This review applies to the 5th edition and no other.
The first thing I noticed about this new edition of Michael Jackson's book is how much heavier it is than the previous printing, 20% heavier according to my scales. It is also in a slighty larger format. If this book ever was considered a 'pocket book', it should not now be treated as such.
The book is split into three distinct sections: an introduction, tasting notes, and some notes about non-Scottish malts and advice on tasting.
The introduction section is thrice the length of that for the previous edition. It covers the origin and history of the whisky industry, and discusses styles, wood finishes and information about what to look for on the label. There is a sizeable section concerning the affects of the environment on the final taste of whisky. Much ground is covered, not to mention granite, heather, peat and seaweed. Jackson moves swiftly through these subjects and the text doesn't get bogged down in technical detail. The seasoned malt enthusiast will probably find little new here, but the newcomer will hopefully find it of interest.
The bulk of the book is the tasting notes for malt whiskies, and every working distillery and some closed distilleries are covered. Each distillery gets about a page of text giving brief details of its origins and recent happenings. Unlike the previous edition, there are no pictures of the distilleries in this section. This is a pity as Jackson often refers to architectural features, and it would have been worthwhile if some of these had been illustrated; the musical clock at Tormore being an example. For each bottle sampled, the author gives his opinion of: colour, nose, body, palate and finish. He also gives most samplings a score out of 100. Some writers have criticised the idea of awarding scores; I would say that it is a tool which can be useful provided the reader is aware of how the score has been arrived at and also has some appreciation of what the scorer considers 'best'. Jackson shows appreciation for fruity and flowery Lowlanders and for the lighter honeyed creamy Speysiders; but it is the powerful peaty products of Islay, the smoky Highland Parks from Orkney and the volcanic Talisker from Skye which tend to get the highest scores. If these are not your tipple then you may need to tread carefully when following Jackson into the higher scoring malts.
Macallan receives no less than 24 pages of tasting notes, this is the result of the distillery releasing a series of vintage bottlings over the last couple of years. While these may be of some interest, I am not sure just how useful these really are. The bottlings were very limited and the cost ranged from several hundred pounds up to several thousand pounds. This generosity to Macallan has come at a cost, and the distillery which seems to have borne the brunt of this is Bowmore. Tasting notes for this wonderful distillery are limited to "expressions with no age statement", I thought this omission might have been a mistake, but I have been informed by the publisher that "Although the 5th edition was 112 pages longer, we were still not able to include all of the malt whiskies tasted since the last edition".
The final section includes a brief overview of non-Scottish malts, probably too brief to be of any real use, and a piece concerning glassware and dilution for tasting. I think this latter piece might have fitted better in the introduction section just before the tastings, being right at the back it may well be missed.
There are several books on the market giving tasting notes on malt whiskies which are revised every four or five years. Most of these books give only one or two tastings per distillery, covering those bottles that will be found in the larger supermarket or the local wine shop. Should you be lucky enough to be visiting a more specialist retailer, in search of something special for a friend, or better still for yourself, then you may find that these books will offer little guidance about the more aged malts on offer, or those from the independent bottlers. This is where Jackson's book comes into its own. He will not desert you on such premises, he will offer help and advice when choosing that more exotic (we hope) and (probably) more expensive malt.
I have one or two minor gripes about this new edition, but this is still the first book to turn to for the malt drinker.
Update January 2008
Sadly Michael Jackson died last year (2007) so this is likely to be the last edition of this book, under his stewardship anyway. Things don't stand still in the world of malt whisky, nevertheless this is still a very useful and comprehensive book, well worth adding to the bookshelf.