Saturday, 8 July 2017

Drinking for Scotland: Rachel McCormack's Chasing the Dram

Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky
By Rachel McCormack
Simon and Schuster, £16.99

Rachel McCormack is someone I am in contact with only through her acerbic Twitter presence, but she is the only person in my sphere of even virtual acquaintance who has ever heard of, let alone read and critiqued (very forcefully), the Catalan author Manuel Vazquez Montalban. Who was so admired by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri he named his protagonist Inspector Montalbano after him. 

Rachel did live in Barcelona and is well known for her Spanish and Catalan cookery expertise, some of which may have permeated down from the otherwise (apparently) loathsome Sr Montalban, who was both a gastronome and writer of several cookbooks, notably La Cocina Catalana. He was (at different stages of his life) also a Marxist, a CIA agent and writer of some of the most peculiar detective novels in the genre. If you want to know what may be going on in the dark underbelly of both the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, his last book, The Man Of My Life, is available in English and I’d highly recommend it. Nobody else likes it.

Anyway, Rachel herself has just published a book which is, and she won’t appreciate me saying this, not dissimilar to some of the Montalban canon in its enormously entertaining eclecticism. Just as Pedro Carvalho, Montalban’s detective, veers from political pondering and philosophy through gourmandizing on a grand scale to cooking, unearthing criminal activity and making impenetrable jokes, Rachel has produced a whisky travelogue which purports to be a ‘road trip’ through Scotland searching for ‘the meaning of whisky’. While championing the inclusion of whisky in food through a series of recipés, some of which are  appealing, some  hilarious, while others appear to be spirit-fuelled culinary fire hazards. There is also quite a bit of politics, some very funny and piercingly sad family encounters, and a lot of extremely entertaining drinking, much involving the conversion of whisky-haters to lovers of at least some version of the cratur. And there is truly wonderful travelogue. The sojourn in Kilmarnock is worth the price of admission alone. Hogmanay  with her mother and blue-rinse pals is the funniest and most accurate piece of writing about Milngavie I’ve ever read.

There are some great character studies, notably of broadcaster Billy Kay’s hair, beard and voice, as well as  an occasional (knowing) submission to the PR blandishments of things like the risible Keepers of the Quaich ceremony (a Masonic Lodge/Orange Order for upmarket drinks retailers). But there are some really splendid insights, too  - and while some of the less worthy in whisky geekdom have already tried to trash the book (jealousy, I’d guess, in particular of the Simon and Schuster imprint, and now removed from the Amazon listing) one of the most erudite and experienced of topers I know was hugely impressed by her wheedling out of dark secrets concerning what Ben Nevis’s Japanese owners actually do with their new-make spirit.  I ended up spending £37.70 on a bottle of Ben Nevis 10-year-old, for reasons you’ll have to buy the book to discover.

Rachel’s breezily clear descriptions of whisky making, its legal and historical  context and maturing processes are accurate and careful, and it’s only her initial and typically belligerent dismissal of ‘terroir’ that both misleads and, in the end, is contradicted by the book itself. In the early sections she argues that nearly all of a whisky’s character and taste comes from its ageing in wood, and that all that stuff about distillery location, sea breezes and water is romantic nonsense. As her journey progresses, though, Rachel inadvertently marshals various facts against her own argument: Malting barley turns out to be crucial, as is the design of the stills, the methods of heating them, and yes, location. 

We move towards an admission that there’s perhaps a 70-30 split in the effect of wood against other factors, or maybe 60-40...but by the end of Chasing the Dram we know, as this Glasgow woman who left Scotland and then came back surely does, that whisky is all about place, and people; history, myth and magic as well as science. And for Scotch Whisky, that can only happen in Scotland. It’s our terroir, pal, and we’re gonnae use it. You could even write a book about it.

Provided with a superb, note-perfect cover by Sarah Mulvanny though it is, I can’t help feeling Chasing the Dram deserved the kind of large-format, copiously-illustrated presentation the late, great Leslie Forbes (artist and writer) produced so well with things like A Table in Tuscany and her masterpiece, Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail. That design approach might have made the abrupt arrival of the ‘whisky recipés’ , which at times have little to do with Rachel’s actual textual adventures, a little less jarring.

Still, this is an enjoyable, erudite, funny, sometimes brilliant book full of passion, insight and ebullient, feisty, boozy sarcasm. And chips. Mustn’t forget about the chips. She is very good on chips. Or patatas fritas we call them in North Lanarkshire.

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