Water of Life
Uisge Beatha is the Gaelic term for 'water of life', which itself possibly stems from the Latin aqua vitae. Distilling began in monasteries, to produce medicine, now healing the soul more than any other wound.
Until the early nineteenth century the production of whisky was mainly a domestic activity based in the rural farming communities, especially the Highlands. The whisky production process helped to pay rents, use up surplus grain and providing cattle feed from spent grains.
Traditionally the season for whisky production ran from August to April, with the summer months' workload being dependent on demand. This off-peak time was known as the 'silent season'.
Robert Burns famously wrote that 'Whisky and freedom gang thegither', echoing the independent spirit of Scotland and the Scots.
In a social context whisky is to provide a warm welcome or a fond farewell to a friend or weary traveller; to usher in the birth of a new baby and mourn the passing of a loved one; and to treat ailments and close business dealings. In fact, there are countless excuses for having a dram.
Today whisky is one of the most important economic products in the UK. It is a top export product, racking up sales of over £2.2 billion and contributes around £1.8 billion to the trade balance for the food and drinks industry, making it the single most important sector in this industry.
Many have tried to imitate Scotch whisky with no success, including the Germans and the Japanese. The Welsh have recently produced their own whisky, which is good, and Ireland has a long tradition of whiskey production; but none of these is Scotch whisky.
With such a rich history and influential standing it's no wonder that there's a large amount of excellent writing on whisky, covering the tasting, making and effect of Scotland's national drink.
Scottish Whisky Labels
The history of whisky making is explained in Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History by Charles MacLean. MacLean is a world renowned expert on whisky and the founder of WhiskyMax.com, a site set up to encourage and get the most out of the whisky experience. He is also a member of the worldwide group of enthusiasts known as the Malt Maniacs.
John Hughes, a former marketeer with Famous Grouse has written two books about the business end of the trade. Scotland's Malt Whisky Distilleries is an illustrated account of the politics, taxation and social history associated with whisky production; and Still Going Strong: A History Of Whisky Advertising tells the tales of how some of the best known brands, like Johnnie Walker and Bells became world favourites.
The business of whisky is tied strongly to the branding and development of those brands. F. Paul Pacult's book A Double Scotch; How Chivas Regal And The Glenlivet Became Global Icons is as much a business book as a homage to two classic Scotches. Further explanation of the roles played by the characters behind Scotch whisky is found in The Whisky Barons by Allen Andrews and The Whisky Men by Gavin D. Smith.
The texts on the history of the drink and those involved in its production and promotion are complemented by the various 'guides' to the world of Scotch whisky. Gavin D. Smith's A to Z of Whisky provides definitions, sources and meanings of whisky related words. Charles MacLean offers his opinions for the enthusiastic amateur in his comprehensive Whiskypedia. Graham Nown also caters for the expert and beginner in Malt Whisky: A Comprehensive Guide For Both Novice And Connoisseur. Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter, brings his expertise to bear on malt whisky the way he did with beer in Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion.
Whisky Tour Guides
Pot Whisky Stills, Rosebank Distillery, 1979
Originally self-published under the imprint 'Distillery Cat Books' by Japanese whisky enthusiast and expert Misako Udo is a popular title amongst aficionados, The Complete And Ultimate Guide To Scottish Whisky Distilleries For The Whisky Enthusiast.
In addition to these guides is a directory by Phillip Hills, The Scotch Whisky Directory, which analyses the flavours in Scotch and presents the findings here in a digestible format.
A map is of course a useful item, especially when all areas of Scotland are represented with a distillery worth a trip. \Angels' Share Malt Whisky Map of Scotland by Neil Wilson and Jim McEwan provides a full colour map with tasting notes.
Norman S. Newton explores the whisky island of Islay and tells the story of the island from Viking visits to the production of the water of life. The story of this magical isle is also continued in Andrew Jefford's book Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and its Whiskies.
The original capital of whisky is described in The Distilleries of Campbeltown: The Rise and Fall of the Whisky Capital of the World by David Stirk, which describes an a small area that at one time was home to 29 different distilleries.
Whisky also provokes storytelling and stories surrounding it. Yet again Charles MacLean introduces us to some great tales celebrating the loosener of the tongue in Charles MacLean's Whisky Tales: Peaty Drams to Warm the Cockles of Your Heart. Edward Burns tells of the Victorian scandal of the adulteration of whisky in public houses throughout the country in Bad Whisky.
Compton Mackenzie's Whisky Galore could not possibly be left out of a list on whisky writing, but is tempered with the true tale of the fate of the SS Politician and the lucky islanders who salvaged the cargo in Polly: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore, by Roger Hutchinson. More information is also available in Scotch on the Rocks, the original true story by Arthur Swinson.
Iain Banks, one of Scotland's most popular modern writers, takes us on his quest Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, where he visits some of the greatest distilleries in the world in search of the elusive nip. Neil Wilson also writes about the adventure of a group of sailing Scots as they attempted to visit all ten distilleries on Islay, Jura, Mull and Skye in The Island Whisky Trail.
