Lew Bryson must be some kind of spirit whisperer. He knows seemingly everything about the whiskey world, and — more importantly — he has managed to distill (ha!) it down to fully readable, understandable essentials with this impressive tome, Tasting Whiskey.
As the title implies, Bryson is here to be your insider guide to this often confusing and contradictory world, but through jargon-free writing, intuitive organization, and — critically — a plethora of explanatory illustrations and infographics, he lays the business bare for you.
Bear in mind: This is not a “Dummies” class book. Tasting Whiskey literally has everything you need to know about how whiskey is produced in its 250 some pages. No, everything. Want to understand where your whiskey draws its flavors from — grain, barrel, or something else? Bryson explains. How about the locations of the key Japanese distilleries? The various names for the parts of a whiskey barrel? All here. All laid out in charts, maps, and diagrams.
I consider myself a whiskey expert, but devoured Bryson’s book like it was a new Four Roses Limited Edition release. Drink it up, folks.
A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]
Jesus, Matt Teacher really likes gin. His new hardcover, The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of of the New Gin Revival, crams nothing but juniper-scented spirits into its 350-plus pages.
Rest assured, there’s not really 350 pages of material to be revealed in the giniverse. The Spirit of Gin is breezy and light, with lots of white space and plenty of pictures.
The book begins with the dutiful history of gin and some discussion of various gin distillation methods. Cocktail recipes old and new are interspersed with profiles of gin-focused bars around the world (but priumarily in the U.S.) — good old-fashioned “gin joints,” all of ‘em. A full third of the book is devoted to an “incomplete” catalog of modern gins, a simple, alphabetical guide to some of the noteworthy craft gin brands out there. If your tastes run more to Caorunn than Tanqueray, it’s a section you’ll enjoy perusing to pick up a few new suggested bottles.
The “Miscellany” in the subtitle is right. The Spirit of Gin is built like an encyclopedia but reads more like a coffee table book. Incredibly scattered but interesting, it’s the kind of book that is more fun when you simply open it to a random page than when you try to read it from front to back. Hey, who wants a Tom Collins?
B / $20 / [BUY IT HERE]
If you liked Alt Whiskeys, you’ll love Fire Water, Darek Bell’s follow-up tome on the intricacies of craft distilling.
While Alt Whiskeys focused mainly on the impact of using different grains in your whiskey mash, here the Corsair Distillery founder takes a look at how smoke can impact craft whiskeymaking. This isn’t just a lark. For this book, Bell experimented with over 80 different fuel sources to see how different types of woods, roots, and herbs would impact the finished, distilled product. Curious how avocado wood might make your whiskey taste? It’s in here. Persimmon tree wood? Cloves? Mugwort? Yohimbe? Chopped up, used bourbon barrels? All in here.
As with Alt Whiskeys, the actual utility of this book is extremely limited, as home distillation is totally illegal. That said, it’s still a ton of fun to flip through for kicks. If you’re a fan of peaty Scotch, Fire Water hints at the tantalizing promise that smoked American whiskeys might be arriving in short order. (In fact, some are already here, like Lost Spirits Leviathan, Corsair’s own Triple Smoke, and High West Campfire.)
And if you decide to go ahead and make your own smoky moonshine in your backyard, be sure to let us know what kind of wood you decided to use.
A- / $27 / [BUY IT HERE]
Wired editor Adam Rogers is an acquaintance and a colleague (he was my wingman at the HP50 tasting a few weeks back), so it’s not totally fair for me to rave about his new book, Proof: The Science of Booze. I will anyway. If, like myself, you’re as interested in the chemistry and biology of beer, wine, and spirits as you are the way they taste, this book’s for you.
Rogers’ tome is part a historical work that discusses the origins of booze, part newsy analysis of how far science is pushing the industry we know and love so much in these parts. Proof is split up into a small number of logical, topically-centered chapters — sugar, distillation, hangovers, and so on — each a breezy journey to the past and back to the present. Rogers will take you back to the discovery of yeast — and then to a lab that is experimenting with how different yeast strains impact the taste of beer that is fermented with them.
