Author Archives: Christopher Null

Book Review: The Home Distiller’s Workbook

home distillers workbook 199x300 Book Review: The Home Distillers WorkbookFirst things first: This stuff is totally illegal. You can’t distill moonshine, whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, or anything else at home. It is quite dangerous in many ways. If the still doesn’t explode, you could always poison yourself with methanol. Or you could get killed in prison. (Unlicensed still raids are a real thing.)

Still determined? Jeff King is your friendly pal who can guide you through the process of setting up a still and making just about anything. Through 85 pages of Arial-font writing he’ll guide you through the basics and walk you through the difference between your thumper box and your slobber box. I’ve never made my own spirits, but I get the sense from the book that I could handle the basics after a couple of close reads (and given the right equipment). But even equipment may not be essential. King takes things to simpler and simpler levels, even including designs for a still built out of a teapot.

King’s book is far from refined or sophisticated, and it looks like it was printed in bulk at the local copy shop, not unlike The Anarchist’s Cookbook. But considering the quasi-illegal nature of the subject matter, the scrappy look sort of fits. You’ll find worse ways to spend your nine bucks if you want to get in on the game. God help you.

B+ / $9 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Slovenia Vodka

slovenia vodka 525x700 Review: Slovenia Vodka

Yes, it’s from Slovenia. No, it’s not weird to ask. In this day and age, names mean nothing.

Made from 99.9% winter wheat and 0.1% non-pearled buckwheat (“for smoothness”), pot-distilled, and brought to proof with Slovenian Alps water, Slovenia Vodka has a curious pedigree. The money behind this new brand comes from, in part, chef Peter X. Kelly, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and actor Bill Murray.

So that’s the story. How about the spirit?

The nose starts off classically, with medicinal character backed with a bit of smoke — or smoked meat — character. Pungent and powerful, it leads into a body that is surprisingly quite different than what you might expect. Here you’ll find much bigger sweetness, vanilla and butterscotch notes, with the hospital notes coming along in the finish. It’s a curious, but not unlikable, experience, careening from savory to sweet and back again. That said, the lack of focus is a bit strange, though some could argue this just adds complexity to an oftentimes simplistic spirit.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / sloveniavodka.com

Review: Spring 44 Straight Bourbon and Single Barrel Bourbon

SPRING44 WHISKEY TRANS 2 233x1200 Review: Spring 44 Straight Bourbon and Single Barrel BourbonArguably known best for its honey-flavored vodka, Colorado-based Spring 44 is jumping onto the whiskey bandwagon, with two new expressions of straight bourbon whiskey. As you might expect by their sudden appearance on the market, both are sourced whiskey from Kentucky (not Indiana), brought down to proof with Colorado water, and bottled in individually numbered bottles. The whiskey inside has aged for six-plus years, but mashbill information is not offered. Based on the cloudiness readily visible in the bottles, they are not chill-filtered, either. Thoughts follow.

Spring 44 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Maybe it’s my mind playing tricks on me since I know Spring 44′s prior products, but I swear I get notes of honey on the nose just from cracking open the bottle. The nose offers classic bourbon notes — vanilla infused with deep wood character — but playing the game otherwise close to the vest. The body explodes with a melange of flavors: honey (I swear), butterscotch, cinnamon, and a sweet-tinged apple and pear character that builds on the finish. The finale is a bit too drying, but otherwise Spring 44 has done a great job of finding some solid barrels to showcase. 90 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #3933. B+/ $40

Spring 44 Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Presumably the same whiskey as the above, but drawn from a single cask and bottled at a higher alcohol level. Curiously different from the standard bottling right from the start, with a fruitier nose that keeps the wood components in check. Here you’ll find touches of tea leaf, cinnamon, mint, and even incense. The body is something else — a silky sweet delight, full of lush apple pie notes, deep honey, lots of vanilla, hot buttered rum, and even some unexpected red berry notes. Well balanced and drinking perfectly despite its high alcohol content, this is a bourbon that can stand up to about anything on the market in this age category. A real standout. 100 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #208. A / $60

spring44.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire

Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire Bottle 408x1200 Review: Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire

JD jumped into the honey-flavored whiskey market and made massive waves. Why not try it again with cinnamon?

