Book Search or Book Surge?

That's the question!
By Hans Offringa
Looking at the explosion of whisky publications, online as well as in print, it seems that over the past two decades more books on the topic have been published than in the previous two centuries.

Thanks to technological developments such as publishing and printing on demand, it is even possible to bring back old and forgotten masterpieces in brand new facsimile editions. Neil Wilson and Ian Buxton, both prolific authors themselves, pioneered this with some fine whisky books like the quintessential The Manufacture of Whisky and Plain Spirit by J. A. Nettleton, originally published in 1913, and Aeneas MacDonald's 1930 little gem Whisky. For the true bibliophile, nothing beats the original, and signed first editions are the 'examples par excellence' among these books.

The fun starts with the search, either online or in nooks and crannies of stuffy old second hand book stores, flea markets and the like. It pays to spend time in these shops. In Charleston, South Carolina, I once found an original first edition of Notes on a Cellar Book by George Saintsbury, complete with dust jacket. When I casually asked the price, the proprietor mumbled, "Nine dollars." I couldn't believe my ears, my jaw dropped; body language the employee misinterpreted, apologising with, "Well, if that's too much, you can have it for seven instead." Book and money changed hands immediately and I celebrated the day. Saintsbury's book from 1920 is considered one of the first, if not the first, that has actual whisky tasting notes in it.

Such finds are rare, although it happened to me one more time in Seattle, in a funky bookstore downtown, on a forgotten shelf, where I found Ralph Steadman's hilarious Still Life with Bottle for a mere $15, brand new in hardcover.

Probably the most famous whisky book and the first of its kind is Alfred Barnard's The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, published in 1887. It's a kind of Domesday book on distilleries and a beautiful time capsule. Thanks to Barnard we know so much about things going on at the distilleries in the late Victorian age. You can still find original copies for prices between £800 and £1,200, depending on the condition. For those who wish a more affordable copy, there is a well produced facsimile publication retailing at about £50.

Other noteworthy books from the first half of the 20th Century are Whisky and Scotland (1935) from Scottish author Neil Gunn, of Silver Darlings fame and Scotch (1951) by spy, author, politician, journalist and ambassador Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart.

The second half of the 20th Century started off with some firsts. Anatomy of the Whisky Business (1965) by Frank Kane describes the first 30 years of rebuilding the American whiskey industry after repeal. A first on whisky and food might be the humorously written Whisky in the Kitchen by Emanuel and Madeline Greenberg (1968). David Dachies' 1969 Scotch Whisky should not be overlooked. The first Dutch (forgive me) whisky book to appear was Whisky by Fred Steneker, published around 1978.

The 1980s mark a slow growth in titles beginning with the 1981 The Making of Scotch Whisky by Moss & Hume, written to commemorate the centenary of Bruichladdich. This book is fairly easy to get for a reasonable price. Wallace Milroy of Milroy of Soho's fame was the first to present a Malt Whisky Almanac, in 1985. There is a nice little story attached to it that Wallace told me once in the old Quaich Bar in the Craigellachie Hotel.

He had phoned Michael Jackson and asked if the latter would join him as co-author of the book. Michael replied he didn't have time. He first had to finish a book on beer!

Two years later Michael would present his first whisky tome The World Guide to Whisky and in 1989 the first edition of The Malt Whisky Companion hit the shelves. Four more editions would follow until his untimely death in 2007.

Charles Maclean was already a published author when he debuted with his first whisky book in 1992, titled Scotch Whisky. Gavin D. Smith followed in 1993 with Whisky - A Book of Words. Gary Regan entered the scene in 1995 with the excellent tome The Book of Bourbon, which he co-wrote with his spouse. 1997 was the year that Helen Arthur published The Single Malt Whisky Companion, the first comprehensive book written about the subject by a female author. That same year Jim Murray's first whisky book appeared, The Complete Guide to Whisky. (His first Whisky Bible was not published until 2003/4).

In 1998 both Dave Broom with Whisky, a Connoisseurs Guide and myself, with The Craigellachie Collection of Scotch Whisky Labels, debuted in the realm of whisky literature, coinciding with the launch of Whisky Magazine. Martine Nouet joined the ranks in 1999 with the beautiful book Les Routes du Malt, which unfortunately never had an English edition. In this coffee-table-style publication she pioneered the concept of food and whisky pairing. Phillip Hills, one of the founders of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, had already published a whisky book in the 1990s, but his 2000 Appreciating Whisky is more well-known and worth buying.

The 21st Century has seen many, many whisky books, not all of them digestible. Without wanting to discredit other very fine authors, and given the limited space, two interesting publications in the new millennium need to be mentioned. In 2002 David Wishart published the first edition of Whisky Classified, in which he presented an accessible tasting and scoring method, combining it with software on a CD-rom. The English editions are reasonably priced. The Dutch first edition is much sought after. The other publication is the much lauded Malt Whisky Yearbook, by Swedish author and whisky connoisseur Ingvar Ronde, celebrating its 10th edition in 2015. First editions are rare and expensive.

The same might happen to recent books written by the new wave of young talented authors, the likes of Neil Ridley, Joel Harrison and Heather Greene, to name a few. Start collecting them now - while they are still affordable!


An excellent source for finding and purchasing whisky books is Prices may vary greatly based on book condition. Here are a few examples and indicators:

The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom

By Alfred Barnard
From £50 (facsimile reprint) to £1,200 (mint condition, first edition).

Whisky & Scotland

By Neil Gunn
From £2 (cheap reprint, second-hand) to £30 (quality reprint); A first edition is very hard to find.


By Aeneas Macdonald
From £32 (second-hand, reprint) to £130 for a first edition.

Still Life with Bottle

By Ralph Steadman
From £20 (second-hand) to £51 (new) - both hardback.

Appreciating Whisky

By Phillip Hills
From £84 (second-hand, paperback) to £138 (new, paperback). A hardback is extremely hard to find.

Malt Whisky Yearbook 2007 (second edition)

Used, for £188.