It’s easy to get lost in some pretty obtuse weeds in science journalism, but Rogers is canny enough to keep things easily readable for a layperson (his impromptu “hangover cure” experiment is appropriately hysterical) while ensuring the book is rigorous enough for the experts. Well done.
A / $16 / [BUY IT HERE]
At $6 and a scant 25 pages in length — and not even an official “Dummies” title — it’s difficult to give this one a full-throated endorsement, especially after just reading Heather Greene’s excellent guide on the same subject matter. Jake Olson does indeed cover the basics of whiskey tasting, with a very direct, almost dry, writing style. Brief entries on the history of whiskey, the process by which it is made, and the different types available make up the majority of the book. A few basic recipes for essential cocktails are offered. That’s really about it, folks. I believe the Wikipedia entry on whiskey is more expansive and informative. And free of charge.
The challenge was not to power through Olson’s primitive report, but to take this pamphlet as a legitimate body of work. Much more content could have been offered, and it certainly would have helped to have a decent copy editor; if only because it’s spelled “Johnnie” and not “Jonny” Walker. Sometimes it’s better not to self-publish. Sometimes it’s better to just leave things on a hard drive to send as a Word document to friends. This would be one of those times.
$6 / F / [BUY IT HERE?]
The first time I heard the Ramones, I was barely into my teens, and was immediately captivated by their simple, straightforward sound and mutant lyrics. It was punk, and something anyone could do if they knew three guitar chords, a basic beat and cultivated enough attitude. The group’s first four albums would lead me down a tunnel into the wild and wonderful world of punk rock that would become a staple of my teenage years. It was immediate, accessible and led to spending hours in my bedroom learning chords and playing along to dubbed cassettes of endless songs on a half busted Sony Walkman.
My point is that everyone has to start somewhere, and Heather Greene’s Whiskey Distilled is the perfect first book for newcomers to acquire. Quite simply: In the last two years of reading and reviewing books about spirits, I do believe this is might be the most accessible and informative introductory guide I’ve come across.
Versatile enough to welcome everyone with easy to follow language and great anecdotes, Greene leaves no stone unturned in covering the basics. But she also takes the reader through advanced concepts such as chemistry and flavor profiles, distinctions between the various whiskies of the world, necessary hardware for cocktail construction, suggested food pairings, and so much more. She takes time to explain, rather than assume or boast about drinking the rarest whiskies in the world, and her writing style brings a warmth and inclusion often missing from books similar in scope.
This is an outstanding, essential guide for anyone getting his or her feet wet on the big whiskey wave, and is worthy of space on anyone’s bookshelf. Plus on top of all of this? Greene gets kudos from actor/woodsmith/sage Nick Offerman on the jacket sleeve. And if it’s good enough for Ron Swanson, it’s good enough for you.
A+ / $19 / [BUY IT HERE]
To say that sake is a poorly understood beverage in the U.S. is an understatement. Never mind understanding the various grades and styles of sake, how to drink it (hot or cold?), and what kind of food to drink it with, there’s the not-so-little matter that most imported sakes don’t have anything written in English on the label.
John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential can’t teach you Japanese, but it can give you everything you really need to know about sake in one slim tome. Just 175 spare pages in length, the book breaks sake down by topic; each chapter is a myth about sake that Gantner is prepared to debunk. Is cheap sake supposed to be drank warm and good sake cold? (Not necessarily.) Is non-junmai sake garbage? (Not necessarily.) Should you only drink sake out of one of those little ceramic cups? (Not necessarily.)
Gauntner’s world of sake is a complex and decidedly confusing place, and even in the end the writer confesses that there are no clear answers to anything in this industry. At the same time, the book works well as a primer for both novices and intermediate sake drinkers who want to know more about this unique rice product. While the book’s design — slim and tall like a pocket travel guide — makes little sense for a topic like this (and, in fact, makes it unfortunately difficult to comfortably read), Gauntner nonetheless does us all a much-needed service by digesting all of this material into one place — and inexpensively, too.
B+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]
Meals inspired by literary works and their authors are popular among home chefs. Now author Tessa Smith McGovern is bringing the notion to cocktails.
