The mini-marathon of book reviews by Jonny McCormick continues here on WDJK. Thanks Jonny!
(Please note, the cover image posted here is the UK editon.)
The World’s Best Whiskies: 750 Essential Drams from Tennessee to Tokyo by Dominic Roskrow
Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York and Jacqui Small LLP, UK | 288 pages
This is one of the more substantial contenders of the whisky book releases this Fall but does size really matter? Well, there appears to be some publishing machismo about, from Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies, Dave Broom’s World Atlas: More Than 300 expressions tasted, to Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2011 (promising more than 4,500 tasted) so slotting in the middle sits Dominic Roskrow’s 750 essential drams. It’s certainly noteworthy to bring out a major new tastings-dominated title in the whisky blogosphere’s golden era, to a marketplace of established tasting titles in the same year as the author played a major role in updating Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (6th edition). However, the author’s purpose was clearly not to produce his own heavyweight version of other coffee table texts such as Michael Jackson’s Whisky (2005) or Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky (1997). Here, the purpose is to tell the stories of the key people and distilleries behind the world’s best whiskies.
The introductory section contains a quick overview of distilling, production techniques for single malts, blends and bourbon followed by some brief whisky basics on tasting, glassware, whisky categories, food pairing and cocktails. The selection process of the 750 drams was meritocratic, drawn from contemporary releases and truly global in scope with sections on Scotland, USA, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Europe and the Rest of the World. Tasting notes are straight-forward, informative and expert descriptions without exuberant embellishments and the whiskies are not rated. Interspersed between the tastings are 34 distillery profiles and four distiller profiles. The majority of whiskies are accompanied by a bottle image creating a strong visual aesthetic with enticing double-spreads marking a benchmark for future reference. The creation of ten tasting symbols help you pick out different characteristics from peaty or aged to a high strength warning (George T Stagg bourbon, with eight symbols listed, has more symbols than any other) though it takes some time to become familiar with the system and whilst you’re learning, it would have been helpful to have the symbols and explanations for easy reference on the book jacket inside flap or on an accompanying bookmark. He jests about the irony of a whisky author explaining the best glass for nosing single malts yet publishers insistently placing a tumbler on the front cover. I’m calling this Roskrow’s first law of whisky publishing; check your bookshelves everybody!
There’ll be few WDJK followers unfamiliar with the author’s professional contributions to the field and you sense this is a book he’s been craving to write for years. We’ve read some sneak previews of his background research for the book through recent magazine articles and his writing style, eschewing forgettable statistics and dry passages of history, is credible yet informal, accessible and laced with his trademark references to good music and sports (frequently his cherished Leicester City soccer team). Arguably, in a selection of the world’s best whiskies, there shouldn’t be too many negative points but it does read like he’s being way too nice here. Where he has a chance to be critical, all too often he pulls back, for example on the Wemyss Smooth Gentleman where he remarks on a vaguely fishy nose and how it doesn’t leave a huge impression then draws back declaring it “pleasant enough and worth investigating”. I assume that on a rare occasion, geographical range has overridden quality during selection as a couple of whiskies are listed yet disclosed as not tasted (for example some Corsican whiskies). Similarly, during the territory overviews and profiles, where there is criticism, it is oblique and attributed to unspecified third parties, that is “some say that…” rather than the author’s personal opinion on these issues. Controversies, where they appear, are likely to be well-known tales including Cardhu’s Pure Malt, the launch of The Macallan Fine Oak range and the SWA legal objections to Glen Breton and Compass Box Spice Tree.
Occasionally, there is overlap between the introduction of the distillery and the tasting notes leading to a degree of repetition, for example, we learn the reason behind the Buffalo Trace name on page 163, only to be reminded of the same fact on page 167. I suspect this is because most tasting books are sampled in small sections rather than read front to back. Bearing that in mind, don’t skip the rewarding sections on the innovations occurring within the blended and blended malt categories, the growth of Irish and Japanese whisky and Roskrow’s drumbeating for European and World whiskies. Finally, the most satisfying writing comes from the sharing of the anecdotes from his whisky writing career such as a late night bar debate on whisky journalism with a spirited Charlie MacLean or his night in an Irish Republican bar in Cork singing rebel songs and drinking Jameson.
With over 900 tasting notes on the Malt Advocate website, do you prefer to read tasting notes in books, magazines or online? How many notes will you read on a single release?
How long does it take you to tune into another expert’s tasting notes? When has someone got a review that perfectly matched your experiences of the whisky?