Tennessee Fire is a classic cinnamon-infused spirit, with a nose that’s immediately redolent of Red Hots, but not overpowering. The body is more quiet and candylike than, well, fiery. The palate starts off sweet, with vanilla caramel notes, essentially classic JD, with the attention of some apple cider character in the mid-palate. The cinnamon comes along later, well tempered with plenty of sugar to keep the cinnamon candy notes from searing the roof of your mouth. This is fine — no one is drinking these whiskeys because they enjoy pain — but Jack’s rendition ends up a little over-sweetened, the way too much Equal leaves a funky taste on your tongue.

The bottom line: JD may have mastered honey, and Tennessee Fire is mostly harmless, but I think other cinnamon whiskeys do this style better.

The test launch of “Jack Fire” (as you are invited to call it) begins in April in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

70 proof.

B+ / $22 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin

Beefeater Burroughs Reserve Gin 525x609 Review: Beefeater Burroughs Reserve Barrel Finished Gin

Remember when genever was going to be the next big thing? Of course you don’t. That stillborn trend gave way to aged gin, which is now — cautiously — on the rise. Will barrel-aged gin be successful where genever was not? Let’s take a look at a bottling from one of the biggest names in gin, Beefeater.

Burrough’s Reserve (tagline: “the gin for free thinkers”) is distilled in 268-liter small batches (the botanicals used are not published) before being aged for an unspecified time (not long, I think) in former Lillet aperitif wine barrels.

The color is a light gold, not unlike Lillet Blanc, with a nose reminiscent of modern gins. The intense juniper notes of Beefeater are absent here, replaced with notes of camphor, licorice, citrus peel, and some curious sea salt notes. The more seaward components are what linger in the nostrils, even as you sip it to reveal some of the classic gin components, including angelica, light lemon and orange notes, white flowers, and vanilla on the finish. The body is on the sweet side, and surprisingly creamy. Juniper? Frankly it’s hard to find at all here, just a vague evergreen character that develops on the nose over time.

The only sticking point with Burrough’s Reserve, an otherwise excellent product that both gin and brown spirits fans should like, is the price. At $70 a bottle it’s a hard sell, even if you’re a gin fanatic. If the price is too rich, maybe stick with the genever then?

86 proof. Reviewed: Batch #5, bottle #74.

A- / $70 / pernod-ricard.com

Book Review: The Curious World of Wine

curious world of wine 187x300 Book Review: The Curious World of WineWine is indeed a curious world. Just drinking everyday bottles of the stuff is enough to vault you into a world of confusing terminology, exotic places, and strange people for the rest of your life.

Purdue University’s Richard Vine does the wine fanatic no favors with his book, The Curious World of Wine, which only serves to add to the mystery. A collection of loosely sorted and generally quite short “fun facts,” Vine devotes 210 pages, 10 chapters, and over 100 segments of only a few paragraphs each to one oddball tidbit or another about the world of wine.

Historical vignettes and etymology make up the lion’s share of the book. Some of this you’ll likely have heard before (toasting was born to exchange liquids between two glasses to ensure no one was being poisoned), some you likely haven’t (Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild conceived of Opus One while the Baron was lounging in bed). Most of the tidbits are at least interesting, even if they’re short on being actively educational.

Vine’s writing is typical of academics — straightforward and largely humorless aside from the overuse of wordplay — but breezy enough to make it easy to get into. If trivia’s your name and wine’s your game, give this book a look.

B / $15 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Kuemmerling Liqueur

kuemmerling 87x300 Review: Kuemmerling LiqueurKuemmerling is a classic Krauter Likor, and one that’s almost exclusively available in mini format (pictured).

A bittersweet herbal liqueur that dates back to 1921, it’s an easily drinkable digestif that’s hugely popular in its homeland of Germany. The nose offers sweet raspberry paired with licorice and cloves. On the palate, the herbal character — cloves, cinnamon, ample licorice and other root flavors — tends to dominate. The finish includes enough sweetness to keep your mouth from sealing shut… at least until the bitterness takes hold in the end, requiring another sip.

It’s shockingly easy to polish one of these off without thinking much about it… and also quite soothing to the stomach without being terribly complicated.

