He starts with a fair degree of enthusiasm with the Islay malts such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin but something soon becomes very apparent. Writing a book about 100 odd distilieries and keeping it interesting is going to be pretty difficult since i) books of whisky tasting notes are already widely available and make for poor cover to cover reading, ii) the visitor centres/tours of distilleries are pretty generic and iii) whisky itself, while wide ranging in flavour is pretty damn similar in the production process. It would be too much to say that if you’ve seen one distillery you’ve seen them all but once you’re past ten, you can probably stand down.
Accordingly the book veers away from what you think you’re going to be reading – a book on whisky – and becomes a somewhat self indulgent collection of anecdotes of Ian Banks drinking with his mates. We’re introduced to ‘Dave’ and ‘Jim’ and Ian Banks in turn becomes ‘Banksie’ as we are inducted into the group. The trouble is, most tales of things you do with your mates when drunk are funny only to you and your mates and putting it down in even half decent prose for a wider audience is not enough to salvage it unless you’re a drunk with the wit of Dudley Moore’s Arthur.
About half way through the book we get this piece of dialogue;
‘This could be your best book ever, Banksie,’ Dave says.
‘Na,’ I tell him. ‘It could just be rubbish.’
Dave pauses for a moment. ‘Yeah, but it could be your best book ever, Banksie.’
The dialogue ends there, Banksie doesn’t answer because he’s already said what he’s probably come to realise. I wondered why he should have included this piece in the book in the first place but it too is a joke. The joke though is never on him because he’s the one getting paid to write the book and the one getting paid to drink.
What’s sad is that where he could have filled the pages with the stories of the distilleries and the people and the traditions, in this book, Banksie is at the centre of every story but he’s not a comic writer and the stories fall flat. There’s the time when Banksie said ‘lake’ instead of ‘Loch’ and Jim threatened to tell everyone that Banksie had ‘been down South for too long’. We learn too of the time at a hotel where Jim, having ordered a bottle of wine and some glasses from room service, drops them causing a general commotion. Banksie tells us that ‘all of this sounds hilarious from the bathroom; I start laughing quietly to myself and I’m still giggling when the night porter arrives with the brush and pan and replacement glass.’ Yeah, I broke a glass last night too, it was crazy.
What’s more is that even for a major and popular distillery like Talisker, there is less than a page and a half dedicated to the place, and that’s a lot more space than most get. With many getting no air time at all, with 100 distilleries, there can be no more than 70 of the 360 pages of this book actually dedicated to the subject matter. There are commentaries on the Gulf war, most of Scotland’s roads (he doesn’t like the A9 but the B974 is brilliant apparently) and extensive descriptions of his Freelander, BMW M5 and other cars.
I have no doubt that Dave and Jim will love this book, and if you’re a huge Iain Banks fan and want to know what it’s like hanging out with Banksie for a few weeks, this probably comes a close second to the real thing. Personally, I’d rather get car reviews from Top Gear and comedy from Ricky Gervais. As for picking up anything about the whisky industry, if you’re interested enough to even consider reading a 360 page book on whisky then you're probably already pretty clued up on the basics and this book will not deliver much more. I put the book down when two thirds of the way through calling time on this particular road trip for I think I’ll sip my bedtime dram alone tonight having had all I can take of Dave’s, Jim’s and Banksie’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ antics. If only they were that funny.