I made it a goal at the start of 2013 to read more whisky books. Whether that was more technical ones (Appreciating Whisky by Pip Hills, for instance) or more narrative ones (Peat Smoke And Spirit by Andrew Jefford) I wanted to get my brain fully on the whisky train.
A few months back I came across a book that really stood out for the fact it combined both an effective narrative style with a lot of lessons and in-depth explorations of life that all revolved around the theme of whisky.
The book – Distilling Rob: Manly Lies & Whisky Truths, by Rob Gard – had been on my radar since it came out mid-this year and, knowing Rob virtually (over Twitter and through the writings on his website) I had a feeling I would really enjoy it. And that I did.
As background, the story takes on two angles: one is about Rob’s reflections on his life, and what he has come to know about himself and what he doesn’t yet know; the other is about his experiences working at Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, which he heads to for a break from his high-flying life as a newspaper editor and consultant in Los Angeles.
What is most striking about this book is the raw honesty with which he tells his tales. Rob’s life in LA was not necessarily a vice-free one (god, who would have one living in that city) and he tells his tales of the intensities of working in such a place, of the people he meets, the mistakes he makes and the regrets he has, with such pure, unadulterated straight-up narrative style that you instantly feel connected to him as both an author and fellow human.
This is contrasted, therefore, to the beauty with which he relates the life he escapes to on Islay – the quiet, the solitude that it provides that is, at times, equally as scary for someone who is so used to being connected at all times. Can he survive a place that is so defiantly different to his life ‘back home’ and, if so, what will it all do to him? If not, what will it mean for his humanity?
Interwoven into all of this are the facts that one would normally find in a whisky book – information about distilling and the distillery, about casks and warehouses and the characters he meets that form such a solid foundation of the whisky industry. It is, therefore, a whisky book but one that is about so much more than just the liquid that ends up in our glasses.
For me, this book really hit home because I identified with so many points raised in it. Rob was desperate to escape his roots in the small, working-class town of Beloit, Wisconsin, much the same as I was to flee the tiny farming community in the middle of nowhere in Canada where I was raised. He headed to LA for this after time at local newspapers, while I ran first to Toronto and then to London after working on weekly and then daily papers. I was drawn by the bright lights, big city ethos of London, desperate to ‘prove’ that I could make it in a city of millions, rather than stay floundering in a village of less than 100. It is only now, after 10 years in major metropolises, that I long for the quiet that I was once so desperate to escape from. Scotland is that for me, my slice of peace (even if the quiet and often non-functioning mobile phone service does scare me when I’m there), and I fully related to Rob’s need to do the same in this book.
And I’m confident I am not at all alone on this.
What I think makes this book so special is the fact there will be so many other people that relate to his tales, that can see a little slice of themselves in his stories and experiences. He examines the human condition in our ever-faster paced life with aplomb, looks into his past with dignity, and dishes out his beliefs without ever being prescriptive. Importantly, he doesn’t necessarily come to any final, major decisions; he doesn’t find all the answers but – if he had – the book would have been far less effective.
Rob managed to get this book to press through crowd-funding site Kickstarter and I can only say thank you to all those who supported him in the early days. It’s a fantastic book and I can’t recommend it enough. I laughed, I cried and I questioned myself and this world – three things that make a damn good read in my humble opinion.