Interview with whisky author Gavin D Smith
Gavin D Smith lives on the Fife coast in Scotland, and is a freelance journalist and author, specialising in writing about horse racing, beer and whisky. He is the author of a dozen books, including six whisky-related titles.
How did your whisky journey begin?
My father’s family was from the far north of Scotland and I had an interest in Scottish social history from quite an early age. Around 1980 I began to sample the relatively small selection of single malts to be found in some Scottish bars and became fascinated by the fact that each one was different and reflected, to an extent, the place where it was made. I began to visit distilleries and fix their whiskies within specific landscapes.
What inspired you to write the guide?
Principally it was because I saw a gap in the market for such a book. There was nothing in print that provided a comprehensive guide for the distillery visitor in one volume. I thought if we could produce an attractive and highly informative book for a reasonable price it would be of genuine use for ‘whisky tourists,’ without them having to spend as fortune on a selection of different volumes. Also it would be portable and easy to push into a coat pocket or a bag. I want to see copies becoming battered by exposure to the Scottish elements and regular consultation!
Do you have a personal favourite distillery and if so why?
Can I say several? Ardbeg for the heritage and the superb location, and because I got to know a lot of people there while writing my book Ardbeg: A Peaty Provenance; Fettercairn because of its situation, history, and because I spent a lot of time there with master blender Richard Paterson, writing the book Goodness Nose. For me, a distillery is principally about the people who make it live, who make it a community, and not just a whisky factory.
Win a copy of the book
We've teamed up with GW Publishing to give away 10 copies of Gavin's new book, Discovering Scotland's Distilleries, for a chance to be sure to enter the prize draw.
Does your favourite whisky come from your favourite distillery?
No, though I have drank my fair share of Ardbeg and Fettercairn over the years and certainly enjoyed both! My favourite whiskies tend to have quite heavy Sherry maturation influences. Glenfarclas would probably be my overall favourite, and I admire the Grant family for remaining independent and for persevering with the use of Sherry wood when so many of their competitors moved over to ex-Bourbon casks.
How has whisky tourism changed in the last few years?
It has changed out of all recognition since William Grant & Sons took the far-sighted decision to open Glenfiddich to the public back in 1969. Today, around half of Scotland’s 100 or so working distilleries offer public access, and many now provide a ‘menu’ of different tour experiences, depending on how much time and money you want to spend, and the depth of your knowledge and commitment. Overall, the quality of the experiences on offer is extremely high, and Scotland should be very proud of how it showcases its national drink.
Describe your favourite whisky moment/experience.
Spending a morning (I think it was a morning!) sampling quantities of spirit straight from the cask with Richard Paterson and manager Mickey Heads in a warehouse up on the hill above Isle of Jura distillery. It was a beautiful spring day; there were deer on the hills and a clear view out across Small Isles Bay. Good whisky, a superb location and excellent company. What more could you ask for?
Whisky with water?
When I am evaluating whisky to write tasting notes I always nose and taste without water and then with water. For everyday, social drinking, usually with water – and ideally a large Havana cigar!
Whisky with ice?
Not personally, but I believe if you’ve paid for your whisky you can drink it any way that pleases you.
Cask strength or 40%?
Both. I’m a fan of Scotch Malt Whisky Society cask strength bottlings, but good whisky should still be good whisky at 40%.
What is your favourite whisky and food pairing?
Not something I tend to do very often – but Talisker and haggis work pretty well together. Also, on a visit to the Isle of Lewis and Abhainn Dearg distillery last year a bread roll filled with fried Stornoway black pudding and a fried egg seemed to go down very nicely with Abhainn Dearg new make spirit straight from the still.
Music to drink whisky by?
I’m a sucker for sad country music. Most recently I listened to Iris deMent while consuming Gordon & MacPhail ‘Exclusive’ 1997 Highland Park. It was extremely dark in colour and extraordinarily good in a very unconventional way. Toffee, burnt caramel, charred oak, wood smoke, plus fiddles, mandolin, dobro and Iris’ amazing Arkansas voice!
Any advice on life, whisky or the universe?
“You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on” – Dean Martin.
Sorry, what I meant to say was drink well and drink wisely...