Melting snow drips from the brim of Alexander McCall Smith’s hat as he arrives at 28 Queen Street, the Society’s Members’ Rooms in the heart of Edinburgh.
The capital is experiencing the worst winter weather in a generation. But no sooner has Sandy, as he prefers to be known, found refuge from the cold, he is commandeered by Unfiltered’s photographer who wants to take him back outside for some photographs on the pavement…
Having gamely obliged, the prolific, multi-million selling author is finally able to settle into the warmth of a private dining room for a chat over lunch and a few drams.
Sandy has a long and happy association with the Society. He has been a member for many years and has alluded to the Society in his work, notably in his 2004 novel The Sunday Philosophy Club where a character lunches alongside “direct and open-faced people who believe in fellowship and good humour”.
He also regularly dines at Queen Street with his wife Elizabeth. “I do find the food here very good indeed – the chef James Freeman is exceptional and the surroundings are very conducive to fine dining.”
Over lunch (pheasant breast with game pie for Sandy, venison haunch with a black pepper sauce for me), talk turns, inevitably, to whisky and, specifically, the part played in Sandy’s sensory education by his great friend, the whisky writer Charlie MacLean.
How did your association with the Society begin?
I can’t remember the very first time I visited the Society’s premises in Leith, but I’m quite certain it was in Charlie’s company. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about whisky at that time. Whisky is a pleasure that came to me later in life. I have always quite liked the taste of whisky, although when I was younger I didn’t drink it very much. But it became a subject of much greater interest when my friend Charlie began to devote more of his time to the study of whisky, and began writing about it. I read his articles and books, and we talked a great deal about it. Charlie was my tutor and I would often go to him for advice on the subject.
What kind of things did he teach you?
One of the things that made a deep impression on me was the very particular vocabulary he used at whisky tastings to describe the sensory impact of a whisky. I was struck by the breadth of the vocabulary used. I remember listening to Charlie talking about a particular whisky and saying it was just like the interior of a well-used car. It reminded him, he said, of an old Rover.
What a curious analogy!
It certainly was! When people are tasting a whisky, they are looking for words that describe something that is quite subjective and fleeting; it says something about language at a broader level. It shows us how, when we’re describing the world, we can use all sorts of wonderful terms to describe what we see and experience.
I believe you have taken part in a tasting at the Society…
I have, yes, and I found it very surprising. I suspect that most people going to a tasting for the first time are really surprised at what the palate and the nose are capable of. We generally don’t try to articulate what is happening to us when we taste something. We taste something nice and don’t stop to think about its saltiness or sweetness, or the various other signposts that the educated, trained palate will respond to. It’s like going for a walk in the country with a local person. He or she will say: “Look at the colour in that plant over there.” Most of us would barely notice the smell, and we’d walk straight past the plant, colourful or not.
So it really is an education of the senses?
Absolutely. It is an education in sensory evaluation and sensory response. Tasting newcomers sit there and when they hear the ambassador speak about getting an apple orchard, they often say: “Yes I agree!” But they may not have ventured that information themselves.
Does whisky regularly get mentioned in your books?
I have alluded to it, but so far I haven’t introduced my readers to my favourite whisky – which is Laphroaig.
You area widely travelled – has your knowledge of whisky ever been useful?
I was in Texas once and my hosts organised a tasting session. As we sat down, I suddenly realised that I was expected to do the tasting. Since I had often been to tastings with Charlie I tried to remember some of the phrases he used, and began to mimic him. The audience thought it was great, and believed that I actually knew what I was talking about!
When it comes to writing your books, what time of the day do you prefer to work?
I frequently get up very early, about 4am, and write until 6am. It’s a habit I’ve developed over the years.
Do you write every day?
I do – because of the rather punishing schedule I set myself. Of course it’s self-inflicted…as are most of the things one complains about!
Alexander McCall Smith lives in Edinburgh. For many years, he was Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. Then, in 1999, he achieved global recognition for his award-winning No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which went on to sell more than 20 million copies. He has since devoted his time to writing fiction and has more than 60 books to his credit.