Now, I love books, and I love whisky, but I haven’t come across many great whisky related books over the years. Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search Of The Perfect Dram is one, Tom Morton’s Spirit Of Adventure: Journey Beyond the Whisky Trails another. Michael Jackson (no, not that one) always writes well on the subject, last year saw the publication of Iain Hector Ross’s informative and entertaining The Whisky Dictionary, and for something a little different Doug Johnstone’s whisky driven novel Smokeheads will always do the trick.
To those we can safely add Rachel McCormack’s Chasing The Dram, which is a personal yet meticulous tale of her love affair with whisky as well as an examination of the people, places, rituals, rumours, and even recipes which go with it. McCormack believes that limiting whisky as just a drink does it a disservice, underselling its complexities. As someone who, in a previous life, cooked for a living this was fascinating to me. Over the years I can probably count on one hand the dishes in which I have incorporated whisky (whisky sauce, Cranachan, Christmas cake, tablet, and chocolate truffles are those which spring to mind). One of the many joys of Chasing The Dram is that it is part cookbook, and a fine one at that.
McCormack knows of which she writes. She is a well-regarded food writer who regularly appears as a panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and some of the recipes in the book are irresistible. From the mouth-watering Venison Biryani, through Lobster Loaves and Oysters with Whisky, Duck Stuffed with Prunes, and Roast Syringed Lamb, to Zabaglone with Arran Amarone Cask, and a Whisky Tiffin which I can attest is as delicious as it is simple to make, there are dishes described here which will change the way you view the relationship between whisky and food. I’ll certainly never have a port with cheese again when there’s an appropriate dram on offer.
But that is only part of the story. Introduced to whisky in purely medicinal hot toddies in her teenage years, McCormack was lucky enough to have a father who would use good Macallan, (as opposed to a slug of High Commissioner or similar), to cure what ails. Her relationship with her father could be said to mirror that of Scotland with whisky. Put simply, both are complicated, and McCormack doesn’t shy away from the personal, bringing family and friends into the book to help her put this obsession (and it does seem to be just that) into perspective as she is determined that other people should share in her passion. It is this combination which makes Chasing The Dram such a captivating read.
It’s a book which examines how Scotland’s national drink has come to define the past, present, and future of a nation which increasingly relies on a product it doesn’t really understand. McCormack travels the country to try to separate the fact from the fiction, and there is plenty of both. What raises Chasing The Dram over most food and drink books is the writing itself. McCormack is funny, engaging, irreverent, honest and insightful. She is not afraid to go against convention and take a pop at a sacred cow or two if she believes it is justified (although I do feel she is a little harsh on Walter Scott, but then I think I’m one of the few people who still read him).
It is a book for the whisky fanatic, (with a glossary of terms and, perhaps more importantly, the addresses of Scotland’s distilleries included). But it’s also a book for anyone interested in food and drink, and Scotland in general as McCormack casts a keen and critical eye on the country – through a glass, darkly at times. The result is one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I have read in ages. By the end you’ll be convinced that everything in life can be improved by the right whisky, and you’ll find no argument here. Slainte.