In Raw Spirit (2003), Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks to science fiction readers) and his friends journey in search of the perfect dram.
It would not be wise to approach this book for an overview of Scotch, how it’s made, and how to drink it. One part stunt memoir, one part travelogue, and one part wide ranging digressions, Raw Spirit is really held together by Banks’ love of Scotch and of hanging around with his buddies. In essence, this means that they tour around Scotland in fast cars, they travel to midge-infested islands to look at distilleries, and, generally speaking, eat until they’re stuffed and drink until they’re loaded. There’s a section of recommended books for further reading, the table of contents is quite detailed, but there is no index.
Banks clearly reveres everything to do with whisky, except for when he doesn’t. He writes, for example, that:
real purists will tell you that nosing a whisky and tasting it are quite different things, and require different glasses. This, I submit, is taking things too far for us civilians. Frankly, a fine malt taken from an old enamel tea mug will taste ten times better than an indifferent blend sipped genteelly from the most carefully designed whisky glass.
He admires the big flavour of Islay malts, he argues that Balvenie is perhaps the most underrated of the widely known whiskies, and he feels that Macallan is good value at every age and price point. My favourite parts of his exploration were his conclusion on how adaptable Scotch is and his search for Peat Reak, Scotch made from a private still. In comparison to Irish whisky, for example, Scottish homebrew seems almost impossible to find. In short, this is a fun, mostly aimless, adventure for Banks, and readers get to join in as they read along.
For sober readers of the CULTURE novels, Raw Spirit’s allure will rest in how candidly Banks shares details of his life. To be honest, I learned more than I wanted to. Written and published in 2003, Banks documents his opposition to the American invasion of Iraq, noting as his travels continue that the Americans have yet to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Most entries go something like this:
We watch the continuing war on TV. Still no nukes turning up, still no biological agents, still no chemical weapons.
At times, however, Banks will express sharper rants about Bush and Blair. There are also anecdotes about climbing up buildings at science fiction conventions, digressions about (not American) football, and detailed descriptions of lochs. One of his friends, it turns out, is creating a board game, the rules of which are outlined in hazy detail. I did not enjoy every one of these digressions. Banks describes himself as a “petrol-head” and is enthusiastic about burning fuel in fancy cars, including Porches, BMWs, and Jaguars — who cares? These digressions make Raw Spirit seem unduly long, but perhaps it’s wrong to disapprove of authorial indulgence in a book about wandering around Scotland to drink whisky.
This is not an authorial memoir, and there is very little about writing or Banks’ writing process. Still, the good stuff pops up here and there. Banks identifies the writers that he is most often mistaken for. He identifies the questions asked of authors that he finds most annoyingly cliché (though he ironically provides interesting, unique anecdotes in response to both questions). He explains that he nearly adopted Macallan as a penname when he began publishing science fiction.
Raw Spirit is not a comprehensive and well-organized overview of Scotland’s single malts, nor is it likely to make the list of the five Banks works everyone must read. Nevertheless, enthusiastic CULTURE readers will learn a lot about him from this work. I mostly read it, however, as an introduction to Scotch, as my father enjoys drinking whisky and I thought developing a little insight into whisky would be a good way to bond with him. As a relative novice, I can say that I learned a lot from this book.