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A Highlander and his Books
A Chat with Ian Buxton


Regarding WHISKY by Aeneas MacDonald
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA, email: jurascot@earthlink.net

The book cover on the little epistle entitled Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald says, “Ian Buxton is a former Marketing Director for Glenmorangie. Author of Whisky: History, Hints, & Tips and co-author of The Whisky Companion, he writes regularly for Whisky Magazine (UK) and Fine Expressions (UK) among other titles.” It is a joy and an honor to welcome this whisky authority to the “chat” pages of A Highlander and His Books.

A good friend of mine, Dave McDaniel, is the “official” barkeep for our meetings of the St. Andrew’s Society of Atlanta. He spoke highly of the book titled Whisky and presented me with a copy. I was so impressed with it and your 24 pages of “An Appreciation” regarding the book, I wanted to review the book and “chat” with you about it since Aeneas MacDonald died in 1996.

Q: This book on whisky was written in 1930 by George Malcolm Thomson, a Scot, naturally, who was born in Leith, and he adopted the pseudonym of Aeneas MacDonald for the book. Most of us are familiar with Sir Walter Scott’s use of the phrase “The author of Waverley” instead of his real name because of his duties in the court system. Why would Thomson do so? Is there a parallel to Scott in his decision? Tell us about the name Aeneas MacDonald and the part that name played in the history of Scotland.

A:  Thomson, who had already published under his own name, used a pseudonym for two reasons: firstly, his mother was a confirmed abstainer from all alcoholic drink and he didn’t wish to embarrass her; secondly, the book was published by the Porpoise Press of Edinburgh, which he had established, and he didn’t want people to think that it existed simply to publish his work! Both quite unusual, but very honourable, reasons when you think about it.

        The original Aeneas MacDonald was one of the famous “seven men of Moidart” – the Jacobites who came with Bonnie Prince Charlie to start the ’45. MacDonald was the banker to the Jacobite army. He survived and eventually returned to Paris, though not before being tried for treason and condemned to death. Thompson was a confirmed Nationalist and wanted a name from Scottish history.

Q: Seventy-seven years is a long time for any book to be still found on shelves for sale, especially a book entitled Whisky which would appeal to a smaller audience than say a best selling author. Many best selling authors today will probably not be remembered 77 years from now. What do you attribute this success and longevity to?

A:  Well, to be truthful, the book was largely forgotten, except amongst a tiny group of whisky enthusiasts; whisky book collectors and several writers about whisky. I like to think we realized its significance as a wonderful piece of writing and the first book about whisky written for the drinker, as opposed to the industry. There was a small but passionate debate about the author’s identity and that set me to wondering if I could find out and bring the book back to life.

        It has an appeal today due to the growth of interest in single malt Scotch, which makes it very relevant to a new audience. It also happens to be very well written and satisfying in its own terms.

        Ironically, the reprint has already sold more copies than the first edition. If you can find one, snap it up – they’re very collectable.

Q: You are acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost authorities on whisky, and I have found your articles interesting and stimulating. What led you into this field of work and into writing about whiskey?

A:  I don’t know about being a “foremost authority”. I like to think of myself as an “amateur of whisky” in the Holmesian sense of an “amateur detective”! Anyway, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the articles (I just wish they paid better).

        I started writing about whisky a few years ago as an offshoot from my consultancy work in the distilling industry and because I was arrogant enough to think I had something distinctive to say. One or two publications liked the work and it grew from there.

Q: It is evident you have a deep appreciation for Aeneas MacDonald, a graduate of Edinburgh University. What is there about the man who authored “over twenty books” and his writings that impacted your life and impressed you so much?

A:  It’s really just Whisky. I was very struck by the passion and poetry of that book and its continued relevance.

Q: Are there any of his other books you would recommend to our viewers? If so, please list two or three.

A:  Sadly most of his other work hasn’t aged too well, though his accounts of the economic condition of Scotland in the 1920s and 30s are valuable social documents. It’s out of print (like all his other work) but if you can get Scotland – That Distressed Area, it’s a vivid account of Scotland at that time.

Q: MacDonald’s book was first published in 1930. Why was it important for Canongate Books in Edinburgh to republish in 2006?

A:  Canongate are in many ways the spiritual successor to the original publishers, Porpoise Press of Edinburgh (who closed just before the War). Based in Scotland, Canongate have an enviable reputation for the quality of their writers and whilst not in any way being insular or parochial in their approach, they seek to stimulate great writing (and publishing) from an Edinburgh base.

Q: On the title page, we find a youngster sitting atop a wooden cask with a glass of whisky in each hand. What, briefly, is the story behind this drawing?

