"Whisky" by Aeneas MacDonald was published in 1930. It was by no means a large book, and when it was first published by Porpoise Press it appeared in a print run of just 1,600 copies. Yet despite this, it is often said to be one of the best books (indeed, in the eyes of many, THE best book) ever written about whisky. Anyone trying to work out the truth of this very large claim for themselves has been faced with a problem. The book has been very hard to get hold of, even in the form of editions published later in the 1930s in the UK and USA, or as a facsimile in 2006.
Edinburgh-based publishers Birlinn are to be congratulated in resolving the problem. They have produced a highly attractive new edition of the book which is also very reasonably priced for a hardback. Aeneas MacDonald's text is prefaced by an extensive introduction and commentary by renowned whisky expert Ian Buxton; is illustrated (for the first time) by a series of photographs and drawings, many of the latter contemporary with the original publication date of the book; and is illuminated with extensive footnotes on most pages by Ian Buxton which help set Aeneas MacDonald's original comments in context and bring them up to date.
The result is an absolute triumph, and a book that can be enjoyed in a number of different ways. Perhaps most importantly, the easy availability of a book that is so highly-rated by so many means that it can at last be read and enjoyed by those of us who have never before laid our hands on a copy. Read in this way, Aeneas MacDonald's original text emerges as a superbly-written celebration of whisky, produced at a time when the future course (and even health) of the industry was in some doubt. He starts with "The Nature of Whisky", before moving on to a longer chapter covering "History". He then looks at "Making and Blending" and "Geography", before concluding with a shorter section on "Judging, Purchase and Care". Read this way, do we think it's the best book ever written on the subject? Well we can certainly see why some might think it is.
The addition of Ian Buxton's introduction, commentary and footnotes allows the book to be read in an entirely different way: as a means of comparing the state of the whisky industry (and of whisky itself) in 1930 and today. At this level the result is a truly fascinating book. Many, many books have been written about whisky since Aeneas MacDonald (actually, author and journalist George Thompson, who chose to write this one book under this pen name) first sat down at his typewriter. It is nice to be able to conclude, thanks to the efforts of Birlinn and of Ian Buxton, that one of the first books on the subject remains one of the best.