Peat, Smoke and Spirit
THIS is a portrait of Islay and its whisky. It is part travelogue, part adventure story, part history and all whisky. An old-school whisky buff may quibble at some of the more figurative language Jefford uses to describe whisky making, but the descriptions are, more often than not, illuminating.
The book is written with lyricism, drama and empathy. The map on the inside cover shows its true range, marking points of interest that include shipwrecks, battlefields, seals, castle ruins and geese roosts, as well as the seven great distilleries. But Jefford is careful not to neglect the whisky anoraks among us, supplying statistics for each distillery with enough minutiae to satisfy the most pedantic.
This anorak certainly enjoyed the careful comparison of phenol parts-per-million of Islay distilleries, the detailing of grist storage capacity and mash tun construction. We learn that the water source for Bunnahabhain is Margadale Spring for whisky water and Loch Staoisha for cooling water. We discover that the foreshot run at Lagavulin takes five hours, the spirit run five hours and the feints run four-and-a-half hours. Readers may find some things a little too elementary - Ardbeg, we are told, is ‘pronounced as written’. But on an island containing Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich, perhaps we should be grateful for small pronunciation mercies.
The book is well structured, making it possible to dip in at any point and find some little gem. Chapters on weather, nature and shipwrecks are interspersed with sections on each distillery - full of fascinating historical detail as well as comments from current distillery workers. It is in the chapters on the island’s past and natural history where the author allows himself most freedom to conjure up images and sounds. We hear about the oystercatchers on the shoreline: "Wherever you go there will be a few around you, often piping dementedly over some obscure abuse of social protocol."
Each chapter has intriguing sub-headings to lure you in to some other aspect of Islay nature study. ‘A Long Sexy Summer’ turns out to be about corncrakes, which spend September to April in Tanzania and return to Islay for the breeding season. In ‘The Buried Head’ we learn about sheep ticks.
Jefford makes his mark as a whisky writer because his style is not just informative but also dramatic. He makes good pace as a storyteller too. At times it’s like reading a Boy’s Own adventure.
In the chapter on early times, Jefford introduces us to the Illeachs of the Ice Age: "a tense band of cold hunters tortured by worms and tooth decay", and then takes us rapidly on to the Dark Ages: "Fast forward to a cold, possibly moonlit night in early January 1156."
He writes about medieval Illeachs "thrown into galleys and made to sail, march and eventually fight to the death on the wind-harried slopes of Mar for a rich man’s quarrel of which they know nothing or care less".
If ever there was a book to read on a cold - possibly moonlit - night with a stiff dram beside you, then this is it. Irresistible.
Abigail Bosanko’s latest book is A Nice Girl Like Me