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Book Review: Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald

Prominently displayed on the most recent reissue cover of Whisky, by Aeneas MacDonald, sits a quote from renowned whisky expert Dave Broom, which reads:

The finest whisky book ever 

That’s quite a bold statement to make but much like the mysterious Aeneas Macdonald himself, it should be considered in context. Whisky, is an odd book; in fact, the original published in 1930 was one of the first books written on the subject, quite surprising considering whisky has been around for much longer than that. The best feature of this 2016 edition is the addition of commentary and annotations by Ian Buxton. I enjoyed Ian’s analysis and what it brings to MacDonald’s book and am glad I bought an annotated edition rather than an unadulterated version, but let me explain why.

Will The Real Aeneas MacDonald Please Stand Up?

Aeneas MacDonald was a pen name, for George Malcolm Thomson, born in 1899 and founder of the Porpoise Press – original publisher Whisky. MacDonald (used from this point on for simplicity) made a conscious decision to keep his real name out of the pages of his book, part of which was to avoid accusations of hubris for self-publishing his own work; something that has less of a stigma these days.

Whisky, is not the kind of book you would find published on the subject today.

It is light on facts and well-research material but rather, is filled with strong opinions that set the conditions for whisky snobbery for decades to come. I recognised many of MacDonald’s sentiments shared by my own father, passed down to him by his father. For example, broad reaching opinions like the superiority of Highland whisky and inferiority of Lowlands whisky in comparison. MacDonald was no whisky expert, although he was clearly a fan and a staunchly patriotic Scott. In writing his book, Macdonald would have drawn on earlier trade publications, his own opinion seemingly formed primarily from those of his old Edinburgh University professor and a splash of myth and legend.

What makes Whisky stand out from other whisky books is its differences, as explained in the Forward by Ian Buxton:

Too many of today’s whisky books are little more than lists: handsomely produced, well illustrated and comprehensive to a fault but with the soul of a draper’s catalogue. Others might be mistaken for material straight from the distiller’s own well-funded publicity machine, and a third category distributes marks out of a hundred to Glen This, Glen That and Glen The Other with mechanical certainty of a drab provincial accountant. 

Despite its faults, of which there are many, you should be able to appreciate why Broom considers Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald to be such a fine book on the subject.

But What of The Book Itself?

While some of MacDonald’s book may be grossly outdated or simply incorrect, some of it is still true today and at times even contemporary in attitude, such as his views on distillery transparency. MacDonald shares his views on what separates whisky from other alcoholic drinks such as wine, expressing his disdain for ‘the drinkers-to-get-drunk’ who imbibe whisky not for pleasure but ‘simply in order to obtain a certain physical effect.’ MacDonald laments the status of whisky at the time as merely a potent spirit rather than a complex and prestigious drink to be appreciated by connoisseurs and offers readers this delightful definition:

Whisky is a re-incarnation; it is made by a sublimation of coarse and heavy barely malt; the spirit leaves that earthly body, disappears, and by lovely metempsychosis returns to the world in the form of a liquid exquisitely pure and impersonal. 

MacDonald touches on the history and production of whisky in his early chapters making a few generalisations that are simply untrue today, such as a distinguishing factor of Highland whisky being a ‘smokiness’ from the malt being dried in peat-fired kilns; or simply incorrect such as his confident proclamation that the cask the whisky is matured in imparts no additional qualities to the whisky other than colour. Peated whisky is more commonly attributed to the Islands region of Scotland these days, but there are always exceptions and cask maturation does have a significant effect on the flavour and aroma of whisky.

Of interest to me was the short section on Campbeltown at the time of MacDonald writing in 1930. Campbeltown is my favourite Scotch whisky-producing region, although it only contains three active whisky distilleries today. In 1930 there were 122 distilleries in Scotland (there are around 100 now) of which ten operated in Campbeltown, including my namesake Kinloch Distillery. MacDonald describes Campbeltown whiskies as:

…the double bases of the whisky orchestra. They are potent, full-bodied, pungent whiskies, with a flavour that is not to the liking of everyone. 

At the time of writing his book, Campbeltown whisky was in the midst of crisis with most of the local distilleries closing in the 1920s and ‘30s in a geographically small region once home to 28 whisky producing distilleries.

The final chapter in MacDonald’s relatively short book is titled ‘Judging, Purchase, and Care’ and most of the information contained within maintains its relevance to this day.

Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald is a time capsule in Scotch whisky appreciation. Part poetry, part prejudice and very Scottish. The book’s charm is in the differences that distinguish it from modern books on the subject, but it does benefit from the moderation of Ian Buxton, who brings a layer of facts and informed interpretation to many of MacDonald’s more controversial claims.

Recommended, but approach Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald as more of a delightful curio, rather than a modern whisky reference.

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