Saturday, December 11, 2010

Book review - The World Atlas of Whisky by Dave Broom

Dave Broom's The World Atlas of Whisky is a beautiful book. The photographs are stunning. I spent my first 10 minutes with it just flipping from the Japan chapter's double page photo of Fuji's purple slopes, to the standing stone perched precariously in a lush Irish landscape, to the placid waters of a lowland Scottish lake.

An encyclopedic study of the entire whisky world is an awesome task. Dave Broom is one of the two or three people equipped to write this sort of tome, but what struck me as I read it it was how he had marshaled such a huge amount of factual material and yet maintained a light lyricism in his writing. It is like bagging all the Munros wearing carpet slippers.

As a specialist writer about Japanese whisky, I recognise in myself a niggling temptation to pick at other people's work on the subject. It is extraordinarily small-minded but the dream book to review for a man such as I is one that I can praise to the hilt but can still find a tiny error in, to reassert my puny sovereignty: "Yes, I see you have done the Munros in your carpet slippers, but did you notice you left the price tag on the sole?"

I searched in vain in the Atlas for such an opening. Believe me, I read the Japan chapter from beginning to end several times, and was not only unable to find any small errors of detail, but also none of the cultural pratfalls that it is quite common to read in foreigners' writing about Japan. Broom is no stranger to the country, but in this respect his work reminds me of the late Michael Jackson's. I read Jackson's books and am amazed that a person who did not live over here could get the tone so right, avoiding all the errors of emphasis that seem to plague other writers. Broom, like Jackson, is relaxed enough in his writing not to eschew cultural commentary and references, but his research appears to be strong enough to keep his footing sure. Add to that Broom's intimidating grasp of whisky in general and you get the sort of confidence that can pen sentences like:
"If Scottish single malt is a rushing mountain burn, all the flavors jostling for position, Japanese malt is a limpid pool where all is revealed."
Japan gabblers of my stripe sharpen our knives and sneers for such generalisations, but there is a beauty and lyricism in Broom's writing, and a truth in what he says, that disarms me completely. I learned something on every page of the Atlas's chapter on Japan. By way of fuller illustration, the paragraph from which the sentence above was taken is worth quoting in full:
"Japanese whisky isn't necessarily lighter, but it possesses a clarity of aroma that singles it out. Its absence of a cereal background note also differentiates it from Scotch, as does the use of the intensely aromatic Japanese oak. If Scottish single malt is a rushing mountain burn, all the flavors jostling for position, Japanese malt is a limpid pool where all is revealed."
That sort of passage may look easy enough to write. It is not. It requires an absolutely secure understanding not only of one part of the whisky world, but of its entire extent. Broom has that, and, in the few areas where he is not completely sure of his ground, he has had the good sense to look to others that do. The Canadian and Central Europe sections, for instance, were written with the expert help of Davin de Kergommeaux and Bernhard Schafer, respectively, and both are really enlightening reads. I also found the "Flavor Camp" classifications and the lists at the back of the book extremely useful, allowing the reader to cross-reference, for instance, "fruity and spicy" or "smoky and peaty" whiskies from across the world.

This has been a unrelentingly glowing review, and I suppose that very positivity might provoke a suspicion in some readers' minds about its objectivity. I will admit that the whisky writers' world is small enough to make it difficult to write very negative reviews, but what I tend to do is not to review works that are not excellent. Broom's book is excellent.


Mark said...

What a well-written review; I shall certainly be adding this to my Christmas list. Do you know how much airtime the book gives to Japan and other parts of the world?

Nonjatta said...

There is a really sizeable chunk of the book - about 100 pages - devoted to distilleries outside Scotland. Japan gets 17 pages and the USA gets a really good breakdown with separate sections devoted to Kentucky, Tennessee and other states. As I think I said in the review, the Canada section is v. interesting as is the 29 page rest of the world section. The map of just how many whisky distilleries there are in Europe really struck me, as did the whole India and the Far East section.

AshDLS said...

Great review, just bought a copy online, looking forward to reading it!

Dramtastic - not sure how much it'll cost from Amazon along with shipping, but I found a (new) copy on eBay for $40 including shipping.