Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Fire Water

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonA while back I got a box from Darek Bell, the co-founder of Corsair Distillery. It wasn’t a big box, just about the size of a shoebox, and not that heavy. On opening, there was a lot of smoke-gray bubblewrap, a piece of paper, and ten little sample bottles of whiskey. The paper had a key to the contents of the bottles. Some had a fanciful name, like Smokejumper, Pyro, or Hydra, and each was whiskey, smoked with a different combustible: black walnut, pear, blackberry root, Hickory Amaranth, lemon balm, “5 Smoke blend.” I thought back to our 2012 Craft Whiskey of the Year, Corsair’s Triple Smoke, and sat down and started opening bottles!

Hydra — 5 smoke blend — The “smokiest” of the batch, bonfire, chimney smoke, but with a depth of different characters that keep it perky and bright: citrus, flower.

Now Bell follows up with Fire Water, Experimental Smoked Malts and Whiskeys, a focused companion book to his earlier Alt Whiskey. These two books share what’s constantly bubbling through Bell’s brain: Innovate or Die. He’s been quoted many times as saying that Corsair’s goal is to make whiskeys that have never been made before. Fire Water represents new territory indeed, by approaching smoke in whiskey as something far beyond peat.

Salamander — muira puama bark — Muira Puama is an Amazonian shrub used in herbal medicine. Floral, bosky, like leaves underfoot or old books without the acidity, and only gently smoky.

Fire Water is directly aimed at the people who want to make whiskey, and these days, illegal though it may be (and it is, very illegal), I run into people every week who tell me they’re distilling at home. (I tell them, you know, whether you sell it or not, even if you make just a little, it’s very illegal.) But the point of the book is to provide a guide particularly to the people who want to try something very different, not just a different mashbill, or making their own malt whiskey; this is for people who, like Bell, really want to rock out with their whiskey-making.

Firehawk — oak maple muira puama blend — Vetiver, cologne, a sharp smokiness with bright notes.

FireWaterThe first part of the book is a detailed look at smoking. What do you smoke, how do you smoke, what changes the amount of smoke a grain will absorb, and the various techniques — including direct injection — of getting smoke flavor into the distillate. I was surprised to learn that frozen grain will absorb more smoke flavor. This is nuts and bolts stuff that will excite the distiller and curious drinker both.

Efreet — lemon balm — very lemony, but with a sweet smokiness; gentle, but firm and refreshing.

Then the meat of the book is the tasting notes: what does distillate made with these smoked grains smell and taste like? The notes are done by two experienced ‘noses,’ Nancy Fraley and Julia Nourney. They give notes independently on an array of distillate made with the different ‘smokes,’ from woods, herbs, barks, and roots. One thing you learn is that fruitwood doesn’t always smell like the fruit. “Where’s the pear,” reads one nosing note under pear wood.

Pyro — pearwood — Fresh, delicately smoky, a surprising hit of olive brine.

The last part of the book approaches blending; putting these different flavors together to make a greater whole. This is the Canadian approach crossed with craft-based explosive variety. It reads not unlike a discussion with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head about his herb and fruit-based beers that seem to defy common sense to work beautifully; Calagione planned his beers, he didn’t just throw things together. Plan for greatness, Bell says, don’t stumble on it, and then lays out a philosophy for blending. Blending has gotten a bad name in whisky circles, and anything that gives it respect is a good thing.

NAGA — clove and barberry blend — Big smoke and spice, explosive, tangy, and shocking. Flavored whiskey that is 100% whiskey.

My one complaint with Fire Water is the design and editing. This was a self-published book, and it shows in spots. There are editing oversights that should have been caught, and the design looks rushed and jammed. The illustrations are good, colorful and illustrative, but don’t always lay well on the page. The production quality is good, though, and the cover is particularly striking.

Smokejumper — black walnut — Perhaps the purest smoke; firewood burning, sweet barbecue smoke.

