Book Review: A Passion for Whisky

Book Review: A Passion for Whisky

The tiny Scottish island of Islay counts around 3,000 people as full-time residents but welcomes tens of thousands of tourists annually and counts hundreds of thousands, if not more, fans around the globe swearing regional allegiance. That may prove to be an unsubstantiated hot take in the end, but right now Islay seems to be having a moment with the ascendancy of Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and many others taking center stage not only in the spirits world but in mainstream culture.

Islay produces a humble percentage of the entire nation of Scotland’s malt output, but the distinctive flavor profiles the island offers have garnered it a cult following among single malt fans who delight in the intriguing, earthy robustness of its peated (and non-peated) whisky. With those devotees in mind, author Ian Wisniewski spent years traveling the island’s 240 square miles researching distillery histories, interviewing critical people in Islay’s history, and, most importantly, tasting expressions from the island’s distilleries to present a clear and evocative portrait in A Passion for Whisky: How the tiny Scottish island of Islay creates malts the captivate the world. The book is an engaging profile crafting the magic of Islay in immense detail.

A Passion of Whisky follows the pattern of any well-organized book of its form, with the first third devoted to essays on the rise of popularity in Islay malts, the production process and necessary ingredients, and how best to enjoy drinking the whisky. The remaining 150-plus pages are devoted to an alphabetical tour of each distillery on the island, From Ardbeg to the forthcoming Portintruan, scheduled to open in 2024. Each chapter devotes portions to history, production process, and tasting notes and while it doesn’t hit the heights of an academic tome, there’s an appropriate amount of substance where it never feels like a casual surface skim or puff profile.

Wisniewski deserves much credit here, as he executes a difficult feat so few can accomplish: he writes with such ease that every level of drinker, from the seasoned, well-hardened malt maniac to the curious newcomer, can find facts or nuances to keep engagement levels high and pages continuously turned until it is time for a top-off.

If expanded and thoughtful narratives aren’t exactly your sort of thing, there is also a comprehensive section of Inside Baseball statistics provided as an appendix. There’s so much data here, including barley type (where disclosed), fermentation times, types of stills utilized, 1st and 2nd distillation stats, and information on the cuts of new make spirit before barreling. Having all of this information in one place is an incredible resource, especially if you don’t feel like performing search queries for each individual piece of information. The only thing absent as an appendix that could have proven most useful would have been a list of lodging and dining suggestions, but there is always a 2nd edition for those: at the time of Wisniewski’s writing, there were nine operating distilleries with four more in various states of construction. And no doubt there will be more to add as time marches on.

Not since Andrew Jefford’s 2005 excellent book Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies has there been a book so well written, so comprehensive and so engaging about Islay. If there was one whiskey book to read on a crisp evening with your dram of choice and a small fire providing modest warmth, this is most certainly a worthy choice. Delightful from cover to cover and an excellent gift for the whisky lover in your life who enjoys a good book.


A Passion for Whisky




Rob Theakston is a contributing editor to Drinkhacker.

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