he was acknowledged as one of the Best of Young British Writers. He lives in Fife, Scotland.

For Gary and Christiane

And to the memory of James Hale


This book really couldn’t have been written without the help of a lot of other people. I would like to thank my wife Ann, Oliver Johnson, John Jarrold, Toby and Harriet Roxburgh and everybody else at Ballivicar, Martin Gray, Les, Aileen and Eilidh McFarlane, Jim Brown, Dave McCartney, Ken MacLeod, Tom and Michelle Obasi, Roger Gray and Izabella, Mic Cheetham, Gary and Christiane Lloyd, Ray, Carole and Andrew Redman, Bruce, Yvonne, Ross and Amy Frater, Jenny and James Dewar, Andrew Greig and Lesley Glaister, my uncle Bob, everybody I met and talked to in the distilleries I visited – with particular appreciation going to all the managers and the long-suffering though invariably helpful tour guides who were prepared to answer my idiot questions – all at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and, lastly and firstly, my parents.

Everything in here is true. Especially the bits I made up.

Introduction – Out of our Heads


you up to?’

‘Well, I’m going to be writing a book about whisky.’

‘You’re what?’

‘I’m going to be writing a book about whisky. I’ve been, umm, you know, commissioned. To write a book about it. About whisky. Malt whisky, actually.’

‘You’re writing a book about

‘Yeah. It means I have to go all over Scotland, driving mostly, but taking other types of transport – ferries, planes, trains, that sort of thing – visiting distilleries and tasting malt whisky. With expenses, obviously.’

‘You serious?’

‘Course I’m serious!’


‘Oh yeah.’

‘… Do you need any help with this?’

Beginning with something ending; in these perverse times this seems somehow appropriate. But first, a sort of mission statement:

This is a book more than nominally about single-malt whisky, about the art of making it and the pleasure to be had in consuming it. It is also, partly, about the business of selling and promoting the stuff, about the whisky industry in general, about drink in general, even about mood- or perception-altering
in general. It’s not
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.

It’s a book about the land and country I love, about Scotland and its people, its cities, towns and villages and the landscape around them. It isn’t going to be a book of detailed tasting notes – frankly I don’t have the nose, appearances being deceptive – though there will usually be a brief description of a whisky’s generally accepted character, and occasional attempts to describe a particularly favoured dram in a more personal manner where I think I can get away with it. It’s not a guide book to Scotland, either, though a few restaurants, hotels, cultural sites, scenic areas and tourist traps are bound to be mentioned.

I’m going to travel to the far north, to Caithness and Orkney; to Dumfries and Galloway, to Skye and Mull and Islay, to Speyside, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Argyll, Clydeside, Lothian and wherever else I can find distilleries. I’m not going to every single one (though I do intend to sample the wares of each, including some that are closed or no longer exist) because frankly they’re not all worth seeing once you’ve a general idea how distilleries work, and also because they’re not all set up to receive visitors and – after a few feet-finding, hand-holding pro-style tours at the start – I’m not looking for any special favours just because I’m writing a book.

It will – appropriately, given the subject matter – be a staggered tour; I’ll be taking in distilleries in clusters and individually over single weeks and day trips, returning to my home in North Queensferry in between (at least partly because I’m intending to buy a full bottle of as many single malts as I can, and, with about a hundred distilleries in Scotland, plus the closed ones, I’ll need to get back fairly frequently to off-load and free up some boot-space). North Queensferry – The Ferry, as we locals tend to call it – is where I lived until I was nine, and it’s been my home for the last thirteen or so years. I have family here, and it’s home, too, to a lot of memories. It’s my
my docking station, and I make no excuses for returning here to recharge.

Roads, cars (quite a lot of roads, and quite a lot of cars, come to think of it … and one motorbike) are going to feature heavily in the book, as well as ferries, trains and aircraft and any other forms of transport I can find which can be shackled into the narrative if there’s the even the least semblance of an excuse for it.

This is a search for the perfect dram, undertaken in the full knowledge that such a thing probably doesn’t exist. That doesn’t matter; it’s a quest, and any quest is at least partly its own point. And besides, you never know.

This book will, inevitably, be about me, my family and my friends too, especially those friends who have been persuaded – with, you may not be surprised to learn, no great deal of body-part manipulation involved – to take part in this project. As a natural result, old adventures – several of them involving no illegal activity whatsoever – and ancient anecdotes of dubious and disputed authenticity will be ruthlessly exhumed, exposed, exaggerated and exploited. This, let’s face it, is a book about one of the hardest of hard liquors and for all this Let’s be mature, I just drink it for the taste not the effect, honest, Two units a day only stuff … it is, basically, a legal, exclusive, relatively expensive but very pleasant way of getting out of your head.

And, talking about being out of our heads, this book can’t help being about the war. You know the one; the Iraq war, Gulf War II, This Time It’s Personal. My travels are starting just as the war begins, which makes it kind of hard to ignore, and, anyway, what’s happening around me as I make my way across Scotland, visiting distilleries, has to have some bearing on matters; I don’t intend to ignore the people or the places or the scenery or the weather around me as I make these journeys and I can’t ignore the political environment either, both at home and abroad. This is not as peripheral as it might sound in a book about whisky; the stuff, certainly as we know it, has always been up to its pretty little bottleneck in politics.

So. That ending at the beginning. Yesterday morning, on what was officially the first day of spring, my wife and I cut our passports in half and sent the remains to Mr Blair’s office in Downing Street.

1: These Drugs of Subtle Virtue


any good books lately?’

‘Not if you believe certain critics, but I’m going to be writing one about whisky.’

‘A book about whisky?’

‘Yeah. Malt whisky.’

‘You’re kiddin!’

‘Not as such.’

‘This mean you’re going to have to do the “R” word?’

‘The “R” word? Oh! Research? Yeah, basically. Goin to have to drive round Scotland, or, well, be driven round Scotland, take trains, ferries, planes and such, go to distilleries, taste whiskies, that sort of—’

‘And they’re going to pay you for this?’

‘They’ve already started.’

‘Right. I see. D’you need a hand?’

Friday the 21st of March 2003 is a good three-ferry day. It starts kind of weirdly; I get up very early and print up a load of A4 posters with your standard anti-war slogans: NO BLOOD FOR OIL, NOT IN MY NAME, and TONY BLIAR (my personal favourite, though probably not really all that effective). While those are printing I watch the breakfast news coverage of our bouncing, day-old war. I plaster the posters across the Land Rover: one in a transparent sleeve taped across the spare wheel on the rear door, six on the side windows. There’s even one
the sunroof, though I think I must have been getting a bit carried away by this stage; the only people ever likely to see that one are passing helicopter pilots and people who happen to be walking over motorway bridges as I drive below.

BOOK: Raw Spirit
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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