Overall, though? Fire Water is jam-packed with ideas that will open up imaginative doors for innovative distillers of all types. There is brilliance here, with daring and excitement. These whiskeys won’t be for everyone — neither are Islay whiskies — but they may well burn out a whole new category of American spirits. And that’s worth a look.

A Journalist and a Bartender Walk into a Publisher’s Office…

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

author-matthew-rowleyWilliam Faulkner is supposed to have said that civilization begins with distillation, but Adam Rogers isn’t having it. “I’d push even farther,” he writes in his new book Proof, “beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, sake…all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.” Rogers argues that understanding humanity’s relationship with alcohol is about understanding, well, everything, really: chemistry, biology, cultural norms, even the origins of civilization. Readers of Wired magazine, where he is articles editor, will recognize the tone: approachable, witty, and a bit obsessive.

Proof Cover - hiresProof expands upon Rogers’ 2011 article “The Angel’s Share” about the mysterious black stain that appeared homes and other surfaces up to a mile away from Canadian Club’s whisky warehouses. The culprit, a fungus from the newly named genus Baudoinia, does what some of us only wish we could do; it thrives on the angel’s share escaping wooden whisky barrels. The unmasking of Baudoinia is just one of dozens of tales Rogers tells as he covers botanical, chemical, biological, technological, and historical facets of our spirits’ move from field to bottle.

It’s a lot of information to cram into one book and at times it can feel as if we’re lurching from topic to topic. If you enjoy James Burke’s old The Day the Universe Changed series, however, or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos reboot — as I do — you may find that conversational approach makes complex narratives that span millennia a bit easier to swallow.

Among his stories, Rogers tells of distillers and technicians trying to break the supply logjam of aging spirits by speeding the process. Smaller or honeycombed barrels, loud music, and a combination of forced oxygen and ultrasonic waves to remove unwanted congeners come into play. Though results are less than compelling, Rogers doles out plaudits for the technology. He traces one of distillation’s origin myths to ancient Alexandria and demonstrates just how plausible it was that the city’s engineers created early stills.

“Aroma wheels” now exist for Scotch, cognac, tequila, gin, and other drinks, but agreeing on the vocabulary of olfaction is an undertaking so difficult that a workable lexicon of how things smell only emerged in the last thirty years. California distilling consultant Nancy Fraley has developed one for small distillery craft whiskeys. “It’s one of the hardest things,” she tells Rogers, “I’ve ever done.”

The Bar Book medresReading Proof may build a powerful thirst. No worries; Jeffrey Morgenthaler will set you right.

It’s been a century and a half since publication of America’s first bartenders’ manual. Filled with recipes for cocktails, highballs, shrubs, nogs, punches, and countless other coolers and phlegm cutters, the thousands of drinks books that followed in its wake are ubiquitous on the shelves of today’s cocktail cognoscenti. Morgenthaler’s masterful The Bar Book, released this week, is the universal instruction manual for them all.

Despite more than 60 illustrative recipes, The Bar Book is a not a recipe collection. Rather, it is a grammar of sorts that explains — in clear, precise detail — techniques for preparing drinks. In just under 300 pages, Morgenthaler covers the intricacies of ice, how to select and prepare fruit, working with dairy and eggs, measuring, straining, shaking, and more.

If I had owned The Bar Book twenty years ago when first attempting to open a cold shaker, I’d have been spared one wicked blood blister; there’s a diagram showing how to pull off the maneuver. Yes, it works. So does the one for the dry shake. Between considerations about temperature, dilution, extracting flavors, filtering, manipulating texture, using sugar, and other common bar procedures, he calls out, by make and model, the equipment he prefers and explains why. It’s refreshing advice that stands in contrast with recipe books whose editors bend over backwards to avoid naming brands.

My own culinary library contains thousands of food and drinks books spanning centuries. When deciding what volumes to add, a constant consideration is whether, if I could only have a single book on the topic, the one in my hand covers everything I need to know. Cheers to Mr. Morgenthaler for allowing me say: Yes. Yes, it does.