70 proof.

B+ / $15 per 12-pack of 20ml bottles / ourniche.com

Review: Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Green Spot Bottle 525x1067 Review: Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Heretofore seldom seen on our shores, one of the most beloved Irish whiskeys in-country is now making its way to the U.S. It is named after a blotch of color.

Green Spot, the kid brother of the even rarer Yellow Spot, is made at Midleton, where Jameson, Tullamore D.E.W., Powers, and Redbreast all hail from. It is a thrice-distilled single pot still whiskey, but unlike Redbreast it is bottled without an age statement. What’s inside is a blend of whiskeys aged seven to 10 years in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. 12,000 bottles are produced each year.

No bones about it, this whiskey is a delight. Loaded with flavor but balanced to a T, Green Spot hits all the classic Irish hallmarks while retaining its sense of balance.

The nose is spot on (get it?), rich with unripe banana, light honey, chimney soot, and cut grains. The body is more lovely, with toasted marshmallows, very light citrus, caramel, a touch of chocolate, and a big malty finish that comes across a lot like chocolate malt balls when it’s all said and done. Often thought of as “sweeter” than its compatriots, that’s not exactly the case here. Green Spot has sweetness, but it balances out the more savory components, bringing the body right where it ought to be. The spirit is drying as it fades, almost hinting at licorice, which only invites further exploration as that malt character dies like the sunset.

Buy it now.

80 proof.

A / $50 / singlepotstill.com [BUY IT FROM MASTER OF MALT]

Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast 21 Bottle 525x668 Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast is one of the most beloved of high-end Irish whiskeys there is, a triple-pot distilled whiskey made of malted and unmalted barley that wins pretty much every “Best Irish Whiskey” award that comes around. That said, the 12 year old expression has always been a bit too chewy and pungent for my taste, a malty monster in a category prized for being gentle and easygoing.

On the other hand, I respect Redbreast. Different strokes and all. And now a sure-to-be much desired 21 Year Old version is about to hit the market. What can an extra 9 years do to a whiskey that’s already a beast?

Let’s put it this way: If you like Redbreast 12, you’ll love Redbreast 21. All of Redbreast’s classic notes are intact: ultra-ripe banana, coconut husks, and butterscotch, to name but a few. But there’s also burnt honey, coal fires, and a powerful caramel note on the finish. The citrus notes — driven by partial aging in first-fill sherry casks — are particularly present here. No matter what you think about Redbreast, there’s always something new to discover lurking somewhere in a dram of this whiskey.

Rest assured: Redbreast’s DNA runs through this expression like a river, but I’m honestly hard-pressed to find a lot of difference here vs. the 12 year old version. It’s a bit more pungent and funky, but it’s just not overwhelmingly different than the 12. The 12 is just such a massive whiskey already that the extra age simply doesn’t change things as much as it otherwise might. Either way, Redbreast fanatics should give it a try before deciding whether the extra age merits more than twice the price.

92 proof.

A- / $180 / irishdistillers.ie

Book Review: The New Old Bar

the new old bar Book Review: The New Old BarChicago-based restaurateurs Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh go by the moniker of “The Hearty Boys,” an homage to the restaurant they run, Hearty. In this, their second book, Smith and McDonagh focus on the bar, offering 200 cocktail recipes (including all the ones they serve at Hearty), plus a chapter or two that cover the basics of how to run the bar.

The recipes run the gamut from classics that have recently made a comeback (Pegu Club, Boulevardier, Corpse Reviver #2), as well as newfangled recipes of the Hearties’ devise. Grilled fruits are a common and interesting theme, as are flavored syrups (recipes are included for these separately). One even uses roast beef (as a garnish). By and large the selection is interesting, skimmable (recipes are not sorted but are mere alphabetized by name), and fairly easy to replicate.

The final portion of the book features a welcome collection of bar snack recipes, with 25 items offered, each sounding more delicious than the next. Poutine and Kix Mix… breakfast of champions!

