Perhaps no modern writer is as closely associated with a bar, café, or pub as is Ian Rankin with the Oxford Bar on Young Street, Edinburgh, where the author’s principal character, Inspector John Rebus, has supped countless pints and drams. The scene is well known to so many because the Rebus series, now approaching 20 novels, has been translated into 22 languages and achieved bestseller status spanning several continents. So I am surprised when Rankin suggests we meet not at “The Ox,” but rather at the Abbotsford on Rose Street. The choice, he explains, is not based purely upon the Abbotsford’s superior selection of beers and whiskies.
“Another reason for choosing this bar is that a bunch of writers used to come in here, maybe once a month, to drink mostly whisky; well, beer and whisky, and have great conversation,” he explains.
One of those writers, Rankin recalls, was his good friend Iain Banks, who people often confused with Rankin purely on the basis of them both being writers and both being Ians. It was Banks, Rankin says, who fostered his fondness for the blind tasting of whisky, thanks to the late novelist’s longtime membership in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
“We would sometimes go to the Society’s headquarters in Leith and we’d sit there in these big leather armchairs drinking these whiskies marked with something like 221.35 and a description and that’s all you’d know. After that, I became a big fan of the blind tastings.”
As a Scot, albeit one who spent several years living in France and now travels the world to promote his books, Rankin offers no surprise when he confesses his “purist” devotion to single malt. Almost in the same breath, however, he adds that his Belfast-born wife brought Irish whiskey into his life early on and he is very fond of it, as well.
“She introduced me to Bushmills and after that I got into Irish whiskey,” he says. “It’s got quite a nice flavor to it and it’s not as strong, it doesn’t sort of take your breath away the way that some Scottish malts can.”
As we shift from drinking Cromarty Rogue Wave, a pale ale from a young brewery near where Rankin keeps a house north of Inverness, to Highland Park 18 year old, I ask about the commemorative edition the distillery released to mark the 30th anniversary of his creation of Inspector Rebus.
“When we celebrated his 20th anniversary ten years ago, they released a special 20 year old Highland Park, Rebus 20, and I went up to help choose the whisky,” he recalls. “But it was never for sale to the public, just auctioned for charity, so for his 30th anniversary they did it again. This one was only a 10 year old, confusingly, but it was available for fans in a special bottle and everything.”
Although only 120 bottles of the Rebus 20 were ever released, Rankin says that he still sees some coming up on auction and fetching in excess of £1,000. “With these special releases, the sky’s the limit these days. It seems to be a marker that you’ve made it in the world to drink an expensive whisky.”
At the end of the day, however, Rankin is more prone to recollect his drams by occasion and company over price or quality.
“I’ve drunk enough whiskies during the years to know that it’s not always about the quality of the whisky or the flavor, it’s about where you are and the atmosphere at the time. So if you’re in a big party with friends and you’re all enjoying yourself, a blended whisky can taste like the best thing in the world. And alternatively, you can get a really, really expensive whisky and you’re just not enjoying it because you’re not in the mood.”
Given that his creator frequently has him falling asleep in his armchair following a night of analysis and introspection, half-finished and forgotten whisky glass at his side, it is a sentiment with which Inspector Rebus might well agree.
Who: Ian Rankin, Scottish crime and mystery writer
Favorite Style: Single malt
Go-To Whiskies: Highland Park in particular, but also western Island
whiskies in general
How He Drinks: With a splash of water
New Discovery: “I’m really excited about this new distillery in Fife called Lindores Abbey. At the moment they’re only producing aqua vitae.”
New Rebus novel: In a House of Lies, published in October 2018