For comic and bizarre writing on whisky try Gavin D. Smith's Whisky Wit and Wisdom: A Verbal Distillation, which offers a light hearted look at a very serious drink.
Although Scotch whisky is the focus of this list and a reason for living we must tip our hats to our Celtic cousins in Ireland and their tasty efforts in whiskey production. Scotch Missed by Brian Townsend, and The Malt Whisky File by John D. Lamond and Robin Tucek includes both Scotch and Irish malt whiskies, complete with tasting notes.
Happy reading, drinking, and Slainte Mhath!
- A-Z Of Whisky - - Paperback
Written by one of the world's leading whisky writers. A popular, 'cult' whisky book that is essential for knowledge on the subject.
- Bad Whisky: The Scandal That Created The World's Most Successful Spirit - - Paperback
This is a unique insight into the Victorian scandal which raged at the end of the 19th century surrounding the adulteration of whisky in public houses throughout the UK.
Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of the world with 29 distilleries operating simultaneously in 1835. How had this remote fishing port and royal burgh become the epicentre of Scotland's greatest export? David Stirk reveals all in this insight into the movers and shakers behind this huge industry.
- Add to BasketA Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal And The Glenlivet Became Global Icons - - Hardback
An inside look at two brands that have conquered the world: Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet, the latter being the best known and highest selling single malt whisky in the world.
- Add to BasketThe Island Whisky Trail: An Illustrated Guide To The Hebridean Distilleries - - Paperback
This guide for the whisky enthusiast covers the distilleries of the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland. It includes photographs along with travel and local information on established distilleries, such as Bunnahabhain and Bowmore, and newer ones, such as Kilchoman on Islay.
- Add to BasketMalt Whisky - - Paperback
'Malt Whisky' is a complete and fascinating guide to this popular spirit. It explores the history of malt, how it is made, why each one tastes different and how to appreciate whisky. A comprehensive guide to the distilleries is also included.
- Add to BasketThe Malt Whisky File: The Essential Guide For The Malt Whisky Connoisseur - - Hardback
This is the most comprehensive guide available to both the famous, and little known, distilleries of Scotland and Ireland and to their malt whiskies. Hundreds of detailed tasting notes are included in this expanded and revised edition.
- Add to BasketMichael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion - - Hardback
Do you know your Mortlach from your Miltonduff? A Glenfiddich from a Glenlugie? Find out the differences in Michael Jackson's guide to single malts. This guide includes over 1000 malts.
This is the story of Islay - from its history to the beautiful wildlife, landscape and topography of the island. Interleaved through these different narrative strands comes the story of the whiskies themselves, traced from a distant past of bothies and illegal stills to present day prosperity.
- Add to BasketPolly: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore - - Paperback
With the help of eyewitness accounts, historical papers and official documents, Hutchinson tells the remarkable story of the SS Politician, the ship which ran aground in the Sound of Eriskay in 1941 and inspired Compton MacKenzie's Whisky Galore.
- Raw Spirit: In Search Of The Perfect Dram - - Paperback
In a bid to uncover the unique spirit of the single malt whisky, author Iain Banks has decided to undertake a tour of the distilleries of his homeland. His tour of Scotland combines history, literature and landscape in an entertaining and informative account.
This is the true story about the 'Whisky Galore' boat, the SS Politician, which went down on 4th February 1941 with 240,000 bottles of whisky and £3m in Jamaican notes on board.
Johnnie Walker Red Label, Black & White, Bells, J&B, Talisker, Lagavulin - all world famous brands of whiskey. In this work, John Hughes discusses their origins and their history.
- Add to BasketThe Whisky Barons - - Paperback
The success of today's whisky industry is largely due to the commercial drive and foresight of a select group of whisky merchants who took the business by storm in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is the story of how Dewar, Buchanan, Walker, Bell and Mackie established their brands.
- Add to BasketThe Whisky Distilleries Of The United Kingdom - - Hardback
In 1885, Alfred Barnard was secretary of 'Harper's Weekly Gazette', a journal that featured facets of the wine and spirit trade. In order to provide his readers with a history of the trade, he visited all the distilleries in Scotland, Ireland and England. This work covers Barnard's comments.
- Add to BasketWhisky Galore - - Paperback
It is 1943, and the war has brought rationing to the Hebridean Islands. It looks like the end of the world when the whisky is about to run out, and the locals are about to despair when a ship with a cargo of whisky is wrecked.
- The Whisky Muse: Scotch Whisky In Poem And Song - Paperback
Each poem and song in this anthology is accompanied by additional information, and the book is full of interesting tit-bits on the process of whisky making.
- Add to BasketCharles MacLean's Whiskypedia - - Hardback
MacLean's 'Whiskypedia' explores the flavour and character of every malt whisky distilled in Scotland with reference how it is made. Introductory sections explain the contribution made by each stage of production and maturation, to elucidate the detailed notes about how malt whisky is made at each distillery.