A book on whiskies, named ‘Whisky-- when you pick up this book to read, there are certain obvious expectations. ‘Whisky’ by George Thomson sets out to dismantle a few myths and reinvent a few old ones. Pour yourself a dram of your favourite poison and turn the pages of history-- you have just the book you need for company.
Why the pseudonym for a book that sells itself ?
When an author adopts a pseudonym, it could be a matter of personal fancy or driven by the choice of protecting his identity. In the case of George Thomson, it was the latter. Yet, why did he feel the compulsion to do so? The first thing about the book ‘Whisky’ ( first published in 1930 ) and its authorship is the puzzle around who wrote it. George Malcolm Thomson adopted the pseudonym of Aeneas MacDonald to write his book ‘Whisky’. The reasons for doing so are threefold. He hailed from a remarkably conservative Scottish family. Being fairly certain that his mother, a complete teetotaler, would be immeasurably appalled at his choice of subject, George Thomson decided to save her the knowledge of his literary pursuit. Can a good son live with disappointing his mother ? Clearly not, according to George Thomson !
The author also had other battles to fight. It was important for him to disassociate himself from the the negative publicity he had received for his earlier work-- ‘Caledonia, or the future of the Scots’. Upon being published in 1928, the book had made George Thomson the ‘best-hated man of Scotland’. It reflected the author’s racist views and his growing disillusionment with Scottish life. Though later he disavowed his former views, he did not care to be seen as writing on Scotch whiskies after having blatantly critiqued the Scots.
That his own publishing house, Porpoise Press, published his book was the third reason he why decided to adopt a pseudonym. It would seem inexcusably vain to promote his own book. The guise of the pseudonym supplied him with rational space required to dispense with his publishing functions.
Glory Be to Scotland’s ‘Water of Life’
Upon its publication, the book ushered in ‘Scotland’s whisky renaissance’ according to Ian Buxton. A tiny book, only 130 pages long, it offers a masterful insight into all that is right and all that is wrong with Scotch whisky. From deriding indiscriminate drinkers who drink to get drunk to fake drink-snobs who think they know it all-- anyone who sullies the noble spirit was taken to task. To drink without appreciation or indulge in label-snobbery were aspects of modern living to be named and shamed. Market whiskies move in tandem with the commerce of trade, according to the author. It had precious little to do with the essence of the Highlands. Whisky itself was a metaphor for the wider condition of Scotland in this book. The older whisky producers and antique spirit-smugglers were true to their craft. The book decries the lack of ‘transparency’. Blended whiskies are mentioned by George Thomson, as is the urgent need for them to become more honest drinks. In an attempt to opening the reader’s eyes to judging whisky by more classic parameters, the author nudges us on to allow a dram to speak for itself. Whisky labelling and dissected-to-death information readily available are sneered at. ‘Grain whisky’ is dismissed as a ‘tasteless... industrial spirit’ by the author. The American bourbon receives no better treatment from him. A Scotch whisky, truly worthy of its name is malted barley distilled in pots, by the book.
Why Scotch over others ?
With a list of its qualities, the author pens an ode to whisky. Essentially, it is an ode to Scotland-- of its moody moors and craggy shores, quiet glens and windy highlands, its peat bogs and single malts. In poetic prose, George Thomson creates images of the land he loves and the drink he savours most. Eloquent to the point of being lyrical, the author re-tells the history of Scotch whisky. In this book, the author’s rage against the tide of times is translated into prose that has both depth and heart. For the essence of the Scottish Highlands, nothing but the best of Single Malts will cut the mark. This is where the book excels-- where the content and form make a marriage of sorts, a happy and long-lived one. With short sections on making and blending Scotland’s ‘Water of Life’, the book is also a handy beginner’s guide for anyone interested in reading up more. Single Malts are now more easily available than at the time the book was first published. Not to be dismissed after a cursory read, ‘Whisky’ offers more. A classic, it is a must-read on the craft of whisky-making.