Category Archives: Book Reviews

Scouting out what people are writing about the drink we all love.

The North American Whiskey Guide from Behind the Bar

The North American Whiskey Guide from Behind the BarA few months back I was able to visit one of the more notable whiskey bars in the country, Aero Club in San Diego. While there I was able to speak at length about whiskey to manager Chad Berkey. During our conversation, he told me about a writing project he was working on with coauthor Jeremy LeBlanc, and I was intrigued. One of the key elements would be a panel of his bartenders also giving their thoughts on the whiskey, showing how every review, no matter how in-depth, is still just a collection of personal preferences. Having multiple voices gives every drinker a more informed opinion from which to make better selections.  So when I had the opportunity to review the book, I was definitely up for the task!

There are, of course multiple whiskey review books available.  Some go for quantity, covering over 4,000 spirits, but lack meaningful comments for the majority of its listings. Others focus on a specific region, cutting back on quantity to make room for quality. This book goes a little further, focusing on North American whiskey, and specifically ones that can be found in the Aero Club itself. I suppose you could see this as a very elaborate commercial for the bar. That it may be, but it is no less valuable to all drinkers. One benefit is that the whiskeys reviewed are all available to some extent. No rare gems you’ll never see outside of the auction block!

The book is divided into two sections: Whiskey and Cocktails. The whiskey section is further categorized into these sections, with each section getting a short, educational write-up:
Bourbon
Tennessee
Rye
Canadian
Blended/Other
Wheat
Corn/White
Malt

Extra content includes a whiskey and cigar pairing chart and a “bucket list” of rarer whiskeys that the authors recommend you keep on eye out for.

The write-ups for the whiskies give a small summary of the experience along with interesting facts. One nice touch is the “Related” line that lists whiskeys you might find to be of similar experience. Each is also rated by “Propellers” instead of stars in keeping with the Aero Club theme (the bar is just a stone’s throw from the airport).

A page from the whiskeys section.
A page from the whiskeys section.

The cocktails section gives a full-page treatment to each of the 34 recipes, mostly to make room for the coffee-table book style photography of the finished drinks.

Their selection process is obviously not inclusive, and there are some notable holes, but that is really just the nature of this type of book. I can’t really cite that as a negative since even The Whisky Bible misses some. The weakest section is Wheat with only four inclusions, but then again there are fewer to chose from. Curious is the absence of Burnheim’s Wheat Whiskey primarily because it is a featured ingredient in one of their cocktails.

A plus is the inclusion of Canadian, a category that often gets short shrift in other whiskey books.

The Introduction and the section intros are well-written, contain just enough information to be interesting, but short enough to not sound like a textbook. Perfect for this book.

Overall, my excitement when I first heard about this project was justified. This is the way whiskey books should be written. Good photography, easy-to-read layout and just plain-old good information make this an excellent book for any whiskey lover’s home bar.

Proof – The Science of Booze

by Adam Rogers
by Adam Rogers

While not strictly speaking a “whiskey” book, this offering is an enjoyable and informative read for any whiskey lover. At times a bit academic, it is always a rewarding experience.

The author takes us on a world- and time-spanning journey as humans discover distilling and eventually its revolutionary application to beverage making.

Beyond just the “science of booze,” Mr. Rogers also delves deeply into the social aspects of our favorite drinks. Or not so favorite as he explores the interesting possibility that we don’t actually like the taste of alcohol.

He tackles the questions of hangovers, drunken behavior, social expectations, and the limits of our current scientific knowledge. We learn about how our senses, experiences, and expectations are inexorably linked every time we take a sip.

At times he seems to overturn some cherished notions we have have about booze. My favorite being the discussion of how many flavors and aromas we can accurately identify, throwing some serious questions about the validity of the flowery and esoteric drink reviews we read.

This is a must-read for anyone who has held a glass up to the light and swirled the liquid inside around a few times wondering, “what is this?”

264 pages

Whisky: The Manual

Manual
By Dave Broom

The book claims to be “The Manual” for whisky, and indeed it does cover a wide variety of topics, but it ultimately falls very short. The author is on a mission, and everything is sacrificed to the altar of his mission. As a result, this book tries to accomplish several things but winds up doing none of them well.

