Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 2December 6th, 2013
Our second installment of whisky book reviews for the holidays, this one from Jonny McCormick, who appropriately notes on sending it in, “I could murder a drink!”
by Malcolm Archibald
Published by Black & White Publishing, 279 pages
As our thoughts turn to the holidays, your relatives may be looking for an interesting gift for the whisky expert in the family. Rather than a whisky tome, this is a true crime book set in the Highlands and Islands during the Victorian era and imbued with a flavor of whisky.
The Whisky Wars relate to illicit distillation in the 19th century, as the early distillers played cat and mouse with the gaugers. The Glenlivet area was notoriously rife with distillers at the time. It could seem like there was a still in every bothy, the practice fuelled by the imposition of higher duties. The revenue men chased the peat reek, attempting to intercept the whisky smugglers while they were on the move to market. Violent assaults were fought with cudgel and cutlass on lonely tracks through the glens. A musket battle erupted in the Cabrach, near Dufftown, during one attempt to root out hidden stills and copper cooling coils. The excisemen called in military reinforcements and soon redcoats were posted at isolated garrisons in bleak glens.
The commonly repeated tale of Gillespie the Gauger is included: his descent documented from swashbuckling government man to a grisly end, convicted of corruption. Legitimate distillers were on the take too: consider the cunning and ingenuity of the unscrupulous distillery manager in Pitlochry who stole maturing whisky by siphoning it from the cask through a drilled hole in the warehouse wall, to store it in secret casks buried underground.
The author has published other Scottish crime books on Glasgow and Dundee. This is neither a whisky book, nor a comprehensive academic study; instead it’s a compelling clutch of vignettes ranging across the century. The chapters romp through a series of adventurous tales, populated by a bawdy cast of 19th century Highland miscreants up to their necks in banknote forgeries, sheep stealing, embezzlement, poaching, robbery, and bloody murder. Communities unite to defend their way of life from harsh, indifferent landlords. There is little moralizing. Judges mete out punishments from transportation to Australia to hangings, public whipping, and long imprisonment with hard labor for the more savage crimes.
Even in the non-Whisky Wars part of the book, whisky stories are never far away. A distractible hotel thief is arrested when he drops his guard to help himself to some free whisky; a man is murdered in Crieff, losing his watch and a half mutchkin of whisky (an old Scots unit of measurement); an illicit distiller from Argyll is threatened with the public humiliation of being placed in the juggs (a padlocked iron collar) in his local church.
The period covered in the text is categorically 19th century. That makes the choice of a 20th century cover photo of distillery workers at Macallan sitting atop casks stamped 1917 both curious and slightly anachronistic. It’s a terrific shot, though; hirsute men in collarless shirts and young lads in baker boy caps sit rank and file with women in white aprons gripping malt shovels. Collectively, there are more production staff in this century old photograph than any modern distillery will likely have on shift today.
My only other minor criticism is the book’s internal images. These feature contemporary photographs of modern locations mentioned in the stories but I felt they added little context. The majority are underexposed like they’ve been shot at 4 p.m. on a dark winter’s day.
So lock the doors and shut out the night. Turn down the lights and pour yourself some courage. Delve into the criminal underbelly of the Scottish Highlands and Islands: the geography and terrain will be familiar to those who have trodden the whisky trail or studied the labels of their single malts. Just don’t have nightmares.
(If you are looking for a book dealing solely with smuggling and illicit distillation, there are several excellent whisky books in existence, of course. Try The Secret Still by Gavin D Smith (2002), Tales of Whisky and Smuggling by Stewart McHardy (1991) or Illicit Scotch by S.W. Sillett (1965).)