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Book Review – Andrew Jefford: Peat Smoke and Spirit

by Oliver Klimek on June 13, 2010

A portrait of Islay and its whiskies by renowned drinks journalist Andrew Jefford


When I was on Islay this May, I wanted to experience the Island with as little bias as possible, so I did not spend much time preparing for my journey apart from the obvious “survival” problems like accommodation or getting around without a car.

But as soon as I returned home I bought this book that had already been recommended to me by several people.

As the subtitle states, it is a portrait of Islay and its whiskies. And because Islay really is more than just a bunch of distilleries on a pile of peat sticking out of the Irish Sea, only about a third of the book (150 of 400 pages in the paperback version) deals with whisky.

The book begins with a thorough explanation of how whisky is made. It is a sad fact that many general drinks writers with no special expertise in whisky make mistakes when the try to explain whisky knowledge. But in this book all the facts are spot on, well researched and very detailled as well.

Descriptions of the distilleries in alphabetical order – called glasses – and chapters about Islay in general are taking turns. You learn a lot about the geology, geography and wildlife of Islay, but a major focus of the book is on telling the rich and enormously interesting history of the Island, form the Dark Ages over the highland clearances to Islay’s role in the two World Wars.

And also the whisky chapters have a strong emphasis on the history of the distilleries. They are full of interesting tidbits that even hardcore fans of Islaywhisky might not have heard yet.

Throughout the book it becomes obvious that Jefford did not only study history books at libraries, but he actually talked to a lot of Ileachs who told him their stories. So he was fortunate enough to interview Norrie Campbell, the last remaining traditional pat cutter on Islay, who told that he didn’t only cut peat but also used to run a discotheque for 20 years. Would you believe it?

The strength of the book lies in the fact that is is a neutral, unbiased report of someone that has no connection to Islay or the whisky industry other than his personal interest in the subject. Needless to say that this book is a must have for anyone who is interested in Islay and/or Islay whisky. The only point I could critizise are frequent references to later chapters ( “more on that in chapter X”) that can get a little annoying. But this does not keep me from strongly recommending this book to you.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Thomas W August 30, 2010 at 7:22 pm

I agree, this is arguably the best book available capturing life on Islay. A truly great, passionate (an overused term, I know) book. Cheap (6 Pounds at Amazon), but highly recommended!!

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