Actually, he has two missions. The first is to let us know (on multiple occasions) that it  perfectly acceptable for women to drink whisky *gasp!!!!!* One photo caption brazenly states, “If you try telling master blender Kirsteen Campbell that women can’t enjoy whisky, you’d better have your running shoes on.” Apparently women who drink whisky are violent. And fast.

His second mission is dedicated to letting us know that it is OK to mix whisky with other ingredients. Again *gasp!!!!!* The tagline for the book is way too long to quote in its entirety (a warning sign right there), but it ends with “Above all it’s about enjoying whisky in ways you never thought possible.” In fact, the majority of the book is dedicated to ranking over 100 whiskies as they taste with mixers such as water, cola, coconut water, ginger ale, and green tea. Of the 224 pages in this book, a full 50% is dedicated to this section. In his zeal to mix his whisky, the author never actually rates the whisky itself. Just a minor oversight. Although a few times he does let us know a particular whisky should be enjoyed without mixing.

Another 43 pages are dedicated to cocktail recipes, leaving a scant 59 pages to actually discuss whisky. That’s not much to cover its history, methods of distillation, and the world-wide proliferation of the spirit, especially when we are reminded, yet again, that women are allowed to drink whisky. I’m too tired to gasp.

Overall, there is some interesting information, but not well presented. For a book claiming to be “The Manual,” it is missing some truly basic information.  The newcomer to the whiskey glass reading this book would still have no idea what the difference between a bourbon and a scotch is, but they would at least know women are allowed to drink either. The veteran to the dram is left thinking, “so?”

It would have been much better to have called this the “Mixer’s Manual” or something similar. I know a friend who received this book as a gift, the giver under the assumption it was a book full of general information. Sadly, no.

If you are dying to know which whisky tastes good with coconut water this might be your tome. If your boyfriend refuses to let you drink whisky, let him read this (then dump him). If you’re looking for a good introduction to the spirit, not so much.

224 pages

Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2014

Bible
By Jim Murray

This is the standard by which all whiskey rating endeavors are measured. With over 4,500 whiskies rated, Mr. Murray wonders how long his taste buds can hold out. I wonder how long his liver can hold out!

Most of these rating are holdovers from previous years, however, with “only” 1,100 new entries for this year.

His rating are a totaling of four sections, each given a 25 point rating. Nose, Taste, Finish, and Balance/complexity are added together for a final rating on a 100 point scale.

It works well as a reference, with the sections divided into styles (Bourbon, Scotch, Irish, etc). Each section starts off with a concise summary of that region/style and what to expect. It’s actually a good primer in that regard in its own right.

I highly recommend this if for nothing other than the sheer volume of whiskies rated. I certainly do not agree with many of his ratings, but then that’s not the point. The reader can at least get some feel for that never-before-heard-of whisky before it is tried. Or, if you’re like me, to see how my ratings compare. As I stated earlier, many times I don’t agree with Mr. Murray’s ratings, and it’s important for readers/drinkers to be OK with that. Mr. Murray makes it clear that drinkers should form their own opinions.

I think it’s a rite of passage for a whiskey aficionado to look at a rating given by an “expert” and feel confident in disagreeing. It’s all about personal taste, after all.

The entries can range from a simple one-line numerical rating to a very personal description of the tasting experience. On occasion Mr. Murray relates anecdotes surrounding a particular whiskey, whether during the process of tasting or just relating to the whiskey in question.

In a small insight into his process, he reveals it took four hours to compile the notes for George T. Stagg bourbon.

His personal touch can add a human element to what some try to make a sterile exercise, but it can also lead to descriptions that don’t really aid the reader much. Mr. Murray’s only description for Royal Household blended scotch is, “We are amused.” I’m not sure if that’s all that helpful. (But it is intriguing! Especially with a 90.5 rating.)

It can be a little frustrating if you hear about a whisky and are unsure of its classification as the whiskies are only listed by category  without an overall alphabetical listing.