 

Jeffery Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg (2014) The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. Chronicle Books, $30/£18

Adam Rogers (2014) Proof: The Science of Booze. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26/£15

Whiskey Books for the Holidays, Part 3

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Another review of a whiskey book for your holiday shopping, this time a cookbook for the American whiskey lover.

Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey

Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then SomeLew Bryson

by John Currence

2013, Andrews McMeel Publishing

John Currence, James Beard Award winning chef of the City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Mississippi, has a lot to say in this book about how you should cook and how you should eat: he’s disdainful of low-fat stuff, and adamant that you should not use pre-ground black pepper (“It is disgusting and in almost no way representative of the flavor of freshly ground”). But at the same time, he likes some things that must give foodies fits: French’s yellow mustard, Duke’s mayonnaise, Vlasic sweet pickle relish. I like that a lot about Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey; Currence has opinions, and he states them boldly. Besides, any man who has a portrait that shows him lovingly hugging a barrel of Old Fitzgerald in his cookbook is a guy I at least want to meet.

Did I dump you into the book too abruptly? Get used to it; this book goes from 0 to 60 in about three paragraphs, and Currence steers it down country roads, well over the speed limit, dust clouds flying and music jamming the whole way. Every page is packed with information: cooking tips, music suggestions (there’s a Spotify playlist for the book if you want (hint: Currence really wants you to do it)), and beautiful photos of food that show you just what it looks like before cooking, during cooking, or when it’s plated; I refer you to “A Note On Making Roux” on page 42 as an example. You can almost picture his editor running away with the manuscript and Currance chasing them shouting, “Hold on, I got one more thing!”

Pickles: Currence reminds me of a favorite store in Pennsylvania Dutch country in that he’ll pickle anything that gets too close to vinegar. You’re looking at recipes for pickled grapes, lemon, watermelon rind…and then there’s pickled duck legs and pig’s ears. And he does such a good job with the words and the pictures, flying down the road with the pedal to the metal, that you want to make them. At least, I do, and I think he could probably teach the Dutchmen a thing or two.

PPW_cover_jacket.inddPigs? You’re not going to learn how to cook pork or ham or sausage dishes, you’re going to learn how to make bacon, smoke hams, stuff sausage (and learn why technique really makes a difference), and then make the sauces that go with them. Sure, you could buy all that stuff, but Currence wants you to understand why the stuff is good…and maybe improve it. As he says, there is a lot of room in the margins for you to make your own corrections and betterments on his recipes. “Secret,” he says in a parenthetical note: “they can all be done better.”

Whiskey? Did you think I’d forget? Currence didn’t: where many other cookbooks I’ve read (I’m looking at a full wall-unit bookshelf full of them, and there are more downstairs, I like cookbooks) tuck cocktails away at the end, “Stirring, Shaking and Muddling” is the first chapter, illustrated with Currence and Preston Van Winkle looking at barrels in the Buffalo Trace warehouse. He drinks wine with food, he says, and has beer when he’s fishing, but the chef is a flat-out whiskey man: bourbon, scotch, cocktails, and no fooling around on the quantities. Love of bourbon floats through the whole book, and it keeps you smiling.

This is usually the part of a review where I find one or two things to nitpick about a book I like. I only have one complaint: I found it hard to keep up! Every now and then I had to pull over and have a breather, stretch my legs a bit before jumping back in the pickup and taking off on Currence’s wild ride. There’s so much here, though…and as he says, always read the recipe through first. Common advice, but with this one, you might want to read through the whole book first, and get marinated in his cooking flavor. It’s worth the bumps and jumps and thumps along the ride.

When I saw the cover of the book, and the title, and the now-seemingly obligatory pictures of Currence drinking Pappy Van Winkle, I was skeptical. Don’t be. This is the honest item, and I’m going to be cooking Southern for a while, grinding fresh pepper, having opinions and writing notes…and building a drink first. Great read!

Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 2

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Our second installment of whisky book reviews for the holidays, this one from Jonny McCormick, who appropriately notes on sending it in, “I could murder a drink!”

Whisky Wars, Riots and Murder - Crime in the 19th Century Highlands and IslandsJonny McCormick

by Malcolm Archibald

Published by Black & White Publishing, 279 pages

As our thoughts turn to the holidays, your relatives may be looking for an interesting gift for the whisky expert in the family. Rather than a whisky tome, this is a true crime book set in the Highlands and Islands during the Victorian era and imbued with a flavor of whisky.

The Whisky Wars relate to illicit distillation in theWhiskyWars HiRes CMYK 19th century, as the early distillers played cat and mouse with the gaugers. The Glenlivet area was notoriously rife with distillers at the time. It could seem like there was a still in every bothy, the practice fuelled by the imposition of higher duties. The revenue men chased the peat reek, attempting to intercept the whisky smugglers while they were on the move to market. Violent assaults were fought with cudgel and cutlass on lonely tracks through the glens. A musket battle erupted in the Cabrach, near Dufftown, during one attempt to root out hidden stills and copper cooling coils. The excisemen called in military reinforcements and soon redcoats were posted at isolated garrisons in bleak glens.

The commonly repeated tale of Gillespie the Gauger is included: his descent documented from swashbuckling government man to a grisly end, convicted of corruption. Legitimate distillers were on the take too: consider the cunning and ingenuity of the unscrupulous distillery manager in Pitlochry who stole maturing whisky by siphoning it from the cask through a drilled hole in the warehouse wall, to store it in secret casks buried underground.

The author has published other Scottish crime books on Glasgow and Dundee. This is neither a whisky book, nor a comprehensive academic study; instead it’s a compelling clutch of vignettes ranging across the century. The chapters romp through a series of adventurous tales, populated by a bawdy cast of 19th century Highland miscreants up to their necks in banknote forgeries, sheep stealing, embezzlement, poaching, robbery, and bloody murder. Communities unite to defend their way of life from harsh, indifferent landlords. There is little moralizing. Judges mete out punishments from transportation to Australia to hangings, public whipping, and long imprisonment with hard labor for the more savage crimes.

Even in the non-Whisky Wars part of the book, whisky stories are never far away. A distractible hotel thief is arrested when he drops his guard to help himself to some free whisky; a man is murdered in Crieff, losing his watch and a half mutchkin of whisky (an old Scots unit of measurement); an illicit distiller from Argyll is threatened with the public humiliation of being placed in the juggs (a padlocked iron collar) in his local church.

The period covered in the text is categorically 19th century. That makes the choice of a 20th century cover photo of distillery workers at Macallan sitting atop casks stamped 1917 both curious and slightly anachronistic. It’s a terrific shot, though; hirsute men in collarless shirts and young lads in baker boy caps sit rank and file with women in white aprons gripping malt shovels. Collectively, there are more production staff in this century old photograph than any modern distillery will likely have on shift today.

My only other minor criticism is the book’s internal images. These feature contemporary photographs of modern locations mentioned in the stories but I felt they added little context. The majority are underexposed like they’ve been shot at 4 p.m. on a dark winter’s day.

So lock the doors and shut out the night. Turn down the lights and pour yourself some courage. Delve into the criminal underbelly of the Scottish Highlands and Islands: the geography and terrain will be familiar to those who have trodden the whisky trail or studied the labels of their single malts. Just don’t have nightmares.

(If you are looking for a book dealing solely with smuggling and illicit distillation, there are several excellent whisky books in existence, of course. Try The Secret Still by Gavin D Smith (2002), Tales of Whisky and Smuggling by Stewart McHardy (1991) or Illicit Scotch by S.W. Sillett (1965).)

Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 1

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

We know the holidays are coming…er, are here, and we’re sorry this is a bit late for Hanukkah, but we wanted to get you some advice on whisky books. Here’s the first set, from Fred Minnick; more to come.Fred Minnick

When my literary agent and I were shopping Whiskey Women, the most common rejection we received was, “Whiskey is a niche audience and doesn’t interest the masses.” That’s why many whiskey writers have been forced to self publish and American whiskey enthusiasts have had to rely on dated texts—mainstream American publishers never took whiskey books seriously.

My, oh, my, times are changing. Publishers are bringing new books to light that are good for the future of whiskey. This holiday season whiskey books are on many gift lists, and there are two new ones I highly recommend for the American whiskey fan in your life.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye by Clay RisenAWBRCover

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to The Nation’s Favorite Spirit by Clay Risen, an editor for the New York Times, is the first true whiskey guide dedicated to only American whiskey. Other whiskey guides have explored rye and bourbon whiskey, but they also covered Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. Risen sticks to American distillations.

Risen delicately walks readers into whiskey’s past, present and future without getting on too much of soapbox. But, he sends a few jabs to distillers and bottlers, revealing where products are actually distilled and questioning odd product marketing.

With the “Old Whiskey River” brand Risen informs us Willie Nelson commissioned the whiskey, but adds a parenthetical “whatever that means.” For Bulleit bourbon, Risen uncovers the worst kept secret in modern whiskey history: the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, makes Bulleit Bourbon.

Risen’s words are meant for whiskey lovers, as he dissects every brand’s hi  story and scores products on an NR (not recommended) to four-star scale. He conveniently left out flavored whiskeys and gave NRs to mostly craft whiskeys, including four Hudson whiskeys. Risen’s palate certainly skews to older bourbon, granting four stars to Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Michter’s 20 year old, and Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbons.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is an American whiskey treasure worthy of four stars in Risen’s scoring format. One downside to this book is Risen likely made Pappy Van Winkle even more desired. When describing Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Risen says, “bourbon doesn’t get better.” Retailers didn’t need that!

 

Kentucky Bourbon Country by Susan ReiglerReigler, BOURBON Cover 300dip

With the growth of the Bourbon Trail and the whiskey’s mainstream media coverage, Kentucky’s bourbon experience looks to join California’s Napa Valley as a spot for adult beverage travel. But unlike Napa, Bourbon Country has lacked a truly informative guide to help folks navigate the commonwealth’s distilleries. Until now.

Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide by Susan Reigler, with photographs by Pam Spaulding, leapfrogs Internet travel sites and gives a comprehensive travel guide that digs deep into each Kentucky region.

Reigler gives a terroir look to Kentucky bourbon, breaking the book into the commonwealth’s major bourbon regions: Louisville, Frankfort and Midway, Lexington, Lawrenceburg, and Bardstown. In each section, Reigler offers the area’s bourbon history, from a brief mention of the Henry Clay distillery in the Lexington area to Frenchman Leopold Labrot’s shareholding status with the Frankfort/Midway region’s Labrot & Graham distillery, now the Woodford Reserve distillery.

As a Kentuckian, I’m thrilled with how Reigler explores not only bourbon, but takes you inside several relatively unknown destinations, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Lawrenceburg, a hidden gem in this state that’s often overlooked by travel writers; the Perryville Battlefield, a Civil War park where 7,500 were killed or wounded; and along the beautiful horse farms and race tracks that complement Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.

Reigler also gives cogent driving advice that GPS programmers should listen to and great boarding recommendations. Beyond the detail of most travel guides, Kentucky Bourbon Country was most certainly written by a Kentuckian.

Both Reigler’s and Risen’s books show great promise for the whiskey book world. Just remember to read responsibly and with fine bourbon in hand.

An All-Encompassing Chronicle

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Lew Bryson joins us today with a review of Davin de Kergommeaux’s recently released book.

