THE DRAMA OF DRAMS

 

Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky
By Rachel McCormack, Simon & Schuster, €16.99

At last, a book about whisky that’s utterly readable. There are lots that are very informative, some elegantly written, some evoking a sense of place but, by and large, whisky literature is written for people who are interested in the stuff itself, what’s in the glass.

Rachel McCormack has written a delightfully rambling, highly personal, somewhat missionary book about Scotch. She frequently suggests what to serve people who don’t – or think they don’t – like whiskey. She wants to share the joy she takes in the dram. And not just the spirit itself, but the people behind it, the landscapes, the characters and even – lightly – the technicalities.

Rachel is, of course, a food writer, an expert on the cuisine of Catalonia and a regular on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet.

“There is no tradition of drinking whisky with food and no tradition of cooking with whiskey in Scotland,” she writes. She blames a Presbyterian attitude for this and compares it to “our traditional attitude to sex – lights off, one position and never admit that you’re actually enjoying it. No Karma Sutra for us; and no variety with our whiskey.”

Well she puts this situation right with a series of recipes throughout the book – venison biryani, for example, or the brilliantly named neo-Presbyterian risotto (which I am determined to try). I also like the idea of her Scots Martini which is mainly very cold gin with a little spray of The Ardbeg (from the first Scotch whisky distillery I ever wrote about, in Decanter many years ago).

I’m grateful to Rachel for explaining the whisky regions of Scotland to me in terms that (a) I understand and (b) did not cause me to lose the will to live. I now know about the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Campbelltown and Speyside which is, slightly confusingly, also in the Highlands.

It’s not just Rachel’s easy way with imparting knowledge and explaining some complexities, she’s also blessed with a great turn of phrase.

Consider this account of a visit to the Ben Nevis distillery:

It’s a utilitarian 1960s building with none of the attractive pagodas that grace older distilleries or new ones emulating the 19th century. The visitor’s centre looks in such dire need of an upgrade it’s almost as if the company is actively discouraging people to visit. The labelling of Ben Nevis bottles is notable for its atrocity – both the front and oval picture of a bad artist’s impression of the distillery with Scotland’s highest mountain behind look like a leftover prop from 'Abigail’s Party’.

The reason? Most of the whiskey is taken away by the Japanese owners and matured in the land of rising sun where, thanks to the whisky laws that apply there, it becomes Japanese whisky.

In essence, Chasing the Dram is a fine introduction to Scotch whisky, and within that there run lovely seams of Scottish humour and quirks of Caledonian culture. It’s the most page-turning drinks book that I’ve read in a very long time.

Just a final flavour…

I was watching Gaelic TV recently and two men from Skye were talking about the strange Lowland habit of climbing mountains as a pastime, something they would only do if a sheep was trapped at the top of one. It made me wonder if there was a Gaelic insult along the lines of “daft enough to climb a sheepless mountain”.

This, incidentally, is by way of introduction to her hill-walking mother’s recipe for Roadside Chicken, which sounds like darn good al fresco eating.