I haven’t found anything close to this for breadth of content. Highly recommended, though you may not need to repurchase it every year.

 

Jim Murray loves hates my whisky
The love/hate relationship with “experts”

 

American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye

American Book
By Clay Risen

A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit

Finally a good pictorial guide to American produced whiskey to complement those available for Scotches!

A very well put together reference, this book is essential for the whiskey lover. Some would ask why someone would need this if they already happen to have Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, as that book also covers all the whiskey in this book (or most, I haven’t done an exhaustive cross-check). Good question! If you were to buy only one whiskey reference, it would have to be Mr. Murray’s book just for its comprehensiveness. That said, this offering has plenty to offer those with at least one empty spot on their bookshelf. By focusing on a segment of the whiskey market, this book can go into the kind of detail that would make Mr. Murray’s book a multi-volume monstrosity.

First, it has a very informative introduction. It’s probably one of the best primers for the whiskey beginner. It hits all the important points, especially the “what’s make a bourbon?” question almost everyone I ever talk to asks. History, methodology, and technique all get thorough attention without dragging.

What to expect from the Whiskey Accounts
What to expect from the Whiskey Accounts

Next up is the “Whiskey Accounts” section, the heart of the book. The whiskeys are separated by distiller (or more accurately “Brand Name”). Each brand gets a small write up with a little history and contact information, including who the actual producing company is. Each specific expression gets its own little section including a photograph of the bottle, a very nice touch. From there we get the standard details: Nose, Age, Proof, Color, Body (a description of texture), Palate, Price, Rating, and a General section with important (or just interesting) notes.

In a departure from standard procedure, the whiskeys are rated on a four-star scale in half-star increments with a dreadful N/R (Not Recommended) designation. (So I guess it’s really a nine-point scale?)  The standard hundred-point scale (with decimals, so a thousand-point scale) is patently ridiculous.

In a very nice touch, the book ends with some good extras such as sources for further research (books, websites, etc.), a glossary, a checklist for you to mark off your progress, and an index.

A complete, thorough, and highly entertaining read.

297 pages

Whiskey & Philosophy

Philosophy
Edited by Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams

A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas

A collection of philosophical essays (20, to be exact) this book is an interesting, if uneven, read. A few of the essays are gems, a few more are interesting, and the rest are forgettable. In true academic style, many of the essays are footnoted to within an inch of their lives.

The book is divided into 5 sections.
I: The History and Culture of Whiskey
II: The Beauty and Experience of Whiskey
III: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Whiskey
IV: Ethics and Whiskey
V: Whiskey: A Sense of Place

Some read like an undergrad philosophy student’s whipping out an essay the night before it’s due, quoting Hume pointlessly just so a footnote can be added.

A few essays are, however, well thought-out and engaging, especially the first three essays. This leads to a false sense of security as the quality drops off quickly, although my favorite title comes from essay #19 on Japanese Whisky: “It’s called Queen George, and it’s More Bitched Up Than Its Name.” It is an interesting and colorful title for a discussion on the progression of Japanese whisky from a cheap (and quite possibly dangerous) knockoff alcohol to a world-class spirit.

In the end, it’s like a box of chocolates. Some essays are great, some are good, most are just so-so with a few simply atrocious.

I recommend getting this book despite its uneven delivery. The few gems are worth the price of admission.

4 no

Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide

Whiskey
By Michael Jackson

This book is the best all-around whiskey primer available. While Mr. Jackson gets the author credit, Whiskey is much more of a collaboration with contributions from nine other writers presented as an anthology of articles. With its large format and generous photos, this also works well as a coffee table book.

The book covers all the areas one would expect to find, from history to methodology to in-depth discussion about the differing whiskey producing regions world wide.

Though not set up as a tasting journal, it does give a few descriptions of individual expressions. It does, however, give the reader an idea of what to expect from the various distillers. A brief history of each distiller is also given.

The articles are informative and well-written, a perfect format for picking up and randomly picking a page to read. It feels more like something to keep coming back to for multiple short reads than something you read straight through, although there would be nothing wrong with doing that!

288 pages

5 no