Canadian Whisky: the portable expert, by Davin de Kergommeaux

With this book, Davin de Kergommeaux establishes himself as the foremost writer on Canadian whisky. Before you get in a snobbish whisky geek mood and dismiss that as similar to being the world’s tallest midget, you really should read the book. Even if it doesn’t make you a regular Canadian whisky drinker, it will at least dispel the myths and mistaken assumptions you may have about this entire category of whisky, for de Kergommeaux has written a book full of facts about Canadian whisky, and written it well.

While the author’s mission is clear—present a full, true, accurate picture of Canadian whisky in order to gain the industry a greater measure of the respect it is due—only rarely does he pound the pulpit. Instead, the point is made by describing the historical origins of Canadian whisky and the blending philosophy that informs it, and by explaining the distillation process at each of the nine Canadian distilleries.

Explaining the process at each distillery is a good idea, because this is not bourbon or Scotch whisky, a closely defined and regulated spirit with very specific rules. There are rules, but those rules and the idea behind them allow a much wider variety of techniques, components, aging, and blending. It may help if you think of blending Canadian whisky more in terms of blending cognac rather than blending Scotch whisky, or of American blended whisky. There is a greater freedom to blend whiskies of different ages, types, and strengths, in a variety of woods.

It can be dizzyingly complicated, but de Kergommeaux handles it deftly, taking us through each distillery’s own twists on whisky making, including the easily-differentiated Kittling Ridge and Glenora, the two outliers in the list. Not only that, he untangles the knotted strands of brand history, explaining how the iconic Canadian brands like Crown Royal, Wiser’s, Canadian Club, V.O., Windsor, and Alberta Premium were created, developed, and came to be made by the companies that now own them. He even makes it easy to follow; quite an accomplishment, given the twisting nature of whisky ownership over the past 40 years.

Did you want to know something about the actual whiskies as well? You’re covered, with tasting notes for 100 of the top Canadian whiskies are included, sprinkled through the text at appropriate spots (the addition of a separate index for the tasting notes is most welcome). A wide array is included, from the humble standard bottlings to the exalted Alberta Premium 30 Year Old and the long-gone cult favorite Bush Pilot’s Reserve.

Reading this “portable expert” will not make you an expert on Canadian whisky. The only way to do that is to do what the author has done: taste widely, visit the distilleries, and talk to the people who make it. But Canadian Whisky will open your mind to the possibilities of this long-underappreciated and slowly awakening branch of the whisky family. Well worth a read.

Whisky in 2011: the year in review

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

I was going to summarize all the new releases and general trends in whisky this past year (and there have been a lot of them). But, Sku over at his Recent Eats blog, did such a great job with this recent post, there’s no use in reinventing the wheel. Well done, Sku!

Read his post. How do you feel about what happened in whisky in 2011? Was it a good year or a bad year? And why?

Guest post: Book review of “Great Whiskies: 500 of the Best from around the world”

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Jonny McCormick, regular Malt Advocate magazine contributor, joins us today with a new book review.

Great Whiskies: 500 of the Best from around the world
Editor-in-Chief Charles MacLean
Published by DK (Dorling Kindersley)
Hardcover
384 pages


My mission is to sift through the new whisky book titles to help you choose the right books for you, in the same way as whisky reviews can be the next best thing to sipping a new release. Hopefully, this will mean everyone gets the most for their dollars and the publishing world will continue to intrigue us with interesting and creative whisky books.

Today’s offering is more suitable for those in the earlier stages of their whisky journeys, or those people who could use a handy reference book in the bar to educate their staff and customers. Dorling Kindersley have filleted World Whisky (DK, 2009) to produce Great Whiskies, a straightforward A-Z handbook of fantastic whisk(e)y brands. One of the pleasures of whisky is the unquenchable capacity for new learning – even the greats of the industry will admit there are always fresh aspects to discover. The achievement of this book is the wealth of information packed into a chunky handbook.

DK are to be congratulated and Charles MacLean, to his great credit, has performed a fine job as editor-in-chief in ensuring the book has a consistency of style that masks the collaborative variance of using multiple authors. This is matched by the clarity of the layout, and the conceptual simplicity and uniformity of the bottle photographs.

