16 September 2014

16/09/2014 Ian Buxton - 101 Legendary Whiskies You're Dying to Try But (Possibly) Never Will

This is not a tasting note, but a brief book review (I did try to chew the book, before you ask -- it has a cardboardy side to it).
A month ago almost to the day, Ian Buxton's latest opus hit the shops. I have not read the first two in the 101 series; take it as arrogance from my part if you will -- I did not think there was anything for me in them. This one, however, promised something a lot geekier, something for collectors, ghost hunters and, let us be honest, nerds. All boxes ticked, then.
Since it just came out and patience is not the my strongest point, I relied on the one review I gleaned from an Internet forum (pretty much a one-liner) and jumped in.

At 101 pages plus introduction and acknowledgements, it is hardly Tolstoy, which means it only took 24 hours to read (with pauses). And that, although I was fuming just flicking through the pages, at first. Read on, read on!

When I finished mopping the angry froth off my chin and started reading, my mood changed dramatically. Having never read anything of significant length by Ian Buxton prior (shoot the Old Man of Huy), I was pleased to find the writing style to be particularly apt for this sort of books where the intrigue is set and solved over the course of a page. It is humorous (tongue-in-cheek), occasionally sarcastic, remarkably astute, painfully incisive and very, very mischievous in a school-boy kind of way. Buxton holds no punches and though always seemly, appears quite pleased to insert a snide remark here and there, keeping his best snarks for those pundits in the industry who not only were/are unable to shake off the comfortable numbness of the status quo, but also impose(d) said status quo upon more innovative types.

I could not help but feel betrayed all the same. Many, many of the entries in this book are not legendary whiskies at all. Some are legends of the whisky world (people, references in literary works), historically important (and possibly overlooked) bottlings or events, or simply heavyweights who have, in the past, churned out legendary bottlings.
Cadenhead's? Gordon & MacPhail? Their contribution to the industry is noteworthy, sure. Is that a legendary whisky we cannot taste, though? No, it is not. Buxton even goes as far as giving examples of bottlings from those institutions that went on to become legendary... well, those seem like perfect candidates for this book to me, then. Given the title, I would have enjoyed an entry for the Longrow 1974 Authentic Collection 150th Anniversary. That would have been a good opportunity to talk a bit about the bottler, Cadenhead's. An entry about Cadenhead's and a mention of a couple of their bottlings is missing the point of the title, in my opinion. A shame, since other brands have up to six expressions on display. It does not seem to have been a question of space.

The writer gives a very clear disclaimer about the controversial content and justifies each entry of this book rather convincingly. I have to say I still do not agree. Yes, all those entries belong in one same book, being all building bricks of the whisky world as we know it today. No, they do not all belong in a book called 101 Legendary Whiskies You're Dying to Try But (Possibly) Never Will. Was Glenfiddich 12yo instrumental in the conquest of the world by single malt? Of course it was. Does it then qualify as a legend, worthy of the same title as Black Bowmore? Most certainly not.

All in all, it is a pleasant little book. I learnt a lot of things from it -- Mr Buxton is very, very good at unearthing obscure trivia and sharing personal anecdotes. Simply do not go in hoping to read tasting notes for 101 legendary whiskies, because you will not. It is a good book with a misleading title.

As a side note, there are a few typos, which is only understandable, but also a geographic error that is hard to forgive (so, Ian, Linlithgow is in Ireland, these days?)

Now, let us have a dram all the same. Old Orkney it is. Not the original, which has its own entry in the book, but the GMP tribute.

Old Orkney b.2011 (40%, GMP, AA/JAIB): nose: nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and mace (that is a yellow-fleshed nut, akin to nutmeg, if you are not familiar with it; it goes into garam masala, amongst others). This is pretty spicy indeed. After a moment, that all calms down to make room for sea air, iodine and salt... with a drop of cola. Salty cola? You got it. Mouth: gentle and soft, custardy, even. The salty side is still there, however, and pleasant it is too. Lovely balance, if the whole is not too complex. Finish: it gets rather maritime, now, with sea spray, algae, kelp and wet sand, yet also pipe tobacco. Think Belinda Carlisle meets Captain Iglo (if Captain Iglo ever smoked a pipe, which seems in character). Is that toffee too? Probably Fisherman's Friend -- the soft sort that does not obliterate your mouth.
Obviously, I will never know how the original Old Orkney tasted. Having said that, this is a great effort by GMP. And to reward your attention, here are a picture of the old Stromness distillery site (who produced the original Old Orkney) and a song by Ms. Carlisle.



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