Book Review – A Sense of Place

The cover of the book A Sense of Place by Dave Broom, featuring a picture of whisky casks on the cover. In front of the book is a small glass with some amber whisky inside.

A Sense of Place: A journey around Scotland’s whisky
by Dave Broom
Photography by Christina Kernohan

I first saw this book mentioned on the author’s Instagram, where he used something like the phrase “sense of place, not terroir.” That is what grabbed me. The growing ubiquity of “terroir” usage in drink writing is puzzling to me, because it is such a wine-centric term. Its core meaning, “the taste of the land,” makes sense for grapes but not for much else. That has encouraged people to make it mean, basically, whatever they want if it helps them sell some kind of very expensive processed agricultural good—from chocolate to, well, whisky. I am immediately suspicious of any use of the term outside wine, because it’s just become a stand-in for “this is different for reasons” as part of a sales pitch.

A sense of place, though? That, I can get behind. It’s not trying to dress itself up in fancy clothes. It’s honest about being a story. A story about a place, which has room in it for all kinds of things. People. History. Water. Land. Plants. Rocks.

A place is what we make of it. What we say about it. It’s a story.

And that is what this book is all about.

In this incredibly beautiful book (and it is among the most beautiful I have ever held—Kernohan’s photography is glorious), Dave Broom writes two hundred and fifty-odd pages worth of ode to Scotland. Its people. Its history. Its water. And yes, its rocks. He writes about whisky, yes, but what this book truly does is delve into what makes Scotch special to him, and that is its position within the communities around each bottle.

It’s a celebration of Scotch as more than a drink, as something else than the icon of capitalism it has seemingly become: it is a product of a community bound by shared land, shared history, shared culture, shared language. A cultural artifact.

The book is lyrical. Rhapsodic. At times gloomy, and at times filled with hope. The language is unabashedly Scots English—I have to admit I was grateful for the glossary in the back—and that is a lovely thing. The book touches on that, on how Gaelic was taken from so many Scots and how that was part of the Clearances that not only scarred Scotland’s culture, but in so doing shaped modern Scotch whiskey and the places it is from, and also how words influence not just how we speak, but how we perceive. How we taste things.

In a way, this book has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. I have to admit that, as a thoroughly common person with stubbornly low-class tastes, the fetishization and hyper-valuation of whisk(e)y turns me right off. As a beverage, I like it fine. It’s a delicious, complex, nuanced and exciting thing to drink in and of itself. But so much of the modern placing of it is about image, status, and wealth. At both ends—production and consumption—whisk(e)y has become a rich man’s game. And I mean all three of those words. The history of whisk(e)y in Scotland and Ireland, in particular, is one of capital, empire, and the forceful transformation of a common culture to a private one.

But here, Broom pokes at the cracks in that, revealing the humanity and love that maintains in even the largest of distilleries. Yes, they’re still massive monuments to capital, but there is also a reverence for craft, and a (re)growing respect for the farmers that once would have been making the drink. I found myself actually wanting a sip of single malt on finishing this book, something I very rarely feel these days. (Sorry, Dave, but it was Miyagikyo. No proper Scotch in the house, I’m afraid).

And he did it with such style! What a writer the man is. I found myself snapping pictures of sentence after sentence, almost wanting to shout with glee at the beautifully made points.

Let me also add, I am so happy and in favor of his persistent cheerleading for blended whisky. The fact that “whisky lovers” persist in looking down on 98% of the market is not only silly, it reeks of classist arrogance. Never poo-poo the cheap stuff.

It is no exaggeration, not even a hint of a lie, to say this is the book I wanted (want?) to write about sake. I am not the writer Broom is, nor is the English-language sake book market mature enough to have room for such a departure, but maybe someday.

Until then, I am grateful for this wonder of a book.

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