Amongst the contributing writers are fellow Malt Advocate regulars Dave Broom and Gavin D Smith who have covered Japanese and American whiskies, respectively. Peter Mulryan manages the Irish whiskies, Tom Bruce-Gardyne covers single malts from Scotland, Ian Buxton acts as the curator of blended whisky, Hans Offringa tackles European whisky whilst MacLean himself has handled Canada, Australasia and Asia.

A concise column on each brand covers history and production in about 100 words, before succinct tasting notes are provided on key bottlings.  Certain world-beating brands are given space over two pages with four reviews. Double spread touring guides of Islay, Speyside, Ireland, Japan and Kentucky periodically interrupt the alphabetical format.

One missed opportunity was to not update the information from World Whisky before pulling this text together so for example, tasting notes for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection are from the 2008 releases.  On occasion, this can make the page look slightly dated particularly when examining the newer distillers (where we are shown Mackmyra Preludium or Kilchoman New Make Spirit products) or the brands benefitting from recent repackaging initiatives (see Deanston, Tobermory or Fettercairn).

While there are 500 listed bottlings in Great Whiskies (but not 500 brands), there is no mention of the criteria used to define their greatness. The most obvious parallels are with Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to try before you die but the whiskies chosen here have a broader price range (the most expensive is probably The Last Drop) and the range of blends marketed the world over mean that you’re not going to be able to easily get your hands on certain bottles.

This is the perfect topic crying out for an e-book version for easy reference on the move – how about it DK?

EDITOR’S NOTE: While the author does hint that some of the material is outdated, please see the comment thread below for more information.

Guest Post: Book review of “Smokeheads” by Doug Johnstone

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Jonny McCormick, a regular Malt Advocate features writer shares a review of  Doug Johnstone’s “Smokeheads.”  Will it be the whisky novel you choose for your next vacation?

Smokeheads
by Doug Johnstone
Published by Faber & Faber Limited
Available in Hardcover and Kindle versions
291 pages

“Four friends. One weekend. Gallons of whisky. What could go wrong?” asks the cover of Doug Johnstone’s third novel. These thirty-somethings, all former Edinburgh University buddies catch the ferry to Islay anticipating a weekend of great drams and distillery visits. Adam is the main protagonist, a short balding anti-hero with big plans who labors as a retail worker in a whisky shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (and detests its tourist clientele for their whisky naivety). His whisky compadres are Rory, a charmless millionaire fund manager and boorish misogynist and Ethan and Luke, two rather flimsy characters who act more as plot devices than fully-fledged individuals. Taciturn Luke is a stoner musician and you know this because he says the word “man” after most of his dialogue.

During the early chapters the group tour Laphroaig distillery, meeting Molly, a distillery guide whom Adam has met on earlier visits while she was still married and their mutual attraction lingers. Not long after landing on Islay, Rory’s driving attracts the wrath of the local police in the form of Joe, a brutish and corrupt cop and coincidently, Molly’s ex-husband. Without revealing the subsequent plot twists and turns of this Tartan Noir thriller, Adam reveals the pretence under which he’s invited these friends to the island and the scene is set for fallout and mayhem.

The whisky writing is authentic and the guys enjoy sipping a 27 year old single cask Port Ellen on the ferry, a Laphroaig 30 year old, Bruichladdich Deliverance X4 and Laphroaig Quarter cask and from the descriptions of Islay, distilleries and the drams, you trust the author is no stranger to the subject matter. However, amidst the chaos of murder and destruction, there is a moment where Adam and Rory share some preposterously asinine tasting notes which seem excessively crass. As a work of fiction, the plot twists are often heavy-handed and you can see them coming a mile off. The cartoon violence is frequent, bloody and casually grotesque and the swearing is prolific.