A- / $14 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Fresh Origins Hibiscus and Cilantro Crystals Cocktail Rimmers

Herb Crystals Cilantro 136x300 Review: Fresh Origins Hibiscus and Cilantro Crystals Cocktail RimmersFresh Origins, the maker of a unique set of herb-flavored cocktail rimmer crystals, is back at it, with two new “MicroGreens” flavors that are on the rise in the cocktailverse: Hibiscus and Cilantro. As with its original four flavors, these are natural flowers and herbs mixed with cane sugar crystals, creating crunchy, edible garnishes for your cocktail glass rims. We put these two new versions to the tongue to see how they measure up as ingredients of your next cocktail creation.

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Hibiscus Crystals – Quite sweet, with the hibiscus notes understated. The flavor comes across as more of a cherry/strawberry mix than a floral one, though hibiscus is always a tricky flavor to work with. This would be exemplary on a Cosmo or other fruit-focused cocktail. A-

Fresh Origins MicroGreens Cilantro Crystals - Appropriately bittersweet, but the addition of sugar makes cilantro tough to pick out. The attack is more akin to celery or perhaps even artichoke, but even that is quite muted compared to the sugar component. The company suggests pairing this with a margarita, but rimming a shot of Cynar with it is also interesting. B+

each $10 per 4 oz. jar / freshorigins.com

Review: Chambord French Black Raspberry Liqueur

Chambord 218x300 Review: Chambord French Black Raspberry LiqueurDrinkhacker finally takes a look at one of the classics, a staple of the back bar and an inimitable ingredient in any number of amazing cocktails. Need a dash of color and a kick of jammy fruit in your drink? A drop of Chambord (actually made from both raspberries and blackberries, along with currants, vanilla bean, Cognac, and some other additives) from its iconic Holy Hand Grenade bottle will do the trick.

The nose of this liqueur features big, burly, well, raspberry notes. Not so much bright, fresh fruit but rather raspberry jam, dense and well-sugared. Sipped straight, the body is more dessert-like than you might expect, offering an almost candylike character that mixes darker raspberry notes with clear vanilla and somewhat lighter chocolate notes. Ultimately, the berry fruit is what sticks with you. Not quite Jolly Ranchers, but not quite fresh berries, either. Chambord lands somewhere in between, which might be what makes it perfect for cocktailing.

31 proof.

A- / $30 / chambordonline.com

Book Review: Dr. Cocktail

dr cocktail 300x300 Book Review: Dr. CocktailCan drinking be medicinal? Since the dawn of time alcholic beverages have been billed as good for the body. That’s how legions of drinkers got their hands on booze during Prohibition, even — through a doctor’s prescription.

Alex Ott, “the sorcerer of shaken and stirred,” takes things a step further with his book Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind and Body. (“Dr. Cocktail,” by the way, is Ted Haigh, so don’t get confused…) In this slim, hardbound book, his goal is to create cocktail recipes that use herbal, traditional, natural, and homeopathic ingredients. These in turn are meant to reduce stress, encourage romance, build your appetite, or curb hangovers. Whether Ott’s mixture of gin, cranberry juice, and cucumbers really has anti-aging properties, well, that’s a matter for the scientists to look into, I suppose.

I was surprised how simple and straightforward most of the recipes in this book were. No acai, no yumberry, or any of the other foodstuffs that are generally considered really really good for you. There’s nothing really more unusual than turmeric and aloe juice here, which is great if you actually want to make this stuff, but bad if you’re looking for something truly novel that you won’t find elsewhere. Many of the recipes here look good, but more than a few are modest spins on time-worn classics. (I remain flummoxed how a Bloody Mary with a ton of Grenadine, Scotch, and bacon bits will detox you.)

But the most annoying thing about Ott’s book is the rampant product placement. While many a bartending book will call for certain name brand spirits, Ott’s does so in virtually every recipe. Hope you stock up on Svedka Vodka, Ecco Domini wines, and New Amsterdam Gin! One has to wonder: Does Ott really drink that much Svedka? Or is he just giving his employers (he’s an ambassador for all three) a contractual shout-out… on your dime?

B- / $13 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Avua Cachaca – Prata and Amburana

AvuaCachaca AmburanaPrata 194x300 Review: Avua Cachaca   Prata and AmburanaIs the world ready for single-estate cachaca? Avua, made from single-estate sugarcane grown near Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, is now available in two expressions, an unaged prata version, and an aged amburana cachaca matured for up to two years in casks made of local Amburana wood. While cachaca has a long (and largely deserved) reputation as a difficult spirit that’s often made on the cheap and for the cheap, Avua is trying to raise the bar. How well does it succeed? Thoughts, as always, follow.

