(This review was first published in The Herald Arts Magazine, August 2017.)
In her debut book Chasing the Dram, Lenzie-born McCormack, who spent most of her twenties cooking in Catalan and recently returned to live in Scotland from London for a second time, resolves to drag whisky kicking and screaming into the 21st century by demanding to know why Scottish women don’t drink it and why, despite it being the national drink for 500 years, Scotland lacks any tradition of cooking with it. This despite the fact that the GMB union estimates that 120,000 jobs UK-wide are connected with whisky production and export, and that Scots account for 20% of UK consumption (“for every dram and English or Welsh person has, someone in Scotland has two”).
“Whisky drinking is very much a man’s tradition thanks mainly to the temperance movement,” she writes, citing historian Tom Devine’s premise that its only success was to stop women drinking in pubs, which then simply turned them into drinking men’s dens. Glasgow’s famous whisky bars have rubbish food, yet whisky can enhance a curry much better than wine. Her recipe for venison biryani, to be served with a glass of Johnnie Walker with ice and soda, proves her point.
Taking a determinedly West of Scotland working-class approach, with some excruciating observations about Glaswegian women’s bent for wearing leopardskin in pubs, she sets off to convince several whisky-resistant female friends (as well as her dad), that whisky is good to drink on its own and with food. Always taking public transport to meet the “ordinary” folk and those working the distilleries in each of Scotland’s five producing areas (many of them young women), she spends much time in bus shelters and train stations, all the while delivering informative and quirky detail on whisky production, history and how to cook with it.
As a listener to BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, where she is a regular panellist, I can attest to McCormack’s ability to write exactly as she speaks: articulately, cogently, and almost non-stop. Her prose flows as easily as a river in spate, often gushing into tangents before returning to the subject in hand. Some of it is very funny, and much of it is political.
By contrast, the American author Bonnie MacBird prefers to peddle the romantic myth of the ancient Highland distillery run by burly men whose holy grail is the launch of a priceless malt that will gain the Royal Warrant. Kilts, crumbling draughty castles, attractive kitchen maids, much droit du seigneur, cut crystal decanters, drams and terrifying ghosts make this late 19th-century yarn most implausible but I found myself riveted by it. I would not be surprised to see it optioned as a film ere long.
The Hollywood screenwriter and producer is a lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan, and this is her second Sherlock novel in a trilogy for HarperCollins (though the only one about whisky). She relates her addictive tale, which is set in the South of France, Edinburgh and rural Aberdeenshire, in the convincing style of her hero Conan Doyle, and with the help of the whisky expert Charles MacLean also imparts useful information about Scotch whisky production, with some extremely atmospheric descriptions.
Holmes being the epitome of the 19th century British establishment – he and his sidekick Dr Watson operate on the orders of his brother Mycroft, a high heid yin of the British Government at Westminster - it stands to reason that his milieu is a socially divided Scotland whose land-owning ruling class is in awe of British monarchy, social status and the superiority of malt (the new-fangled “self whisky”) over blended. Here, it transpires the young Sherlock briefly attended Fettes College (alma mater of James Bond and the model for Hogwarts) when it was a Foundation school for poor boys, who were forced to bathe in ice-cold water every morning for their own good. It is also where he met his life-long nemesis.
Most fascinating is where the two books meet. Macbird’s fictional plot pivots on the very real phylloxera disaster of the mid-19th century, when the invasive plant parasite devastated, she says, 75% of French vineyards - and opened up international expansion opportunities for the nascent Scotch malt whisky industry. In Unquiet Spirits the Scots are “laying siege to London clubs and restaurants, aggressively promoting their ‘uisge beatha’ as the new social drink and the fact that brandy, cognac and wine have grown costly and scare has helped them enormously”, according to Mycroft. He sends Sherlock to investigate suspicions the McLarens sabotaged the vines to their own benefit ahead of the launch of their prized 21 year old McLaren Garnet, and tried to stop the French government finding a solution by issuing death threats to its leading viticultural scientist. MacBird’s descriptions of the imbibing of Champagne and brandy are both subtly playful and heavily loaded.
McCormack goes one step further. She says that by 1875 almost 40% of vineyards in France had been wiped out by phylloxera and that no cure has yet been found. Even today, she writes, the legacy of phylloxera can be seen in France, which consumes more Scotch whisky in a month than cognac in a year, and now has a nascent French whisky-making industry.
MacBird’s McLarens of Braedern Castle are fixated on malt, and the laird asserts that “water is one of the secrets of our whisky … originating in the mountains up yonder, passing through rock and bramble, peat fields an rich earth, acquiring its unique Highland flavour” but McCormack claims that whisky doesn’t have a terroir: the process of fermentation and distillation and the cask that stores the whisky afterwards are far more important than the softness of the water or the provenance of the barley. There is concordat later, when the importance of the cask and the treatment of its interior, and a lengthy description of the distillation process, are emphasised later on in the novel.
McCormack emphasises the significance of grain-based blends versus malts, stating that “about 90 per cent of [whisky] writing is about malt whisky, but 90 per cent of what is drunk around the globe is a blend” and that the reason her readers may have heard of a “tiny wee country at the northern part of Britain you previously thought was England is because of blended whisky”. That is, a mixture of malt whisky made in pot stills with malted barley and grain whisky made from corn, wheat or rye in continuous stills (in Scotland, almost all grain whisky is made from wheat). Between them, Scotland’s eight grain distilleries, based in the Central Belt, produce more spirit than the over 100 malt distilleries in the rest of Scotland.
She concludes that the reason other European countries continue to cook with their national drink (in Spain, old recipes don’t discriminate between brandy or wine; in French Normandy, Calvados is often added to dishes, and so on) is that poorer Scots couldn’t afford to cook with whisky following the tax levy on malt and whisky after the 1707 Union of Crowns. Meanwhile, the rich in Scotland - the landed gentry - were either absent landlords who thus failed to create any kind of culinary culture, or were influenced by the London season and French cuisine. “Old Scottish cookbooks have dishes with claret, brandy or sweet sherry in them; never whisky,” she notes. She may take some comfort in the news that at Braedern Castle, French brandy is consumed only for medicinal purposes, and the drinking of champagne is proscribed.
Consumed individually, each book is satisfying in its own way. Taken together, they make a powerful blend.
· Chasing the Dram, by Rachel McCormack, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99.
· Unquiet Spirits, by Bonnie MacBird, is published by HarperCollins on July 27, 2017, at £14.99.