When Harper’s Weekly Gazette first published The Whisky Distilleries of The United Kingdom in 1887 Scotch whisky was entering its Victorian and Edwardian boom time. The industry took repeated blows during the twentieth century and it would be over 120 years before whisky began to enjoy its current renaissance
It took Alfred Barnard over two years to make his exhaustive pilgrimage around the distilleries of Scotland, Ireland and England, carefully cataloguing the facts and figures from each of the distilleries he visited. The modern enthusiast might be perplexed to discover that he did not find it necessary to include tasting notes of any of the whiskies he enjoyed en route.
His remarkable account of his travels includes detailed and engaging descriptions of whisky production at each of the UK’s then working distilleries. While the book is an invaluable historical reference for its facts and figures, that’s not to say it is a mere whisky ledger.
Consequently the book is hugely enjoyable as a travelogue. Barnard drew on the local lore and legend told to him by the many characters he met on his travels, ranging from proprietors and chief excise officers to hoteliers and coachmen. He freely describes the journeys taken to reach each distillery (the journey often more important than the destination) be it by train, steam boat, horse and cart or on foot, the quality of the scenery and the weather, which often consisted of ‘torrents’ of rain.
Barnard wrote plainly without hyperbole but not without enthusiasm for his subject and, while the skilled etchings by Messrs Walker & Boutall that accompany many of the distillery entries have themselves become iconic, it is his written imagery that remains remarkably vivid. Even now, 135 years later, it is possible to conjure up the scene at each distillery he visited, as if walking by his side (with the notable exception of Macallan Distillery which receives but a few terse lines).
In an industry where much is made of tradition it is notable that some of the distillation practices mentioned in this book have changed beyond all recognition, while many of the distilleries no longer exist at all. This book has become an essential reference for old and rare whisky enthusiasts and historians and is one of the few lasting memorials to the very existence of some short-lived distilleries.
My only recommendation to the lucky winner of this first edition of The Whisky Distilleries Of The United Kingdom is to do exactly what I do with my 1987 reprint: don’t attempt to read the whole book in one sitting (there is no exam at the end of this one), neither should you leave it on your book shelf as a monument to the good old days of whisky. No, with each sip of a whisky from a lost Irish distillery or lost Scottish distillery enjoy Barnard’s notes on that distillery and transport yourself into a world we have lost.