Raw Spirit – Iain Banks

20180911 Raw Spirit

‘Hiya Banksie! Written any good books lately?’
‘Not if you believe certain critics, but I’m going to be writing one about whisky.’
‘A book about whisky?’
‘Yeah, malt whisky.’
‘You’re kidding!’
‘Not as such.’
‘This mean you’re going to have to do the “R” word?’
‘The “R” word? Oh! Research? Yeah basically. Goin to have to drive round Scotland, take trains, ferries, planes and such, go to distilleries, taste whiskies, that sort of -‘
‘And they’re going to pay you for this?’
‘They’ve already started.’
‘Right I see. D’you need a hand?’

So begins Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of a Perfect Dram and those people familiar only with Iain M Banks the gritty science fiction writer or his even grittier ‘normal’ fiction written as Iain Banks are in for a surprise as this is a genuinely funny book interspersed with rants about the Second Iraq war which had just started as he set of in search of the “R” word. As a fan of both Banks and whisky, purchasing this book when it came out did not take much consideration and I recently pulled it back off the shelves as later this year I’m doing my own trip round some distilleries and like Banks I’m starting with Islay.

Rereading the book was a surprise, my 14 year old memory of what was covered is clearly faulty, yes there is whisky aplenty and distilleries also get pretty good coverage but a large part of the book is really about Banks’ love affair with Scotland and its “Great Wee Roads” or GWRs as they are referred to throughout. There is a lot more said about getting to the distilleries (both the roads and vehicle chosen to make the journey) than there is covering them or their production. There is also a considerable amount of reminiscences of past holidays, fun times in out of the way properties and time spent with old friends. The book is really as close as we ever got to an autobiography by Banks who sadly died in 2013 from cancer aged just 59. If you want a book about whisky then you are really better off with Michael Jackson’s definitive tome, but if you want a book about the joy of travelling around Scotland looking for whiskies and the friendships and fellowships that it can engender then this is for you.

Let’s take a random chapter and breakdown the coverage of each subject, “12: Porridge and Scottishness, Football and Fireworks” has a total of 20 and a bit pages:

  • Porridge, why he doesn’t like it and other Scottish institutions such as kilts – 2½ pages
  • Six distilleries visited and their whiskies – 7 pages
  • Memories of Monty Python (he was an extra in one of the films)  – 1 page
  • Memories of blowing things up (fireworks with mates) – 4½ pages
  • Travelling – 1 page
  • The joys and tribulations of following Morton Football Club – 4 and a bit pages

That seems to be a pretty average hit rate for the theoretical subject of the book, although the travelling to whisky ration is normally higher than that, at least after you get past chapter one where Banks does stick more closely to his brief. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, I very much did so, it’s an easy read and you want to follow Banks around the country as he enjoys the scenery, samples whisky and chats with old mates. You feel by the end that the Raw Spirit of the title is more the spirit of Scottishness rather than Scotch and it’s good fun.

As a final note my copy is the first edition hardback printed by Century in 2003, that also appears to be the only Century edition as by 2004 it was a paperback with a completely different cover published by Arrow. Both of these are imprints of Penguin Random House.