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Single Malt Stories: Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart on Scotch Whisky

Review of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story (4th Ed., Putnam & Company 1970)

Which Edition?

As one’s Scotch whisky will increase with flavor and distinction the longer the distiller leaves the malty liquid in the cask, so too will the musty likability of this hardcover book grow with time if one is wise enough to purchase one of the older editions, printed within the lifetime of the writer before his passing in 1970.

Yet to be truthful, I highly recommend this text in any form, even if that be the newest electronic editions published within the 2010s. But I cannot emphasize enough the enjoyment of having the hard copy version in one’s hand on a cooler evening, the obligatory glass of single malt nearby, neat, within easy reach of one’s favorite reading chair.

If your copy of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story smells peatier than your tumbler of whisky, then by all accounts who have one of the preferred editions of this text.

Single, not Blended, Thank You

One prominent, if perhaps peculiar, leitmotif that pervades the text is the doleful disregard given to Scotch whisky in its purer, single malt form over its more popular, blended manifestation.

Note that Lockhart does not disregard the single malt form himself. But rather, he is vexed that his fellow whisky drinkers of his time in the first half of the 20th century appear to prefer Scotch whisky blended with some type of corn or wheat or lesser barely from another location.

In Lockhart’s own words:

To-day pure malt whisky is rare. To those who can still obtain it a little water is permissible with the whisky, but preferably after it. Soda water is an abomination and degrades both the spirit and the soul. By and large, the connoisseur still abides by the old Highland saying: ‘There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one is malt whisky.’

Again, this might be odd for today’s readers; any Scotch whisky that is “single malt” is now understood amidst the general whisky-drinking population to be the best type.

Or am I wrong on this point? Doesn’t everyone know that a whisky, when done right should only be a pure barely malt and not a mix of distillate grains, let alone not mixed with other liquids into some tawdry chemical cocktail?

Regardless, that so much of the book worries over the eventual demise of the single-malt drinking population to the more popular mixed-drink segment of society seems to be a reflection of Lockhart’s time more than ours. Over half a century later and one might suggest that those who prefer pure to blended has moved beyond the uppity aficionado.

Visit any bar across the world and the bartender will, at the very least, have a run-of-the-mill, though still tasty, Glenlivet or Glenfiddich on hand for those single-malt drinkers.

Time to Explore

Lockhart spends scant time on Scotch whisky from island of Islay, with is famous collection of ultra peaty whisky-making distillers. But the author does mention a few single malts that may be largely unknown today, which this reader found of interest.

G. M. Thomson (author of the 1930s Whiskey, a man who feared his teetotal wife enough to invent the nom de plume of Aeneas Macdonald for this publication) is cited in the book as having a most noteworthy top-twelve list. It may be fun to reproduce it here in order to see how many of these single malts are still made and sold. In alphabetical order these are:

The twelfth on the list appears to be a tie because “each of which would be put first by its devotees” in the 1930s. The majority of these distilleries are located near the Spey River.

Timelessness

There is much to like about this book. For this reader one of the main draws was the timelessness of the stories presented.

Despite many of the chapters being devoted to the factual reporting of one “whisky baron” or Scotch-producing company or another, Lockhart is still able to compose their stories in a very readable and enjoyable form. The struggles of the protagonist Walker or Buchanan or Dewer and so on become the struggles of the reader. We wish them to win and overcome the exigencies of prohibition and world war to become king of Scotch whisky.

Those early years of how Scotch whisky, particularly in its blended form, came to be a staple drink for those residents of London, and later the world, is a fascinating read. There is a “rugged individualism” to the formula of success of these enterprising souls that harks back to earlier struggles against the English to the south.

Their fight to keep open distilleries in the green-smoky highlands near the River Spey is recorded here vividly.

Wonderful Read

Inasmuch as I enjoy the historical aspects of the book, I also think the subject matter of Scotch-inspired, single malt whisky could do with a remake.

A tasters’ book or distiller’s travel guide of where, when, and how to enjoy a great pure malt is easy enough to find in a bookstore and thus as a new book is not really needed. Rather, a publication in the style of Sasha Issenberg’s superbly done The Sushi Economy, which is a half-travel log,  half-political economy of the worldwide sushi industry, refitted for the emerging global trends in single malt production would be a fascinating read. Those who know good single malt “Scotch”, know that the Japanese have some of the best tasting, peatiest whiskies today. Even the Americans are getting in on the pure malt enterprise. Single malt “Scotch” whisky in this global sense deserves a modern interpretation on its own merits.

(Seriously, this would be an awesome and fun book to research and write. Publishers out there, any takers!?)

Overall, this book makes for a pleasant trip into the past of Scotch making and whiskey drinking. With the author’s skillful imagery, many of the scenes described in the book take the reader to the Scottish highland region.

For the single malt Scotch whisky drinker, this delightful little text is an absolute must-read and is highly recommended!

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post can be found on Tiffany and Nick’s FunckinAround. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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