We recall reading, back in the 80s or 90s, a book whose subtitle was "An Illustrated Guide to the Hebridean Malt Whisky Distilleries". It was republished in updated form with a new title and subtitle in the early years of the current millennium. Both books were (and still are) wonderful, and both still grace the shelf in our library devoted to books about whisky. When we first saw "Whiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland's Island Distilleries" by Ian Buxton, we assumed that what we'd be reading was something similar, but updated to take account of the many changes in recent years, and in particular the significant number of new distilleries that have come into production across Scotland's islands.
Up to a point, perhaps, but Ian Buxton's take on Scotland's island distilleries is a very personal one and, while there is a collection of photographs inserted within the book, it is anything but an illustrated guide. Perhaps as a result it took us a little time to get round to delving between the covers. When we did, it very quickly became obvious that here was a book written by a man with a deep love for, and a truly vast knowledge of, the industry in which he has spent most of his life; and still better, a man who could wrap that love and that knowledge up in a package that was readable and highly enjoyable. And hugely informative. The result is a book that shares one important characteristic with the earlier books on island distilleries referred to above: it is a book which, though very much of its moment, is assured of lasting value and will find a permanent home on our bookshelves.
The author sets the scene in his introduction: "So I set off with the loosely-defined hope that I might discover what Scotland's island distilleries are really all about... In the process, what emerged was an entirely impressionistic ramble through my memories of the islands going back some fifty years and my more recent experiences of Scotland's island distilleries. Some are more important than others, and may receive more space, but that will depend on my personal relationship with them and their island. It is, if you will, a highly personal, whisky-fuelled journey through these islands with frequent diversions on topics which happen to amuse, interest or divert me."
It is perhaps unfair to try to compare Ian Buxton's book with Neil Wilson's classic described above. In some ways a better starting point for comparison would be to think of Alfred Barnard, who toured every distillery in the British Isles in the 1880s, and produced a monumental account of his tour that remains of lasting value today, 130 years later. Blend Barnard's deep understanding of the industry of his day with some of the personal insight, local colour and disarming frankness exhibited by James Boswell or Samuel Johnson in their accounts of their 1773 travels of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and you get a slight sense of the pleasure that awaits when you sit down, perhaps with a glass of your favourite island whisky within reach, and start to read "Whiskies Galore".