The Whisky Men
by Gavin D. Smith, 2005
276 pps, 10.25” x 7.5”, paperback
I first saw this book introduced and reviewed in the Malt Advocate a year or so back. It looked interesting and I kept my eye out for it. Eventually I got a tip that while the book is not distributed in the US, you can order it via Amazon Canada.
The book came from an effort by the author to interview distillery workers in Scotland from “the old days” before it was too late and the narratives were lost forever. What results is a fascinating immersion into life in the distilleries and surrounding communities through the 20th century.
Up through the 1960’s distilling was a manual and labor-intensive process. It was also a fine craft and skill which was taught and handed down. An entire town was often employed directly or indirectly by the local distillery. Distillery work was not just a job but also a way of life and had a sense of community.
There is a fair amount of comparing the old days with modern, efficient, consolidated, big-corporation whisky making. And it is no surprise that the comparison is not kind. Most malting, barreling, and warehousing are now handled at central facilities. The distillery receives barley that has already been malted and ships out new make in tanker trucks. Distilleries that used to employ dozens of highly skilled workers can now be run by computer and monitored by one or two workers who sometimes care little about the product they are making.
The book is broken into 20 chapters concentrating on facets of the life and process such as Malting, Brewing, Distilling, the Coppersmith, the Cooper, Dramming, the Exiseman, etc.
This is “heavy weight” book. What I mean is that like a complex whiskey, it requires your full attention to get everything out of it. It is not a light and fluffy read. You know those books, that while chock full of info, are light and effortless to read? This is not one of them. There is so much information, so many stories, and such a total cultural immersion that it wears you out a bit.
I give the book a strong recommendation. The stories of days gone by are fascinating and often hilarious. The exposure to a culture that has largely disappeared is wonderful. I was a bit saddened by the passing of the “good old days” and the perceived loss in character of the whiskey now made by process and not by artists. But there is hope in a few distilleries, like Bruichladdich, who are returning to the old traditions and creating wonderful whisky and new found community in the process.