I found the stamina and endurance of the characters in Smokeheads (both the good guys and the bad) pushed the limits of plausibility at times, a consequence of the incessant action sequences written with a certain televisual quality. Molly emerges as the strong female lead, cool under pressure unlike Rory who has few redeeming qualities and a relentless cocaine habit (drug use being a topic of Johnstone’s earlier work, The Ossians). However, I enjoyed how the text cleverly manages to convey a sense of fearful claustrophobia to the Oa pennisula, one of the wildest and most remote parts of the island.

Right to the end, the author maintains his grip on the tension which will have you turning the pages to see if they will get away with it all. I would love to know what Ileachs think of the depiction of them and their island. While sharing some genre similarities of gore and pace, Johnstone’s style does not match the comic wit and elements of surprise that marks out Christopher Brookmyre at his best, nor the menacing dark inventiveness of the early Colin Bateman books. However, with malt whisky at its core, this book will make enjoyable summer vacation reading for whisky fans although it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

Tell us, have any of you read this book and what did you think?  Can anyone recommend any other good novels that focus on whisky?

Guest post: Book review of “MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky” by Charles MacLean (2nd revised edition)

Monday, April 4th, 2011

 Jonny McCormick, regular Malt Advocate features writer, shares his review of  MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky.

MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky
by Charles MacLean (2nd revised edition)
Published by Little Books Ltd | 288 pages

Whisky books appeal to those seeking deeper understanding of production subtleties and those who crave facts and figures to memorise but sometimes all you want is a jaunty tome that will entertain and enlighten. MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky first appeared in 2004, and has been recently updated with additional material and given a handsome new jacket.

Charlie MacLean’s interpretation of a miscellany is an assortment of writing and quotations on whisky (there are a couple of pages on Irish, American and Japanese whiskies, but this is ostensibly a book about Scotch whisky). This neat book is perfectly adept for consumption in 4-5 page sittings; it’s packed with a diversity of topics with cross-referencing to related sections.

Less of a motley anthology than the title suggests however, there is a coherent pathway running through the text from definitions of whisky and raw materials through to production, branding and collecting. Sparkling anecdotes gathered from history form enjoyable digressions along the way, from the tale of how Burns was snubbed in Selkirk to how King George IV drank contraband whisky in Edinburgh in 1822 due to his preferred pure Glenlivet-style whisky being unobtainable. I found the pages on jars, pigs and other vessels and their closures fascinating, the science of viscimetry illuminating and the book concludes with a comical romp through the etymology of inebriation in Scotland. This is the literary equivalent of sinking into a dark leather armchair with a robust Mortlach after a hearty dinner.

Engravings add to the historical feel of the book, although they seldom bear a strong relationship to the topic featured on the page (that’s miscellany for you). There are some fascinating late nineteenth century adverts from the archives including one for Grouse as it sought fame, Dewar’s Ancestors campaign and the price list for Chivas Brothers when they were an Aberdeen grocer’s shop and whisky blender. If the distillery engravings such as Lagavulin, Glenturret and Glen Grant seem familiar it is because they are reproductions from Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (Birlinn’s elegant 2008 edition is well worth tracking down).

You will have sipped young whiskies that have been distilled and bottled since the first edition of this book appeared. Little of the historical matter at the heart of the text needed updating but there are some minor details trapped in 2004. The listing of vatted malt and pure malt as categories on the “Understanding the Label” section predates the Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009, and the peat chapter omits Ardbeg Supernova and mentions Bruichladdich Distillery beginning to produce Octomore at peating levels of 60 parts per million (in reality, the first edition claimed barley peated to 131ppm and the third boasted 152ppm).

Similarly, the appendix of Scottish distillery openings and closures needs updating with status changes recognizing the reopening of Glenglassaugh, the closure of Brora, Port Dundas, the mothballing of Tamdhu and Kilchoman’s full opening (no longer under construction). However, forgive the pedantry, for these are tiny details which must not detract you from a rewarding read about Scotch whisky. This charismatic book will furnish the reader with convivial conversation for the whisky club night or enrich those divine moments of mustache-twirling cogitation between drams.