Guest post: Book review of “MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky” by Charles MacLean (2nd revised edition)April 4th, 2011
Jonny McCormick, regular Malt Advocate features writer, shares his review of MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky.
MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky
by Charles MacLean (2nd revised edition)
Published by Little Books Ltd | 288 pages
Whisky books appeal to those seeking deeper understanding of production subtleties and those who crave facts and figures to memorise but sometimes all you want is a jaunty tome that will entertain and enlighten. MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky first appeared in 2004, and has been recently updated with additional material and given a handsome new jacket.
Charlie MacLean’s interpretation of a miscellany is an assortment of writing and quotations on whisky (there are a couple of pages on Irish, American and Japanese whiskies, but this is ostensibly a book about Scotch whisky). This neat book is perfectly adept for consumption in 4-5 page sittings; it’s packed with a diversity of topics with cross-referencing to related sections.
Less of a motley anthology than the title suggests however, there is a coherent pathway running through the text from definitions of whisky and raw materials through to production, branding and collecting. Sparkling anecdotes gathered from history form enjoyable digressions along the way, from the tale of how Burns was snubbed in Selkirk to how King George IV drank contraband whisky in Edinburgh in 1822 due to his preferred pure Glenlivet-style whisky being unobtainable. I found the pages on jars, pigs and other vessels and their closures fascinating, the science of viscimetry illuminating and the book concludes with a comical romp through the etymology of inebriation in Scotland. This is the literary equivalent of sinking into a dark leather armchair with a robust Mortlach after a hearty dinner.
Engravings add to the historical feel of the book, although they seldom bear a strong relationship to the topic featured on the page (that’s miscellany for you). There are some fascinating late nineteenth century adverts from the archives including one for Grouse as it sought fame, Dewar’s Ancestors campaign and the price list for Chivas Brothers when they were an Aberdeen grocer’s shop and whisky blender. If the distillery engravings such as Lagavulin, Glenturret and Glen Grant seem familiar it is because they are reproductions from Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (Birlinn’s elegant 2008 edition is well worth tracking down).
You will have sipped young whiskies that have been distilled and bottled since the first edition of this book appeared. Little of the historical matter at the heart of the text needed updating but there are some minor details trapped in 2004. The listing of vatted malt and pure malt as categories on the “Understanding the Label” section predates the Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009, and the peat chapter omits Ardbeg Supernova and mentions Bruichladdich Distillery beginning to produce Octomore at peating levels of 60 parts per million (in reality, the first edition claimed barley peated to 131ppm and the third boasted 152ppm).
Similarly, the appendix of Scottish distillery openings and closures needs updating with status changes recognizing the reopening of Glenglassaugh, the closure of Brora, Port Dundas, the mothballing of Tamdhu and Kilchoman’s full opening (no longer under construction). However, forgive the pedantry, for these are tiny details which must not detract you from a rewarding read about Scotch whisky. This charismatic book will furnish the reader with convivial conversation for the whisky club night or enrich those divine moments of mustache-twirling cogitation between drams.