John C. McDougall is something of a legend in the Scotch whisky industry. Recognized as the only living person to have managed a distillery in every one of Scotland’s whisky distilling regions, John has been in the industry since his first management job in 1963. His memoir, “Wort Worms & Washbacks” was first published in 1999 and has been reprinted twice. It’s something of a “Kitchen Confidential” for the whisky industry in Scotland – where John reveals the grungier, practical side of an oft-idealized industry. Most of us have romantic notions about the distilling of traditional Scotch whisky. Rolling mist on the Mull of Kintyre, rustic steamers hauling malted barley across the Sound of Islay, bubbling clear Highland springs washing heather-infused water into throwback stone buildings where craftsmen toil to produce one of the finest artisanal products on planet Earth… John pulls back the curtain and reveals the slovenly pinchpenny workforce, often wont to sneak as much illicit whisky as possible out (whether in their bellies or in long concealed flasks called ‘dogs’), the equipment breakdowns and MacGyver-style fixes necessary to keep the spirit flowing, and the severe disconnect between the board-room executives and the distillery managers “in the field.” John has clearly been around the block. His experience stretches from equipment maintenance, on-site distillery workforce management, product yield improvement and efficiency, to board room politics, marketing, and salesmanship.
The book is written in first-person past perspective, like most memoirs, and details his career via a series of anecdotes, from arriving at his first job in a Jaguar (while the resident distillery manager rode a bicycle to work) in 1963, to finally splitting from Springbank in 1995 to form his own bottling enterprise. The writing can be a bit stilted – sometimes jumping from anecdote to anecdote without a conclusion or segue. Some of the stories are too brief, and many are of the you-had-to-be-there variety. He also does focus specifically on the trials of managing the people and equipment in a distillery, and company politics. There is not much detail on what whisky aficionados are looking for: the characteristics of the whisky itself, its production or its aging. I would have liked, personally, to read less about the narcoleptic distillery mechanic who always slept in the stillhouse, and more about the effect of various woods on the whisky, or maybe the changes in flavor over time and after changes to equipment or practices. Still, John’s perspective is unique and instructive, and provides a peek behind the curtain at the people who make our beloved spirit.
While this was not the whisky ‘Kitchen Confidential’ I was expecting, John McDougall does provide a plainspoken and entertaining stroll through the last forty years of Scotch distillation, and certainly provides a counterpoint to the romantic ideals portrayed by bottle labels, visitor’s centers, and marketing materials. At its best, “Wort Worms & Washbacks” gives you the impression that you’re sitting across a table from John, sharing a few drams and talking about the “good old days,” and who could ask for more from such a book?