Interview with Michael Jackson

Interview with Michael Jackson

Hi, I'm Michael Jackson. I don't sing, I don't dance, and I don't drink Pepsi.

For years, this is how Michael Jackson (1942), writer of beer and whisky books, introduced himself to distinguish himself from his somewhat more famous, singing, dancing and cola drinking namesake. Together with Matthew, my friend and tourguide, which is imperative in a city like London, I paid a visit to Michael Jackson. The man who ventured to write books about beer and later also about whisky, instead of books about wine, which had been the trend for years at the time.

Somewhere in the West London area of Hammersmith, in a back street that even the London cab driver couldn't find, we found Michael in his office. An office filled with books, bottles of beer and whisky, and glasses all over the place. It had once been a brewery, with a café in the next street called 'Rising sun'. “Have a seat, and what would you like to have: a beer, a whisky or a cold coffee?” was his friendly welcome. He knew I didn’t come just for fun, but for an interview, and before he had even poured us a drink, he started to pour out his life story, talking generously throughout the interview. “I had my first whisky when I was just a little boy. I was born as a twin, and I was much smaller and more fragile than my twin brother. My mother expected that I would die, but instead, my bigger brother died a few days after we were born. Because of his death, my parents were overprotective of me when I grew up. I was given whisked eggs with whisky early on. As an adult, my father gave me blended whisky, but I didn't like it all that much. After becoming a journalist, I really wanted to work in Scotland, despite being an Englishman from Yorkshire. I was very ambitious and soon got a job with the Daily Mail in Edinburgh. One of my colleagues, a Scotsman, became a very good friend. We often sat in the pub, talking about anything and everything over a pint. Scots have some strange habits, by English standards. One day, he wanted to fight me, which I declined. He said, “What kind of friend are you if you don't want to fight me. You Englishman," he continued, "have you ever tasted whisky?" I told him about my experience with my father, and he started laughing. "I get it, you've never tried malt whisky." In fact, I'd never even heard of malt whisky, and we had only ever drunk beer, not whisky. It was 1961, if I remember correctly, and there weren't that many malt whiskys available in Edinburgh's pubs. Maybe one or two, at most, but my Scottish friend ordered a 12-year-old Glen Grant of a surprisingly light color. This was my first malt and I really liked it. I lost touch with my Scottish friend over time. Many years later, I ran into him again. He had fought a hard battle with alcohol and was now in the Lord and a teetotaller. I came to the conclusion that what had destroyed him, the whisky, had made me great.

After my Scottish adventure, I went to London. I worked as a journalist and was still very driven, resulting in several promotions. After some time of working as a journalist, I wanted to explore the world and decided to go to the Netherlands. I settled in Amsterdam, where I became the first editor of Holland Harold magazine. I ended up creating the content for the entire magazine myself. While in Amsterdam, I made regular trips to Belgium and Germany. I got a girlfriend, and she asked me to go back to England, unemployed. After being out of work for a while, I saw an advertisement for a seemingly boring job. However, my girlfriend made me apply and I was accepted at World Press News. In a short time, I turned this boring job into my dream job when I changed the concept and the name to ‘Campaign’. The magazine became very popular and other publishers started to copy the concept. But apparently, I became too difficult and got fired for refusing to wear suits.

I was not afraid that I would be without work for a long time. I was known as the "magazine doctor" and publishers were lining up for me. Even so, I started my own company together with a partner, which primarily focused on the tourist industry. Later, we thought of publishing books. At that time, my sister was working on the layout of Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. At that time, wine was the only thing books were written about, not beer or any other drinks. I thought: if it works for wine, it should work for beer. I discussed my idea with my partner, but he was more interested in writing horror films. He didn't like my idea at all, it would be too expensive to travel and get photos. I managed to find a suitable person who could write horror films, but I stuck with my own plan and my partner, and I decided to part ways. I sold my shares and used that money to start writing my book about beer. When it was finished and I knocked on publishers’ doors, I was turned away. The argument was that a beer drinker drinks and does not read, among other reasons. However, I managed to find a publisher who published my book under the name 'The World Guide to Beer' in 1977.

After having written three books about beer, I thought it was time to write about that other drink, the one I discovered in Scotland in 1961, malt whisky. The idea of writing about whisky actually came from Wallace Milroy, who owned a liquor store near my office at the time. I showed him the manuscript when it was finished. I gave it to him on a Saturday and he finished reading it the next Monday. His only remark was that he wasn't aware that port casks were used to mature malt whisky.

Before I started writing the whisky book, I was told not to do it, for the same reasons as before. Fortunately, there was one publisher who saw potential in it. So much so, that they gave me an advance to pay for my travels. But right when it was almost done, they withdrew and asked their money back. However, my agent at the time told them to count their losses and said that I would sue them for libel and demand compensation for lost income. So, I was left with some money, and I then wound up at Dorling Kindersley (D.K.). I wanted to call it 'Single Malt Scots Whisky and the Rest of the World', but the publisher decided on the title 'The World Guide to Whisky', which was first published in 1987. You should know that D.K. was a split-up from another publisher at that time. This other publisher was often present in the audience at book prize award ceremonies. D.K. grabbed several prizes right before their eyes, including once at the presentation of the Glenfiddich award for the best whisky book. My ‘World Guide to Whisky’ won that prize, prompting my publisher to give me a ‘high five’. With a triumphant look, he asked me if I was going to write a new whisky book. I said, "Yes, I'm going to write a book that will be just about Scotch malt whisky and it's going to be called 'Whisky Companion'." “Do you think it will sell?” he asked. “I think so, especially in the U.S. and perhaps in England too.” I got another 'high five' and when the party was over, I started on my 'Malt Whisky Companion'.

It was in 1989 that this guide to malt whiskies tasted by me was published. It started with 250 tasting notes in the first edition. Last year, the fifth edition hit the shops, with more than a thousand tasting notes. It has sold 1 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 15 languages.

After 'Whisky Companion' I wrote a third whisky book entitled 'Scotland and its Whisky's'. This is actually more of a photo book than a whisky book and to be honest, this is an idea after Hugh Johnson’s ‘Tuscany and its Wines’. Indeed, I owe a lot to Hugh's ideas, but this doesn’t mean I copied them, or I would have started writing about wine.

On August 30, 2007, Michael Jackson suddenly died of a heart attack. Since April 27, 2009, Michael's birth date, International Whisky Day has been observed by raising a glass of whisky on him, to celebrate his life.




Text and images: Robin Brilleman

Robin Brilleman is a notable whisky writer and journalist on a national as well as an international level. He started more than 18 years ago in this wonderful world of whisky and has written several whisky books, including ‘The Chemistry of Scottisch Malt Whisky’ and ‘102 Myths from Whisky land’. He also teaches various courses and shares his knowledge in every possible way at the Dutch Whisky Information Center.

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