We sell whisky books at Whisky.Auction and we are often asked to recommend books on Scotch Whisky. If you want to learn more about the history of Scotch it’s best to ask a whisky historian. Dr Nicholas Morgan is the man who’s read them all (or at least pretends to have).
So, what is your favourite whisky book?
You know that’s a bit like being asked ‘what’s your favourite single malt’. It’s the question we all hate.
OK, what about putting reading list together for us of your top 10 whisky books?
I can tell you which of the books I pull down from the crowded shelves in my study are most useful, the ones I turn to most often, and the ones I find most entertaining. That’s not to say they are ‘the best’, or that they would score 92/100 in an intellectual equivalent of organoleptic assessment, or that they are the rarest or most sought after, changing hands at vastly inflated prices on the secondary market. This is a purely subjective choice from books I have known, in some instances, for many years, some of whom I consider to be my friends. And to be honest I haven’t included here my special secret books, where all the special secrets are kept. But you could do worse than assemble a small library from what follows, and relish the insights, knowledge and occasionally ignorance of others.
Then let’s start with what would you say are the must read classic Scotch whisky books of all time?
You know that there is a widespread belief that there is a group of ‘must read’, ‘must have’ history books about Scotch. If there is then it’s probably these. Written by a fascinating assortment of non-expert academics and journalists (and certainly not historians) they combine (in some instances) first-hand knowledge, inherited stories, ‘inside information’, imagined truths, and (occasionally) some original research. It says a lot about the paucity of recent writing on Scotch that they are still actually occasionally useful, particularly those by former SWA PR-man Ross Wilson:
Ross Wilson, Scotch, The Formative Years (1970)
Derek Cooper, The Century Companion to Whiskies (1978)
What about books published in the last 20 years? Are there any modern classics that you would recommend?
Here are a few I would recommend:
A not entirely satisfactory lexicon of Scotch. How could he have missed out ‘viscimetry’?
I like this book; a warm-hearted pilgrimage around the Hebridean distilleries.
Charlie almost disowned this because the publishers cut so much, and edited it badly, but it’s still pretty good.
Ian Banks, Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003)
Opinionated – i.e. the wrong opinions, but full of passion and personal insights.
Andrew Jefford, Peat Smoke and Spirit, A portrait of Islay and its whiskies (2004)
A myopic love-letter to Islay. Beautifully written.
All whiskies, but as you would expect, very good on Scotch, with some new things to say about history and an irreverent guide to hoe it should be drunk.
You’re currently writing a book about the history of Johnnie Walker. What books do you have on your desk?
As a matter of fact, my desk is a bit of a mess, currently cluttered with Johnnie Walker flotsam and jetsam that I keep on buying at auction. But somewhere underneath that you might find these:
Numerous reprints. Much possessed, rarely properly read. I can’t think that a week goes by without be turning to Alf, the first whisky hack, for information or inspiration, or both.
Alfred Barnard, How to Blend Scotch Whisky (c.1904)
Commissioned by Mackie & Co, reprinted a few years ago and sold at the Islay Museum. A great read – possibly dictated by Peter Mackie, and much better than some of his other puffery pamphlets. Some really interesting stuff if you look carefully.
Recently reprinted. More technical stuff on distilling than one would really ever want or need. His chapter on ‘What is Whisky’, which was heavily plagiarised by Aeneas MacDonald (below) flys the flag for the interests of the ‘Highland Distillers’ against the blenders.
Aeneas Macdonald, Whisky, (1930)
Recently reprinted with a rather pompous introduction by Ian Buxton, this is a must-read book about Scotch. But beware, the author, George Malcolm Thompson – once described as ‘the most hated man in Scotland’ – was an extreme nationalist, crypto-fascist and racist. Oh, and a plagiarist too. Don’t look for many facts here. And don’t believe a word of it. The book is an undisguised polemic – which is why it’s such fun – from the first, but sadly not the last, whisky snob.
Recently reprinted in a new edition. Both colleagues at Glasgow, I worked very closely with Professor Moss. The book’s a bit patchy, but it is by far and away the best history there is, and they do try and contextualise what is happening as the Scotch industry develops, which most of the others don’t. A very useful Gazetteer of distilleries in Scotland.
Charles Craig, The Scotch Whisky Industry Record, (1994)
Written, or rather edited, by a former Invergordon MD , this rag-bag of facts is rather indispensable if you want to get quick information about companies or distilleries, or basic industry statistics.
Nicholas Morgan and Michael Moss, ‘The Marking of Scotch Whisky – An Historical Perspective’, in Tedlow & Jones (eds) The Rise of Mass marketing (1993)
What can I say about the genius behind this short yet insightful essay on the marketing of Scotch?
Ronald Weir, The History of the Distillers Company, 1877-1939, Diversification and Growth in Whisky and Chemicals (1999)
A somewhat ‘dry as dust’ business/economic history, with very few jokes; a shame given that the author, the late Ron Weir, was such a warm hearted and funny man. Nonetheless if you want to understand the whisky business today it’s a book you must read, and for me an essential reference tool, which is why it’s almost always on my desk.
I think it was C L R James who never said, ‘What do they know of Scotch who only Scotch know?’ Is there any wider reading about Scottish history that you would recommend?
Yes, one of the weaknesses of many of the books I’ve listed is that there is a lack of real historical context, either in Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom, or the world. So if you want to make sense of Scotch in the context of what else was going on in Scotland then these three quite different books are a good place to start. To be honest, despite his painfully ingrained pessimism, I would recommend anything written by Professor Devine.
Tom Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700 to 2007 (2012)
T C Smout, A Century of the Scottish People 1830–1950 (1986)
Christopher Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Twentieth-century Scotland (1981)
Dr Nicholas Morgan is currently working on a major research project for the bicentenary of John Walker & Sons in 2020.