Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

Read “Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram” with a glass of whisky in one hand— be it neat or on the rocks— and a Scottish map in the other. With this book, Iain Banks explored non-fiction writing for the only time, having previously written mainstream fiction and science-fiction under a nom de plume of Iain M. Banks.

The Face Behind Non-fiction

Banks, at the very outset, states that he enjoys whisky on account of its sheer complexity. The process it goes through, right from the malting stage to that of ageing in barrels, makes it nothing less than a work of art. His honesty, however, does not reek of overconfidence. He maintains that he appreciates whisky for its taste and not the effect it produces. He does not disapprove of those who enjoy the hardest of all spirits for its tipsy aftereffect. Apparently, “two units a day” is good enough to get “out of your head”, albeit an “exclusive, legal, relatively expensive and pleasant” way at that.

The Man Who Loved to Travel

Writing, motor vehicles, his native land, and his recent love for whisky comprised Banks’ passions at the time of this non-fictional development. It all came together and provided a fitting setting as he drove all around the Scottish Highlands in search of the perfect dram. Initially, he was expected by his publisher to go around Scottish distilleries in search of the perfect malt, with a Glasgow cabbie in a black cab. Nevertheless, he went on a series of road trips on his extensive collection of motor vehicles and explored Scotland’s finest whiskies.

Other themes prevalent in the book include Banks’ whole-hearted disdain for George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. So much so that the core subject matter of the book seems unimportant at times while he delves into engrossing accounts of the same. Whisky, he recounts, has always been “up to its bottle neck” in politics. After a crop failure in 1579, the parliament in Scotland had banned distillation to protect food supplies. Then there’s always a disagreement between those nationals who claim that Scotch should be restricted within its national borders. (It is a matter of exclusive Scottish pride and large corporations manufacturing the spirit and earning profits by exploiting its potential.) Naturally, when he sees anti-war posters on the road while on his journey, he rants about the illegal Iraqi invasion as a major thematic point.

A Good Read

Raw Spirits is a perfect travel book. It is essentially an excursion around distilleries and an eye-opening account for those who love drinking occasionally but aren’t high on the trivia front. Banks is an honest admirer of single malts. You might just end up loving it too by the end of your read. His accounts are elaborate, his writing intense, and his jokes witty. He offers a lucid account of Scotland’s special drink and the variety it is available in. Each distillery, be it in Islay, the Highlands, or Speyside, has its own distinct offering.

You need not be a connoisseur to appreciate this engaging read on whiskey. Having written Wasp Factory, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Use of Weapons among others, one might really be impressed at Banks’ sheer brilliance of acing his only attempt at non-fiction. While whisky in literature has been explored time and again, whisky literature is still at a nascent stage. Under such circumstances, that Banks came up with this game-changing novel in 2003 makes you wish that he had lived longer, enough to pen warm and transparent pieces such as this on finding the perfect dram.

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