Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks, represents the satisfying combination of travelling with a purpose – searching for the perfect dram of the title. Along the way Banks covers anecdotes, travelogue, scenic descriptions, Gulf War, politics, modes of transport and, of course, the perfect dram. Described contrastingly as ‘Bill Bryson on speed’ or ‘like slipping into a warm bath’, make your own mind up after reading.
The late and much lamented author and Fifer Iain Banks or Iain M Banks, depending in which genre he was writing, was undoubtedly one of the greats of contemporary Scottish literature. His debut novel The Wasp Factory was both brilliant and bizarre and the first of his heavyweight (in every sense) sci-fi series was Consider Phlebus, introducing a society known as the ‘Culture’. Nevertheless, for me his finest reading is in Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, a travelogue with a mission. A flavour of the tale, actual and metaphorical, can be adduced by some of the titles from the contents page: Exploding Custard Factories, Fear and Loathing in Glenlivet, The Smell of a Full Scottish Breakfast in the Morning, Just the Whole Gantry, Then.
Not just a travelogue, Raw Spirit is also a political and social history of the times in which it was written (2003). And an adventure with a satisfying cast of characters: lively and opinionated freebooters and freeloaders to a man and woman utilising a disparate convey of vehicles to seek the unique distillery that will produce the perfect dram. Perhaps a mission impossible but producing edifying gems of erudition – such as the definition of a dram as ‘a measure of whisky that is pleasing to both guest and host’, according to Willy from the Isle of Jura distillery. Nor does Banks opt out of his task: he does determine what to his taste is the perfectly created whisky. No spoiler here – you will have to sup it and see. This is a story of a quest for perfection, the Holy Grail or rather temporal quaich of the ‘Uisge Beatha’. An impossible dream, perhaps, but the perfect companion to dip into while savouring your very own perfect dram, which for me is always the one that I happen to have in my glass.Review by Library Member