Thursday, July 13, 2017

Non-fiction: Review of Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks

‘Fate’ doesn’t fit.  ‘Marriage made in heaven’, does.  What’s the combo?  Whiskey, Scotland, and Iain Banks, of course.  In other words, publishers finally savvied up; in 2002 they commissioned Banks to write a book of non-fiction—his first and last—about whiskey.  Taking his own path, the result is a travelogue cum history cum taste-test cum ramble about the Scottish national beverage called Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003).

A very loose, heart-on-his-sleeve, Banks-ian approach, Raw Spirit does whiskey justice.  The reader can see the Banks who usually lies between the lines in his novels come front and center. Far from a formal discourse on history or chemistry, pedagogery is limited to a brief review of whiskey’s origins and the distilling process.  After, all the focus is on the merits of individual expressions—the different types of whiskeys—encountered while traveling around Scotland. 

But the subtleties of the drams available are only a portion of Raw Spirit.  A good lot of the book is filled with random stories from Banks’ past, descriptions of friends, adventures while traveling, commentary on the then-ongoing global war on terror, and a run down of the car and roads for that particular distillery trip, all in endlessly witty fashion.  There is likewise a pride in Scotland on display, but a self-deprecating pride; Banks chides the reader on correct pronunciation, all the while poking fun at Scottish habits.  On a line by line, word by word basis, the book reads wonderfully.

In the end, Raw Spirit is an honest, relaxed, straight-forward look at whiskey, and Banks. In other words, if Banks’ character is not to your liking then the book will likely not be either.  It’s all him.  Regarding whiskey itself, Raw Spirit is not an uber-formal glorification of the imbibing of spirits, more a sit down with the mates and having a chat and a drink.  That being said, if the reader does not take to heart the descriptions of the landscapes and people and want to visit Scotland after reading the book (and not just for a glass of whiskey), something is wrong.  While I personally wish Banks had included impressions of the people and characters he met along the way (a la a Paul Theroux travelogue), the individual distilleries are given character for their location (often very rural) as are the particularities of their drink, which, after all, was the original publisher premise (even if it took them years to figure out the marriage made in heaven).

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