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Malt and Barley Review: The John Rebus whisky drinking game

by Tom Morton

Having finished and thoroughly enjoyed Ian Rankin’s latest novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I was surfing a wave of self-regarding pleasure at the mention of ‘Dolphinsludge’ – a word I invented years ago in my Scotsman column as a pseudonym for lovely Inverness – and the fact that (former) Detective Chief Inspector John Rebus apparently listens, or has listened, to my BBC Radio Scotland show.

Be that as it may, never in reading a Rankin book have I been so struck by Rebus’s affection for whisky. This is due in part to SIAMG’s geographical scope: Rebus makes several road trips in the novel, from his beloved Edinburgh to the far north of Scotland, along the A9, the infamous road which is crucial to the serial-killer plot. Incidentally, the hardback – available at half list price on Amazon – comes with lovely end-paper colour maps of the Highlands. A case for not Kindling. On the various journeys, he tends to ‘salute’ the distilleries he passes. And quite right.

There is, of course, plenty of beer, too, and a smattering of vodka. Good old Deuchar’s IPA for the most part, when it comes to ale. And a great deal of music, for Rebus (and Rankin) are both inveterate rock fans, especially in the form of traditional, analogue vinyl records. Though of course Rebus listens to CDs in his car, a venerable Saab he has a slightly worrying tendency to talk to and occasionally pat.

It struck me that a SIAMG drinking game could be a useful adjunct to, say, a book group taking on the novel or perhaps a solo re-reading. And providing a proper soundtrack of the actual records or artists mentioned in the book would accompany that rather effectively. Or, you could simply reflect on the book without re-reading it, just listening to the music and drinking. A Spotify playlist may be the easiest way of achieving this.

To save time, here’s a handy guide. It should be said from the start that the title of the book is what’s called a ‘Mondegreen’, a mishearing of a song lyric. The name comes from The Bonny Earl o’ Moray, and the verse which goes:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Or indeed ‘laid him on the green’. Rebus mishears the song ‘Standing in Another Man’s Rain’ by the late Jackie Leven (a Fifer, like both Rebus and Rankin) as ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’. This becomes one of the novel’s recurring motifs. Indeed, a Jackie Leven album – I still think the early The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery of Death is his best – should be on standby at all times, as Leven lyrics are used as subtitles for each section of the book.

We are quickly on to other musicians, though, indeed we are listening (with Rebus) to music before any whisky gets consumed. Bert Jansch (solo), Pentangle with John Renbourn, John Renbourn solo and collaboration of the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson with Renbourn as well. Then there’s Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison before we even get to the first unnamed whisky, possibly a blend.

Musically, we then begin a long run of Led Zeppelin references, as one of the cops involved is a James Page, as in Zep guitarist Jimmy. . He is referred to jokingly at various times as Physical Graffitti, Communication Breakdown, Custard Pie (a Page and Plant song, post Zeppelin) Trampled Underfoot and then, once again (an in-joke, this, as earlier long-term sidekick Siobhan Clarke has challenged Rebus not to run out of Zeppelin song titles) as Physical Graffitti .

Music that is actually played, though, continues with Kate Bush (the extremely strange song Misty, which involves, well, a girl and a snowman), Jackie Leven again, and a trip to Pilochry, where salutes are given to Edradour, and the Blair Atholl Distillery, which is referred to several times as Bell’s (Blair Athol is the signature malt in the Bell’s blend and Blair Athol has a Bell’s ‘Visitor Experience’).

Back in Edinburgh, some Glenlivet is drunk (and paid for) an unnamed dram is consumed at a posh hotel, then another, before we’re heading back up north again. Tips of the Rebus bunnet go to Tomatin, Dalwhinnie Glenmorangie, Glen Ord and Dalmore, but not, curiously, to the whisky made in the village of Edderton – a location crucial to the plot and visited several times. That would be Balblair, and very nice it is too.
More whisky is consumed without it being named – frustratingly, we do not hear about the Dornoch Castle Hotel’s ‘good range of malts’ other than that Rebus had ‘one too many’. Then there’s a mention of anCnoc, over to the east.

More music, please: The venerable Michael Chapman (Fully Qualified Survivor is the album to have) and Spooky Tooth, a late 60s psychedelic blues rock combo. Time for another mention of Tomatin, two more anonymous drams, and an imaginary mix tape for one more journey to the Highlands that might include ‘songs about roads’ from Canned Heat. the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann and the Doors. Rebus is showing his age here, perhaps longing for the security of nostalgia…

And there’s more golden oldies: Maggie Bell, formerly of the great Stone the Crows. Bert Jansch again, the Stones and Gerry Rafferty, at which point we discover that Rebus’s home dram of choice appears to be Highland Park. We’ll assume it’s the 12-year-old, one of the best made and best value mianstream whiskies you can buy. Quick, put on Nazareth, John Martyn and (oh no!) “some early Wishbone Ash”. Ah well. Nobody’s perfect.

And apart from mentions of Bell’s and Dewar’s World of Whisky, that’s about it. Rebus finishes the dregs of his Highland Park straight from the bottle, and then the books fades out on Jackie Leven.

As must we. All I can say is, make those drams very small ones if you wish to take on the entire SIAMG drinking/listening game in a single session. Not everyone has the capacities of John Rebus.