People

Literary Spirit (Iain Banks)

Top author Iain Banks couldn't believe his luck when he was asked to write a book on Scotland's distilleries. He tells Dominic Roskrow about his year drinking whisky.
By Dominic Roskrow
When Iain Banks was approached about writing his new book, it was, to coin a phrase, an offer he simply couldn’t refuse.His agent wanted to know if the author of such landmark novels as The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road was interested in touring Scotland by a number of different modes of transport and visiting as many of the country’s distilleries as he possibly could. “I just wish I’d thought of the idea for myself,” he says now, just days after approving the final pages.“It was put to me that while there wasn’t enough room in the market for a whisky book about tasting there might be room for something a bit more idiosyncratic. They wanted a Scottish writer and my name came up because I liked a drop of whisky. That was how it was put to me. I mean they might have approached Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin first, but that’s not what they told me.“It was too good an opportunity to miss. My brief was to get to as many distilleries as possible using trains, planes, ferries and even motorbikes as well as cars, and to give an overview of Scottish malt whisky and the social aspects of drinking it. The plan was to get to as many far flung distilleries as possible.”Over the years Banks has grown to love whisky with a passion, favouring Islay malts and in particular the big three in the south of the island. But he had spent only a limited time visiting distilleries, so researching this book was to be a revelation.“Like so many men in my generation I was introduced to whisky at a young age. You know the sort of thing – your relatives thrust a glass in to your hands at Hogmanay and say ‘have a wee taste of that’ and you spit it straight out and wonder what’s going on with adults.“There wasn’t much malt around back then but over the years I came across it and it started to replace Johnnie Walker Black Label as my favourite. My interest in whisky grew from there.“But until the idea for this book came along I had only visited two distilleries – Ardbeg and Highland Park – and both of those by default really. I went to Ardbeg because I went to Islay to a mini book reading convention and one of the group was married to the distillery manager, and
to Highland Park because a relative of my wife lives in the Orkneys.”And so it was that in March of this year Banks set out with friends and relatives to taste whisky across Scotland. The resulting book – called Raw Spirit – is published at the start of November and is flagged with the catch-line ‘One man. One hundred distilleries. No contest.’At the time of our interview only one unedited chapter was available, but it reveals Banks in affable, genial and rambling mood, randomly flitting from descriptions of the whisky he is tasting to observations on its production and history, to recollections from his past.In just a few short pages he has dealt with Château Musar, wildlife on Islay, and Chinese curries (the dark yellow sort that you eat with greasy chips.)Then there’s the lengthy section on the advantages and disadvantages of the customised Land Rover Defender:“Of all the things on the road you don’t want to walk out in front of, a tooled-up Defender must figure pretty near the top of the list. The first thing you’ll hit – no let me correct that, the first thing that will hit you – is an industrial-looking winch capable of hauling five tonnes or so attached with extreme rigidity to a beefed up bumper you could hang a lifeboat off which is in turn bolted to an exceptionally sturdy ladder chassis which is attached to everything else.“There is no give there, anywhere.”And there’s a more sombre side to the meanderings, too. The description of the ferry from Gourock to Dunoon, reflecting its demise and recalling the days when the pier was the gateway for holidaymakers heading up the West coast, is poignant.There’s an anger here too. Banks set out on his travels just as the war started on Iraq and his passionate opposition to the conflict – the book starts with he and his wife cutting up their passports and delivering them to No 10 as an antiwar protest – oozes from the pages.“I’m an old-fashioned leftie, and proud of it,” he says. “Perhaps a champagne socialist. Or a vintage malt one. You can’t write about whisky and ignore the politics because they are so closely linked. There has always been a political side to whisky, in particular with regard to taxes.“And setting out with all that was happening in Iraq meant that that had to be a part of the book.”You get the sense, too, that he is rekindling a love affair with his homeland and the blood that courses through it. You can almost see him pinching himself in disbelief as it dawns on him that six months in the land of malt whisky is considered work.“I got a lot of offers of help when I first told people what I was going to do,” he says. “But getting in a car and driving around Scotland reminded me just how wonderful driving around Scotland can be.“I love the country and getting out to the furthest parts of it is such a contrast from the standard view of Great Britain overall being so overcrowded.’For Banks the journey was not only to be one of discovery, but was to take him back to some of his favourite whiskies.“I have always loved Macallan and Highland Park, but when you get close to whisky perhaps you take some of these whiskies for granted. Talisker’s another one. I used to really love it but perhaps because it is part of the Classic Malts range and you see it in so many places it loses
some of its special qualities.“But when you drink it again you realise what an exceptional and powerful drink it is.”For Banks the experience of drinking whisky in the place where it came from was very much part of the whole experience of Raw Spirit. He recalls an experience with Ardbeg.“Definitely it felt like the best whisky I’ve ever tasted in my life,” he says. “It had been drawn from a fino sherry cask and it was still cloudy with bits floating in it and we were at the cask with the sun streaming in through the warehouse door.“I would love to know what that whisky tasted like in an impersonal hotel in the centre of London with the traffic thundering by. I suspect it would be still stunning but on a perfect day on Islay that certainly seemed to be the case.“Others talk about standing on the end of the pier at Bunnahabhain with a whisky in hand looking out to the Paps of Jura. Certainly the experience makes a difference. And of course the whole point is that the experience of drinking whisky is a subjective one. It’s all about experiences and what you like.”The early workings suggest that Raw Spirit is going to serve as a great advert for Scotland and its whiskies, but for Banks it provided a platform to express his views and feelings on not just whisky but a land and a people he totally adores.“A more gregarious person could perhaps have done more justice to the many characters I met,” he says. “Many of them could fill a book on their own. But I found myself regretting that there weren’t distilleries on the furthest of the Hebrides or more to the east. There were many distilleries that I didn’t visit but it was a great experience for me. This is the nearest I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography.”Banks has now got his feet back on the ground – he’s not going anywhere far without his passport – and is starting work on his next science fiction book. But is he likely to return to the field of whisky in the future?“I’m afraid I think I’ve pretty much done it now,” he says. “I can’t imagine they’ll let me do it again. But if they do, I know plenty of people who will be willing to help.”