Avua Cachaca Prata – Rested for six months in stainless steel tanks, but otherwise unaged. Classic cachaca character of rubber and fuel notes are tempered here. The nose is more vegetal than most cachacas, with a yeasty character that the company’s tasting notes describe, dead on, as “bready.” The body is also fairly characteristic of the spirit, with notes of lemongrass and lime zest balancing a lightly earthy, rubbery body. 84 proof. B+ / $35

Avua Cachaca Amburana  – Two years in cask have given this cachaca just the lightest touch of yellow gold color — and a brighter nose that offers some tropical pineapple character and clearer lemon notes. The body is considerably different, taking on a spicy creaminess that creates a kind of horchata character, complete with a cinnamon/clove dusting on top. The balance is a little off, winding into notes of licorice and flinty earth toward the back end, which is somewhat at odds with the earlier character. 80 proof. B+ / $50

avuacachaca.com.br

Book Review: Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan 192x300 Book Review: Drinking JapanI’ve never been to Japan, but it’s at the top of my list. When I get there, I plan to drink it. The whole thing.

Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan will surely help. Part guide book, part encyclopedia of Japanese alcohol, the tome guides you throw the best places to get a sip of sake, shochu, Okinawan awamori, Japanese beer or whisky, or western beverages throughout the country and explains what you’re drinking along the way. Tokyo of course has the lion’s share of the coverage, but you’ll find over 100 recommendations for great drinking establishments throughout Japan.

Every bar (most are actually restaurants too) features an interior photograph, a map, and detailed directions of how to get there. Bunting’s attention to detail is astounding, including the hours, the cover charge (in detail), and even whether there’s a menu available in English. The picks seem thoughtful, varied (from holes in the wall to hotspots like the New York Bar from Lost in Translation), and nearly all worth visiting. And the writing is both fun and educational — particularly if you don’t know your honkaku from your happoshu.

When I eventually make it to Japan, this book is coming with me.

A / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Review: Alaskan Brewing Co. Hopothermia and ESB

alaska Hopothermia 106x300 Review: Alaskan Brewing Co. Hopothermia and ESBAlaskan Brewing Co., arguably Alaska’s most noteworthy brewery, is releasing these two beers this spring — with Hopothermia now joining the ranks as a year-round release. Bold, bitter, and hoppy, they’re both worthy sippers no matter what the weather is like.

Alaskan Brewing Co. Hopothermia Double IPA – A stellar IPA, a little citrus, a little piney — particularly on the finish, when the evergreen notes really start to show. Big and bright and loaded with hops, this one’s a rich and delicious dazzler. 8.5% abv. A / $NA per 12 oz. bottle

Alaskan Brewing Co. ESB Extra Special Bitter Ale – This amber ale offers bracing bitterness without being overly hoppy. Dark chocolate and mild coffee notes dominate the body, while the bitter finish cleans up any lingering savory components, leaving a chewy and almost woody character behind. 5.3% abv. A- / $NA per 22 oz. bottle

alaskanbeer.com

Review: 2012 Laetitia Pinot Noir Whole Cluster Arroyo Grande Valley

laetitia whole cluster PN Review: 2012 Laetitia Pinot Noir Whole Cluster Arroyo Grande ValleyLaetitia’s latest from the Arroyo Grande AVA in San Luis Obispo is a a Pinot Noir made from whole clusters of Clone 115 Pinot Noir grapes, aged half in new and half in used French oak barrels.

Classic dark cherry and cola notes dominate the nose, developing just the lightest touches of chocolate and cedar wood as the body opens up. Rich with fruit yet restrained with a body that’s light enough to keep the palate clean, and a finish that is refined with both dried fruit notes and light herbal touches. A wonderful little wine.

A / $40 / laetitiawine.com

Book Review: Wine: A Tasting Course

wine tasting 01 thumb 620x445 74509 300x215 Book Review: Wine: A Tasting CourseUSA Today readers rejoice: There’s a book that takes the pedantic prose out of wine and turns it all into colorful infographics.

