‘I love the whisky term Skalk. It’s one of these great words that is shared across Scotland’s languages.’
It all began on an annual ski trip to France in 2013 when an old friend of mine told me he was looking to build a business in Scotland with long term market presence and legacy. We brainstormed a few bright ideas such as reinventing the bunnet for the upwardly mobile urban male and launching a fashion brand for men in their fifties specialising in cardigans. After the third dram we realised we were nursing the ultimate brandable Scottish global product in our hands. Whisky!
Back in Scotland I realised I knew very little about the world of whisky other than as an occasional enthusiastic consumer. I set about learning and understanding the language of whisky. I took a journey into the whisky industry, working in a distillery whilst studying production and researching the archaic words and terms belonging to the whisky makers of another age. Two years later in 2015 I had come so far down the road and collected so many stories, tales and fascinating facts that I realised I was actually writing a book. A book that will never really be finished as long as whisky is made, but a book nonetheless!
Could you tell us a bit about pitching at Xpo North?
In 2015 I had my radio play The Coffin Road broadcast on BBC Radio. I was looking for my next project when Xpo North announced an innovative Twitter event where writers could pitch their book ideas in 140 characters direct to agents and publishers. I pitched The Whisky Dictionary and was invited along to the live event – a sort of Dragons’ Den where each author had 3 minutes to sell their book to a panel of inscrutable publishers. Despite carefully writing out my pitch beforehand I almost immediately went off script and just spoke directly to the panel about my enthusiasm for the project and some of the fascinating words I had already collected. Needless to say, I was delighted to get the call next day from Moira at Sandstone Press who invited me to Dingwall for a chat. Two years later The Whisky Dictionary will shortly be available in bookshops.
Could you tell us a bit about how the publishing process has been for you?
I’ve written a lot of factual and fictional narrative prose over the years. Writing a dictionary is a very different experience in that you soon realise that people will not be reading your work as one storyline. Instead they will pick up and put down, read from the back to front and dive about the pages as the fancy takes them. As a writer, I took had a similar approach. Whilst I laid the book out alphabetically, I didn’t write it as such. Instead it was written in bursts and small runs with the definitions sometimes becoming ‘micro stories’ in themselves.
Then I delivered the final text. The formatting stageand endless reviewing was an education in itself in how demanding a format I’d chosen for someone used to free-flowing prose. Keira and the team at Sandstone were fantastic at schooling me through it, and having the technical and creative skills to nurture the project and see that original pitch through to this beautiful finished work. A bit like a fine single malt, actually.
What came first – the distillery or the book idea?
I’d have to say that confirmation that the distillery was going to happen was the trigger for me as an outsider to turn towards the world of whisky and commit to researching its story and the language which has grown around it.
How did you gather the terms and their definitions?
By talking to lots of people in the industry, cramming lots of notebooks with extracts from Industry textbooks, business archives, attending tastings, visits to distilleries, maltings, working in a distillery and general nosiness about the contents of the endless number of whisky wagons going up and down the A9. I’m still gathering!
Finally, what’s your favourite whisky term and why?
I love the word Skalk. It’s one of these great words that is shared across Scotland’s languages. It derives originally from the Scots Gaelic Sgailc which means a dunt, a skelp or a blow to the head. But that meaning has been appropriated in the context of whisky drinking to mean a bumper dram and in particular a bumper dram early in the day or the occasional Highland indulgence of enjoying whisky for breakfast. In Gaelic, the Sgailc-nid is the first dram of the morning. In fact the -nid means ‘nest’ or more accurately ‘bed’ as it describes a large, generous measure of whisky enjoyed in bed. This Highland custom is perfectly acceptable if reserved for very particular circumstances and special days and was noted in 1783 by Dr Samuel Johnson during his Tour to the Hebrides: “A man of the Hebrides, for of the woman’s diet I can give no account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whisky; yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk.”
The Whisky Dictionary by Iain Hector Ross is published on 10 October by Sandstone Press.