Whisky & Culture

Whisky's muse

Robin Laing is whisky's muse.He's recorded three CDs of whisky songs and has just completed a quite excellent book on Speyside,called The Whisky River. Dominic Roskrow spoke to him
By Dominic Roskrow
Typical. You wait years for some new Robin Laing whisky product, and then two come along at once.And the arrival of a new whisky compact disc and a new whisky book come complete with rather a large dollop of irony. For just as the 55 year old musician is starting to look for a quieter life he’s produced arguably his finest works yet – works almost certain to raise his profile across the whisky world yet further and make even greater demands on his time.The CD’s called One For The Road and it’s reviewed in full following this interview. The book, called The Whisky River, is delightful guide to the distilleries of Speyside. Robin didn’t plan to produce either of them in their current form, but they meandered their way through time like a tributary of the Spey before taking on a momentum of their own.“The CD is the third one I’ve done containing just whisky songs,” he says. “The first one, The Angel’s Share, was recorded very quickly to meet what I saw as a gap in the market because there wasn’t a collection of whisky songs and visitors to the distilleries would ask for one.And with the second one, The Water of Life four years ago, I thought I had pretty much emptied the barrel of whisky songs.“But I found I was still writing whisky songs and also more of them started falling out of the sky. In one example Rory’s Still I first heard when I was in a folk club in Northumberland. In another case there was a singer supporting me in Coventry and she had written Full Moon Whisky.“It has never been recorded before. On another occasion I met an American guitarist who had been living in Germany called Mark Wise and we got talking about whisky and he said he had a whisky song. I asked him what it was called and he said ‘Battle of Gin.’ I thought ‘uh-uh’ but it was a whisky song and that had never been recorded before it went on the album.“It just seemed to come together like that.” The Whisky River took years rather than months to complete and started off as a guide to Highland distilleries as a tourist project.Slowly, though it evolved into a comprehensive stroll through Speyside, and it may well be the first in a series that will eventually cover the whole of Scotland.It’s a truly wonderful book. Dividing Speyside into eight sub-regions and therefore giving the region a more thorough and logical context than most other books. The Whisky River is a delightful mix of history, anecdote, humour, poetry and song, all delivered over 205 bustling, compact and compulsive pages.It combines Scottish folk, culture, history and product into one neat package and encapsulates perfectly Robin’s love of whisky, his enthusiasm for the land that produces it, and his pride of being Scottish.“I am passionate about whisky,” he says.“Part of that is because malt whisky is such an amazing drink, and part of it is because malt whisky is the one thing that Scotland can argue it does better than anyone else in the world. We must celebrate that, and that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s also the one surviving traditional industry left apart from agriculture. Shipping, fishing, steel, coal, heavy industry, it’s all gone.“Whisky making is still going strong. This shouldn’t be a dry subject and it needs to be seen in its context. If you look back at what Barnard did he always talked about industrial heritage. He understood that whisky was about energy and poetry. I haven’t tried to recreate Barnard but I did use him as a sort of guide and his book was a major influence on this.” Robin, became a full time singer and songwriter some 10 years ago. He had found himself at senior management level for Scotland’s biggest health charity and was faced with making people redundant.“I reached the top of the ladder and found I was up against the wrong wall,” he says. “So I decided to take the plunge and start life as a penniless musician.” Ten years on, he plans to spend more time at home and to spend less time travelling as a musician and more as a writer. So The Whisky River and the CD One more For The Road may well present him with a dilemma. I suspect that both projects will see him more in demand than ever.* The Whisky River, priced £12.99, is published by Luath Publishing (www.luath.co.uk) .One For The Road is Robin Laing’s third whisky album and easily his best.Rocky McCabe gives his view...If you want proof as to what a mature, cosmopolitan and measured singer and songwriter Robin Laing has become there are two whopping great clues in the first four tracks of his new album.Three of them, all penned by Scotland’s self- styled whisky bard, view whisk(e)y from a global perspective, and in particular an American one, and in so doing seamlessly transform Laing in to a singer with true international appeal.The fourth, called The Sun’s Going Over The Hill, is sung from a female perspective and is wistful and wonderful.It’s not the only track on the album on which Laing will sing a song written by a woman and sung from a female perspective – there are two other tracks later on – but it is the album highlight and it is, quite simply, a world class song by any standards.The tale of how a woman turns to whisky to remind her of the taste of her partner when he kissed her, it is a tragic lament that pulls no punches.“He kissed me each evening and told me he’d die for me; full of whisky and irony, he always meant what he said,” our victim of love and loss sings, and then: “Some say you get what you deserve but they’re wrong; you get what you’re given and then it’s all gone; And man you are lucky if you are sufficiently strong to daily decide not to die.” Truly magnificent, The Sun’s Coming Over The Hill isn’t matched elsewhere, but that’s not to say it isn’t in pretty outstanding company. Indeed, there are some gems here.Not all, admittedly. Opener World of Whisky, originally commissioned by this magazine as an anthem for Whisky Live events around the world, is a harmless dose of celebratory fun but is as disposable as my daughter’s nappies. Elijah Craig quicksteps on the line labelled ‘twee’ and only just stops itself falling over it; and We Can’t Let Al Qaeda Get Their Hands On This, based on the story of American security forces spying on Bruichladdich, unintentionally calls to mind an unsavoury slur that you occasionally hear about Muslims and alcohol.Elsewhere, though, Laing has pulled together some great songs of his own and selected a batch of covers wisely. On pretty much every track, and with a sympathetic and uncluttered but full production behind him, he shows off his voice in some style.Three of his own songs are out and out gems: A’Bunadh, a love song to the world-class Aberlour whisky, complete with the line ‘like the words of a poet who that’s long been dead, you’re swimming and swimming around in my head’, Uisquebaugh Baul, another refernce to Bruichladdich, and Reaching Home, the finest Laing song here and inspired by Bowmore, are all impressive records of whisky history.Laing’s other song, Speyside Whisky Song, is a reel through the region’s distilleries and is pretty standard jiggy fayre but is none the worse for that and will go down a storm when played live. It should also provide the perfect marketing device to promote Laing’s new book, The Whisky River.On the covers included here, Laing excels time and time again. Bottle Of Gin, a whisky song in disguise and written by Mark Wise, an American citizen domiciled in Germany, is a rock shuffle, Rory’s Still addresses the subject of illicit distilling in the North of England, and Everything I Love is a country ballad that Laing heard when driving through the States.Best of all though are the female-written songs, the aforementioned The Sun’s Coming Over The Hill, The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter, which I included on my whisky compilation CD in the last issue, and Full Moon Whisky, which Laing heardin a folk club near Coventry when its composer Tegwen Roberts performed it while supporting Laing.Of the three songs written by women, Roberts’ composition is the most warming and uplifting, and a fitting way to close a remarkable album.On One For The Road Laing isn’t just using the international arena for inspiration, he’s addressing it directly. He’s produced an album that deserves an international platform.Laing’s made a stunner. This is world class and deserves to be heard from Banff to Bardstown.