Marnie Old’s Wine: A Tasting Course cues you in from the start, with a cover festooned with cartoony illustrations and questions designed to pique your interest in the category (“Which are the most important grapes?”)

You’ll find answers to all of these and more within the 247 pages of the text, and you generally won’t have to do too much reading. Enormous graphics, heavy on iconic yellow-or-red bottles or glasses of wine cue you in to where to look on every page. Old is fond of the Venn diagram, often plotting grape varietals, winemaking styles, and even foods and flavors on one spectrum or another. In Wine: A Tasting Course, there’s nothing that can’t be rendered as a graphic.

That’s not a bad thing, and while it’s intended to simplify the subject matter, often it has the opposite effect. Will the average reader of this book really track down Argentian Malbec, Spanish Priorat, and Australian Tawny Port for a comparative tasting in “exploring heavier red styles?” What would be learned in the process of this tasting, other than to follow Old’s graph that plots “weight” vs. “flavor,” and agreeing that, yes, the Port does have more “flavor” to offer?

I don’t mean to make fun. It’s easier to learn through pictures than it is through words, and a segment of readers will probably find this approach an easier one to follow than others.

B / $20 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whisky

cutty sark prohibition edition 525x787 Review: Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whisky

Cutty Sark, from Scotland, brings us this upscale bottling in celebration of… Prohibition? An American phenomenon? Bear with us. “Cutty Pro” as it’s being taglined, “salutes the notorious Captain William McCoy, who courageously smuggled Cutty Sark into American speakeasies. McCoy possessed an infamous reputation as a distributor of the highest quality products, always genuine and never adulterated, giving rise to Cutty Sark’s affectionate nickname, ‘The Real McCoy.’ The black opaque bottle design and cork seal are a respectful hat tip to the type of whisky bottles prevalent during the Prohibition era.”

You see: It’s what Scotch tasted like during Prohibition.

To be honest, this is not my favorite blend, or even my favorite expression of Cutty. The nose is thick, offering fuel oil notes, dense cereal, and some hospital character. The body is on the burly side — Prohibition-era drinkers had it rough, I suppose — though it speaks more of the bathtub than the frontier. A bit swampy and smoky, it’s got a cacophony of flavors that run the gamut from iodine to rock salt to wilted grains to tree moss. Where this takes me is not to a Prohibition-era speakeasy but rather an industrial town in Scotland where some wacky whisky blender is trying to figure out something to do with a bunch of random casks.

100 proof.

C+ / $30 / cutty-sark.com

Book Review: Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course

windows on the world 273x300 Book Review: Kevin Zralys Windows on the World Complete Wine CourseSituated at the top of One World Trade Center, Windows on the World was a restaurant-bar-entertainment venue that was beloved by just about everyone until the tower’s tragic destruction. Its resident cellar master was the equally beloved Kevin Zraly, and for the last 25-plus years he’s been publishing his own book on wine. Actually, it’s a “course,” designed to teach newcomers on wine everything they need to know to get comfortable with wine in a relatively slim volume.

Annually updated, the book combines timeless information with current events. Here you’ll find a page on how weather impacts the grape harvest, along with a sidebar digesting recent storms around the world. This contextualizes Zraly’s lessons while giving the dedicated fodder they can conjure up at cocktail parties.

It’s a breezy book, often presented in Q&A format and with lots of headings followed by a quick paragraph or two of detail. There are plenty of pictures and maps, but Zraly keeps things simple and easy to digest. (The book’s errors — Napa doesn’t have an “Atlas Creek,” but rather an “Atlas Peak,” last time I checked — are curious, but not deal killers.)

One of my favorite things about the book are the nuggets you simply don’t get anywhere else — and would be hard-pressed to dig up online, even. A map of the U.S. with the number of wineries and AVAs in each state? It’s here. A list of the major wine conglomerates and all the brands they own? Got it. The wine grapes native to Hungary? Perhaps less useful, but it’s here too.

Zraly deserves his reputation and should be praised for condensing a complex subject into just over 300 pages (plus online extras) while covering far more than “just the basics.” You may not need to buy it every year, but one copy will get you a long way.

A- / $30 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]