A good read

A good read

Ian Buxton peruses the library for some of the finest whisky books

Whisky & Culture | 01 Jun 2007 | Issue 64 | By Ian Buxton

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How would you like a whisky investment that you can enjoy, display in your home, share with friends and which, however often you use it, will never wear out? And, as a special bonus, will almost certainly go up in value over the long term?It sounds appealing. You’ve probably worked out that it’s not a collectable bottle.Open your precious vintage malt and the collectable value is gone faster than you can drink the dram you’ve just poured.For that reason collectable bottles tantalise us: we can savour the anticipation of opening them but, once opened, drinking the contents is all that’s left to us. So here’s a better idea: collect whisky books.They look good and, provided you are careful with handling, can be enjoyed and still retain their value. In fact, they’ll proved to be a worthwhile investment and retain a historical interest for the true enthusiast.Most collectable whisky books are in English and were published before 1950.Books about Scotch whisky written from a consumer perspective really begin in 1930 with the publication of Aeneas Macdonald’s Whisky (of which more later).Prior to this, however, there are a number of titles published for a trade audience or for the purposes of political lobbying.An early and important title is George Smith’s The Practical Distiller Or, a Brief Treatise of Practical Distillation published in 1718 by Bernard Lintot.Period editions are very hard to find and expensive but collectors may be satisfied by the handsome facsimile reprint (2002) by the Greenwood Publishing Company of Elgin in an edition of 1,000 copies.Through the eighteenth century there were a number of publications aimed at either increasing or decreasing rates of duty on the Highland and Lowland distillers, depending upon the author’s point of view, such as Edgar Corrie’s Letters on the subject of the Scotch Distillery Laws (1796) or George Skene Smith’s State of Facts, relative to the Scotch Distillery (1798).Turning to America, one of the most collectable early whisky related titles is William Findley’s History of the Insurrection published in Philadelphia in 1796. This relates the struggle of the farm distillers of the four western counties of Pennsylvania against central government taxation in the famous Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and, as well as appealing to whisky enthusiasts, is an important piece of Americana dating from the early days of the republic.As such, copies are keenly demanded and command £500 or more for a copy in good condition.All of the above are hard to obtain and survive only in limited quantities, making them highly desirable to collectors. However, they are not the ‘Holy Grail’ for the whisky enthusiast.This distinction belongs to a great Victorian work, Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom published by Harper’s Wine & Spirit Gazette in 1887 (four English whisky distillers survived then).Barnard’s weekly reports were issued by Harper’s in both cloth and leather bindings but remained essentially an obscure trade reference work for many years. By the late 1980s however collectors had begun to appreciate the importance of the title and prices had risen to £300 for the cloth and into four figures for the leather binding.Today, if ever offered a copy, purchase it immediately, without regard to condition, the chance will not come again. A cloth bound copy changed hands last year for £2,500.Barnard subsequently capitalised on his reputation by writing a series of short promotional pamphlets for various distillers.Five are known, and all are desperately rare.Several ‘gaugers’ or Excise Officers committed their stories to print. Important amongst these is Joseph Pacy’s The Reminiscences of a Gauger (1873) with accounts of working in Campbeltown and at Royal Brackla distillery.Fast forward to 1914 when Ian MacDonald’s slim volume Smuggling in the Highlands was issued, a handsomely produced book in embossed blue linen covers, with a number of charming, if not entirely original, illustrations.MacDonald was a retired Customs officer and much exercised with the “deplorable state of matters” associated with illegal distilling. He writes sternly of “demoralization, destitution and recklessness – families, houses and crofts neglected – moral and physical stamina impaired”.This title is now hard to find and essential to any good library on whisky. Expect to pay £100 or more for an example in good condition, though it can also be found in an edition without illustrations, which is less desirable.Both the above titles have been issued in handsome facsimiles, available on line from www.classicexpressions.com Look out for Sir Walter Gilbey’s Notes on Alcohol a slim volume issued in 1904, extolling the virtues of the pot still. Describing direct firing, he writes: “It imparts to the Spirit the character known as empyreumatic, which is easily recognised in the product of the Pot Still and which is quite absent in Spirit produced by the Patent Still.” Given the recession suffered by the industry in the 1920’s and 30’s there is little of interest to the collector from this period.Three titles stand out however: two distillery histories and Aeneas MacDonald’s Whisky.Perhaps the most famous single malt distillery is The Glenlivet. Its story has often been told but in 1924 the company issued its own version in Glenlivet – Where Romance and Business Meet by George Smith.A nicely produced 32 page volume in brown mock leather covers with gold embossing, this first edition is now scarce.Even more sought after is another distillery title, this time from a distillery as obscure as The Glenlivet is famous – North British.In 1935 the distillery issued a lavishly illustrated 50th anniversary volume.Titled North British 1885 – 1935 this fascinating and invaluable record of distilling from a dark period in the industry’s history is of particular interest to whisky enthusiasts.It is now widely acknowledged Whisky was the first book about whisky from the drinker’s perspective and clearly written with expert knowledge – yet ‘Aeneas MacDonald’ is a pseudonym, and the writer’s identity revealed only last year as George Malcolm Thomson (1899 – 1996) joint founder of the Porpoise Press and noted author and journalist.I was privileged to provide the introduction to Canongate’s excellent facsimile edition of this title, published last year.There was a single US edition (1934), which is relatively easy to find, but what is very rare is the pre-publication ‘Briefcase Breviary’ – an advance reading sampler for the American edition, issued in 1930.This was a slim hardback with vibrant black and yellow covers, on high quality laid paper signed (using his nom de plume) by the author, his partner Christopher Morley and the two American publishers Frank Henry and Daniel Longwell.Considered to be amongst the finest whisky books ever written it extols the virtues of single malt over blends, some 40-50 years ahead of the market and the distillers!If you could acquire just a few of the titles above you would have the basis of an excellent whisky library, a fine reference collection and a sound long-term investment.Good hunting!
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