Whisky, songs, poems and very tall tales – plus three drams to taste – make up the The Malt And Barley Show from Radio Scotland presenter, writer, musician and whisky fan Tom Morton. As well as writing a abook about his travels around the whisky distilleries of Scotland in The Spirit Of Adventure, Tom wrote a thriller last year, A Whisky In Monsterville which came with its own tasting notes for recommended whiskies while reading each chapter. Below he talks about the show – which is coming to Elgin tonight (Thursday) as part of the Spirit Of Speyside Festival – the best malt he’s ever tasted and an elusive one he’d love to try...
1 What first inspired you to think of doing a show about whisky?
Tom: The Malt And Barley Revue as it now is came out of a show called Tom Morton’s Drinking For Scotland, which was more about the Caledonian relationship with alcohol, the joys and sorrows. I’d written a couple of books about malt whisky and I liked the idea of demystifying the whole connoisseurship thing, the mumbo jumbo. First place I ever combined the tasting with the songs and poems was at Belladrum. Whisky, music, a few laughs, some tall tales...it seemed to work!
2 Did it take you long to put together the songs/poems/stories that and do you keep adding and taking away or is it a fixed core of material?
Tom: Some of those songs are 20 years old, and some were written just a month or two ago. There is a core of stuff but it varies – there’s usually a new poem every few weeks. There’s enough stuff for two hours, easily, but I think an hour and three drams is about enough for most folk.
3 Whisky and the arts – literature and song, anyway – seem to be fairly natural bedfellows. Is it the spirit itself or the many myths and rituals around it that prove most inspirational for you and the show?
Tom: I think one constant theme in the show is how whisky represents Scotland, warts and all, good and bad, merry and maudlin. I do think there’s a real magic in the making and even the naming of whisky. Even calling a dram a "wee goldie". It’s conjuring gold from almost nothing but water, barley and flame.
4 I only know of one other whisky show, so does this mean the international stage is wide open to the potential of The Malt And Barley Revue?
Tom: I think it’s maybe a wee bit too enigmatic, ambivalent, maybe, otherwise it would be a natural for the whisky after-dinner scene. I’m openly critical of some of the nonsense that’s talked by so-called "brand ambassadors" and there is a lot of rip-off selling going on – ridiculously overpriced malts in obscene, fake packaging. I’ve always had a tendency to bite the hand that feeds...or offers free drink.
5 Your last book, A Whisky In Monsterville, came with its own tasting notes and recommended whiskies per chapter. Should we expect a vinyl version of The Malt and Barley Revue with its own cover-mounted dram sachets any time soon?
Tom: I looked seriously at offering the book for sale with a miniature of Monsterville malt, but the cost was prohibitive. The next book in the series is called A Whisky Priest, so we’ll see.
6 Is there any whisky you know of by repute only that you would love/dread to try?
Tom: The best whisky I’ve ever tasted is the legendary 1974 Gordon and Macphail bottling of Ardbeg. I once had it straight from a barrel and it was a transformative, truly spiritual experience. There is also the mysterious Royal Household, traditionally available only at the Rodel Hotel on Harris, and some say the best blend ever. I have written a fictional account of how that connection came about, but it’s with the royal family’s lawyers. I almost won a bottle on an auction last year, but alas...
7 If there is some kind of superbeing in the sky, would it think on balance that whisky was a good or a bad thing for mankind?
Tom: Whisky comes from the Gaelic uisge Beatha, the water of life. Distillation was invented as a medicinal technique and the early distillers in Europe were all from religious orders. God loves a dram. But in moderation And never if driving.
8 Here’s a desert island dilemma for someone like yourself who loves music and whisky. Your boat is sinking and you can swim to the shore of a particularly attractive-looking, but sadly remote and deserted tropical island ie it will take some time for your loved ones to locate and rescue you. You only have one hand free as you swim ashore, so do you take either: A Music – your favourite record/CD (there will be a player handily abandoned in a safe place with power source on the island) or B Whisky – your favourite tipple in a large bottle?
Tom: Fortunately I can sing, and have a reasonable memory for songs. Also, once empty, I could use the whisky bottle to send a message asking for help. Or a jukebox.
The Malt And Barley Show is at the Drouthy Cobbler, Elgin, today Thursday (May 1) at 8pm. For more details on the Spirit Of Speyside Festival, go to: www.spiritofspeyside.com