Cocktails for Book Lovers is a slim volume of 50 original and classic recipes, each paired with an author and a book they’ve written. Some of these are natural matches — Hemingway and a mojito, Fitzgerald and a gin rickey — while some are a little more structurally modern, like Jane Austen’s concoction of gin, Madeira, and orange juice.
I have to say, a number of the recipes in the book simply do not inspire a lot of passion or interest. Poor Dani Shapiro is saddled with a drink that pairs butterscotch schnapps with Sour Apple Pucker. Matthew Quick, author of Silver Linings Playbook, gets a beer margarita for his troubles. While the history lessons provided on each author provide fun, bathroom-friendly snippets of curiosity, there’s not much of a connection between these biographical tidbits and their respective cocktail recipe. It all adds up to a genial enough diversion, but nothing either a book fiend or a cocktail nut will likely slaver over.
C+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]
The problem here is twofold: there’s perception and then there’s reality. When in the kitchen, I often fancy myself as an avant-garde foodie supreme. I daydream about and attempt to make gastropub delights and fancy myself in the same limelight as my particular chef of idolatry, Homaro Cantu. The results are certainly avant-garde, but just not in a good way. Often my well-intended attempts at something cutting edge would be worthy of inclusion on a Buzzfeed “Nailed it” meme, with friends powering through dishes with puckered faces and compliments in the form of ambiguous grunts and phrases like, “I like how the burnt ends really add a smoky texture to this” (it was a key lime pie).
So when the University of Kentucky Press (full disclosure: I also work for UK. Go Cats.) sent me an advance copy of recipes one can cook with bourbon, I was beside myself in utter delight. The rest of my household, not so much. For everyone would know that the end result would be an assault on their taste buds with a litany of bourbon-infused recipes gone horribly wrong — mutations in a mad scientist’s laboratory who has no right even calling himself a cook.
Thankfully Lynn Marie Hulsman’s book steered me in the right direction courtesy of her straightforward, relatively easy to follow recipes. The bourbon poundcake was devoured by test subjects, as were the bourbon infused marshmallows at a separate potluck. One of my favorite parts of the book was experimenting with different bourbons to get different flavor profiles in the finished product. I’m looking forward to revisiting a few of these to see the difference between Maker’s Mark, Weller, or Bulleit and each brand’s contribution to the end results. (Note: probably best not to use that Four Roses Limited Edition for this adventure.) Novices, experts, and destructive cooks alike can approach this book with confidence knowing that in the end, bourbon makes everything taste better.
A- / $15 / [BUY IT NOW]
The recent trend of nonfiction surrounding historical events in the alcohol world is widely encouraging: It’s a field where much potential and promise for new scholarship is welcome and necessary. With a new pack of young writers establishing themselves for the long haul as historians and keepers of the flame, it is with great hope this groundswell doesn’t cease in the immediate future.
In his debut offering, journalist Bryce Bauer tells the tale of Templeton, Iowa, a community that refuted the early 20th century social structures commonly established throughout small Midwestern towns to band together and achieve success as bootleggers during Prohibition. The story centers around a wily cast of characters such as Otis P. Morganthaler, F.H. Huesmann, and Joseph Irlbeck, names which sound like they would own investment firms or a line of cookies in 2014, but here they each play a role in the town’s survival during one of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times. The whole tale seems to border on the comically absurd, and would make for one heck of a Coen brothers-crafted screenplay.
Bauer’s work is well documented and thoroughly detailed, leaving no doubt that these events really and truly happened (there are some skeptics who deny bootlegging even occurred in Iowa). But one of the best parts of Gentlemen Bootleggers is the level of engagement with which Bauer tells the story. His writing feels effortless; more like a really enjoyable conversation over several drams on a late winter’s afternoon, rather than a starchy, overly annotated tome gathering dust on a library stack. Like Fred Minnick’s Whisky Women in 2013, Gentlemen Bootleggers is a solid debut and hopefully not the last we’ve seen of Bauer on the subject of spirits.
A / $20 / [BUY IT NOW]