A:  This is a reproduction from the first edition. I like to think he is one of the angels who take the angel’s share of maturing whisk. In homage to the book, the picture has been used by Loch Fyne Whiskies (visit their excellent website) for their “Living Cask” bottling.

Q: My ancestors came from the Isle of Jura in the mid 1750s and settled near the Cape Fear River in what is now Bladen County, NC. I noticed on the “Key to Map of Distilleries” that the Jura distillery was not listed. Why is this? I have visited the wonderful wee island and toured the distillery where the single malt Jura is made. What do you know about Jura single malt that you can share with us in a few lines?

A:  The map is correct: Jura isn’t shown as a distillery because the original distillery there had long been closed and demolished by 1930! The present distillery wasn’t built until 1963 and originally existed as a ‘packing malt’ for blends owned by the Mackinlay company.

        The whisky from the present-day distillery was originally made in a generic Speyside style (not the heavily peated style that the island location might lead one to anticipate). However, it has changed hands many times since it was built – not least, last week when it was sold as part of Whyte & Mackay to United Spirits of India – and now it is producing a wider range of single malts which are quite widely available.

Q: Can you give us an interpretation of “acqua vitae”, “uis gebeatha”, and “usquebaugh” in regards to whisky”?

A:  “Aqua vitae” is the Latin and “usquebaugh” (various spellings) the Gaelic for “water of life”.

Q:  I read somewhere, and failed to note the source, that Sir Walter Scott had an extensive wine and whisky cellar. Do you know if it is true that at one time his cellar consisted of 350 dozen bottles of wine and thirty-six bottles of spirits? I wish I had footnoted the source since it would be a good quote. Have you ever run across that reference?

A:  Sorry – don’t know this. Sounds as if it could be true though. Is it in Saintsbury “Notes from a Cellar Book”?

Q: MacDonald writes about Robert Burns on pages 40-41 in his book. What is your opinion of the cause of death of the National Bard in light of what has been written about him by his first biographers and what is generally accepted today?

A:  Sorry, don’t have the faintest idea!

Q: Where does the name “Dionysos Bromios” come from and what is its meaning for today’s world?

A:  DIONYSOS was the Greek god of wine, wilderness and vegetation. I found the following explanation of “bromios” on the web.

      BRO’MIUS (Bromios), a surname of Dionysus, which some explain by saying, that he was born during a storm of thunder and lightning (Diod. Iv. 5; Dion Chrys. Or.27); others derive it from the nymph Brome, or from the noise of the Bacchantic processions, whence the verb bromeazesthai, to rage like a Bacchant (Ov. Met. Iv. 11; Orph. Lith. Xviii. 77). There is also a mythical personage of this name (Apollod. Ii. 1 S5).  

        I like the reference to supporters of Bacchus!

        This is typical of Thomson – flowery, poetical and calling up ancient authorities to support his argument. I’m not sure it means very much to today’s audience however, the study of Greek mythology having been largely abandoned. Thomson was writing for a educated elite who would have appreciated the classical allusions.

Q:  With Scotch now made in many countries around the world, what is the percentage made by the top five Scotch producers and what percentage is consumed by the top five consumers?

A:  Well, of course, “Scotch” is only made in Scotland but you’re right, lots of countries make fine whisky. I think the Scotch Whisky Association have some interesting statistics on their excellent web site at www.scotch-whisky.org.uk

        So far as blended Scotch whisky goes, the market is dominated by Diageo (Johnnie Walker, J&B) and Pernod Ricard (Chivas Regal, Ballantines). Smaller independent companies have a better share of single malt.

Q:  I was intrigued by the section on one being his own “blender”. How widespread is this practice, do you do it, and would you explain it to our readers?

 A:  I don’t think it’s at all widespread, though it should be. Ideally, you can blend your own whisky in an oak cask (a ‘quarter cask’ is ideal if you can get one) but it takes up a lot of space, is expensive and you might not like the results! I ‘blend’ odd ends of bottles in a giant bottle that I have and keep experimenting. It doesn’t age any further and there’s no wood effect, but it’s fun. Watch out that you don’t put too much Islay in there – it’s very pervasive.

Q: Thank you for your promptness and courtesies in assisting me with this wonderful wee book on whisky. Is there something else you can share with us regarding anything about whisky – a closing word, a story, an incident, or a favorite quote? A last word from you to our readers would be appreciated.

A:  Thank you.  I always enjoy the (alleged) last words of Humphrey Bogart: “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

        As for stories, during an incident on November 3, 1953, Dylan Thomas returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York and exclaimed “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think this is a record”. He then collapsed and subsequently died. 

(FRS: 6-5-07)


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