On the dust jacket of Rachel McCormack’s Chasing the Dram is a quote from Val McDermid: “Hard not to hate Rachel McCormack who bags the best gig of the year and then writes a brilliant book”.
While I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to classify it as brilliant, the writer of this engaging tome does seem to have hit the jackpot when coming up with its subject matter.
Imagine how rewarding a whisky tour and tasting would be if it was called research and made up part of a year-long journey across Scotland taking in the subject.
The fun McCormack clearly had is infectious and while there is a wealth of books on whisky already, reading about the subtleties of the national drink instead of imbibing has hitherto sometimes felt, well… dry.
Chasing the Dram is not that. Unashamedly following in the footsteps of travel writers such as Pete McCarthy, who wrote McCarthy’s Bar after visiting pubs in Ireland with that name, McCormack adds in elements of travel but brings her expertise as a food writer and radio commentator, as she aims to convince us that whisky should not be treated with undue reverence, but should be mixed into cocktails with abandon.
We should, she says, even start to use it as an ingredient in food.
She has a point – while the French and Italians generously slosh their national drink into their dinner, Scots have always been reluctant to go beyond adding a drop to their cranachan for a special occasion.
Even as a drink, the list of accepted additions in some circles start and end with a drop of water.
In contrast this book is peppered with recipes for cocktails, puddings and savoury dishes all including a dram or two. Some sound delicious, such as whisky-cured gravadlax, while others I’d probably avoid. A plain risotto with a pool of Islay whisky and soda served underneath sounds challenging.
But much as she advises the reader to experiment and find a whisky – and a way to drink it – that they like without paying heed to either snobbery or tradition, there are enough whisky and food pairings to encourage the fussiest eater.
Alongside there is a good depth of history of the industry and rich details on how whisky is made.
In one of the most fascinating passages McCormack explains the length that distilleries go to make sure that every still used is exactly the same shape. Meeting Diageo coppersmiths in Alloa she learns that if the need arises for new stills, they need to be exactly the same as the old: “Down to the dent on the right-hand side of the neck of your still 56 centimeters before the curve”.
No one, she admits, is precisely sure that this level of detail is required but neither are they brave enough to mess with a winning formula.
The travelogue part of the book is good fun, but hardly a misty-eyed evocation of Scotland. She discusses the changing nature of the locations where whisky is traditionally made and the decline of emptying villages as jobs and young people migrate.
McCormack has a sharp wit and you’d imagine that she doesn’t suffer fools. The youth of Oban on a night out get it tight, as does the whole town of Wishaw and the complete literary output of Sir Walter Scott. The full weight of her ire is reserved however for that modern evil: skin-on chips, which she calls “The bastard hybrid offspring of the potato skin and the American fast-food fry”.
Trying the whisky ketchup served with chips in a restaurant prompts McCormack to offer an alternative recipe to those keen to enjoy a combination of the fried potato and the water of life. After frying your chips, she says: “Serve with Heinz tomato ketchup on the table and a glass of whisky in your hand.”
Chasing the Dram is published by Simon & Schuster, £16.99