Craft publishing for the distilling industry

Dec 01, 2008

Classic Expressions are craft whisky publishers. The tiny Perthshire, Scotland- based business says its mission is to find and republish lost classics of whisky writing – rare volumes that you’d struggle to find in an antiquarian bookshop for less than hundreds of dollars (if you could find them).

They describe these treasures as little “time machines” a window into history which tells us how whisk(e)y and distilling used to be.

The company, which is entirely web based, is run by two enthusiasts, Neil Wilson and Ian Buxton. Ian explains: “We’re both avid collectors of rare and old whisky books, and both interested in writing and publishing. Comparing notes one day on the contents of our respective libraries we discussed making copies for each other of books that one owned but the other didn’t.”
It was then that Classic Expressions was born, as the partners realised that modern digital scanning technology enabled them to make a perfect facsimile edition of any old book – and re-issue it to like-minded enthusiasts. But if that part of their business model is high-tech, they adopted an 18th Century idea as well – subscription publishing.

Basically, having found a suitable rare book and arranged the specialist scanning, Buxton and Wilson announce it on their website and invite advance subscriptions. The first 75 buyers to order get a 10% discount on the published price and their name printed in the front of the book.

“It’s exactly how many volumes were originally published hundreds of years ago,” explains Buxton “and it allows us to offset most of the cost before we’re committed. 75 orders doesn’t cover even the print bill but it takes a lot of pressure off us and makes our bank manager happier!”

So far, three historic whisky books have been resurrected and are available from the website at www.classicexpressions.co.uk. They are:

Smuggling in the Highlands by Ian MacDonald – a lively account from 1914 of the work of the British Government’s Excise Officers in fighting illegal distilling.

Reminiscences of a Gauger by Joseph Pacy (1873). Pacy wrote this long after he had retired and it’s one of the very few first-hand accounts of the work of a Gauger (Excise Officer) through the busiest period of Victorian distilling in Scotland.

Truths About Whisky is the firm’s latest publication. Issued in 1878 by the four giant distillers then working in Dublin, it’s a passionate defence of pot-still whisky against the newly fashionable blends and the underhand (but at that time legal) practice of Scotch distillers to ship their spirit to Ireland, hold it there for a few days and then re-export it with an Irish Customs certificate to be sold as ‘Irish Whiskey’.

But Truths About Whisky is more than that. It contains much illuminating detail on Victorian distilling practice, both at a craft and a more industrial level; it has four wonderful fold-out plates illustrating the now-lost Dublin distilleries of Jamesons, Powers and Roe (then the largest pot-still distilleries in the world) and it vividly illustrates how, by turning their back on blending, these firms began the eventual catastrophic decline of Irish whiskey and allowed Scotch to take over world markets.

Each Classic Expressions edition is printed in a limited numbered edition of 300, presented in a slipcase and accompanied with a fully searchable PDF file of the book concerned on CD. In time, they’ll become collectable classics in their own right.

You order and pay off their website and the books are despatched by airmail outside of the UK. Customers already come from a number of international markets including the UK, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and the USA. Typically, each books costs £50 (Founder Subscribers get a 10% saving).

Next up is a distilling classic from 1913, J.A. Nettleton’s The Manufacture of Whisky & Plain Spirit. Joseph Nettleton was the major influence on distilling practice in Scotland from the 1880s and beyond. Towards the end of his life he wrote down everything he knew about distilling in a massive 600+ page magnum opus that became the standard work for years afterwards. Extensively illustrated, The Manufacture of Whisky & Plain Spirit is now virtually impossible to find. The facsimile edition will be widely welcomed and may once again influence distilling practice as a new generation of craft distillers seek to authentically replicate traditional practice.