Reviewing Andrew Jefford’s Peat Smoke & Spirit

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If it is a book on whiskies you wish to read, to be the perfect companion to your favourite stiff dram, Andrew Jefford has just the book for you. A noted wine-writer, the author Andrew Jefford forayed into the world of whiskies and came up with this marvel of a read. His offering - ‘Peat Smoke & Spirit’ is a must-read for all whisky-enthusiasts.

Research is Key

‘Peat Smoke & Spirit’ was published in 2004. Prior to its publication, the author spent two years carrying out intensive and extensive research on the Isle of Inlay, its distilleries, the culture and geography of the place. The text is also peppered with citations of historical incidents which have impacted the course of its development. You will learn of the many shipwrecks which occured along the coasts of Inlay as well as of the ancient instances of illegal manufacturing practiced in the region, of life during the Dark Ages to the role of the island in the two World Wars, of stories of betrayal to acts of heroism. History comes alive in this hefty volume.

Yet, the book does not read like a dull deposit of bone-dry facts. It is a not record-keeper of times gone by. Rather, it boasts of a sense of urgency and immediacy by narrating life on the Isles of Inlay as remembered by those visit it or as experienced by those who inhabit it.

People make the Place

Reconstructed lovingly by the author with a fine eye for details, the book offers readers an anecdotal substratum of history. The past comes alive through the prism of collective imaginings and the tales of splendour. If you have visited the islands, you have met the characters described in the book. They are a charmed lot - the denizens of Inlay who bring the island alive. Meet Norrie Campbell, a traditional peat-cutter on Inlay. The author interviews him and we learn that this local not only made his livelihood out of cutting peat, he also ran a discotheque on the island for twenty years! With a sense of fierce pride in their inherited past and the peculiar eccentricities which contour their present, with unpretentious acknowledgment of their historical space and their difficult relationship with the geographical definitions of their location, the people of Inlay are portrayed in ‘Peat Smoke & Spirit’ with great precision and compassion.

Tales of Topography

These intimate stories find place next to descriptions of the local topography. The landscape, its vegetation and animal life - all the delicate threads of the narrative, the history and geography of Inlay are intertwined to weave the story of whisky. The distillery manager’s sitting room windows have been described as ’sticky with brine’. The walls of the warehouse are seen to be ‘flayed with kelp’. The author uses word-images to describe the landscape - its sea and its craggy coast, its bleak weather and grey skies, its whisky and its peat, its people and their histories.

What about the Whisky?

The book covers the spectrum of malt whiskies. It is structured in a manner where a chapter on the history of the island alternates with a chapter on local distilleries. There were seven distilleries in production when the author visited the Inlay of Isles. The flavours have been studied and dissected in the book - of each whisky which hails from this region. Readers have been invited to arrive at a nuanced understanding of the differences between them. The author uses sixty-five different parameters by which to judge your dram. From the weight of the mash to the capacities of  stills, the influence of conditions to essential whisky information - the book is all-comprehensive. Yet, it does not come across to have any surreptitious design of being pedantic but is a highly educative read. Abigail Bosanko, in ‘Scotland on Sunday’ ( a Scottish newspaper published on Sundays from Edinburgh ) praises the book as ‘part travelogue, part adventure story, part history and all whisky’ - not an inaccurate summation of ‘Peat Smoke & Spirit’.

The author also encourages us to reconsider the wisdom of judging a whisky just by its equipment or the skill of its still-men, the quality of its wood and the process of aging. Andrew Jefford suggests that the quality and variety of barley used to make malt whiskies is also an important, if not the foremost consideration. Much as ‘terroir’ lends a sense of place to wines of the world factoring in the influence of soil conditions and climate on the growth of vines, the author suggests that the same principles apply to barley. ‘Malt whisky and place’ are inextricably linked suggests the book. The Isle of Inlay is a place of distinguished distilleries, with no other like it in the world. This book by Andrew Jefford celebrates just that.

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