All posts by Dietsch

Review: Tasting Whiskey, by Lew Bryson

On the cover of Lew Bryson’s Tasting Whiskey, there’s a quote from the whiskey writer Charles Cowdery: “I shouldn’t say this is the only whiskey book you need, but it probably is.”

Mr. Cowdery’s reticence is understandable; he writes whiskey books, and he wants to maintain his comfortable lifestyle. I don’t know if I’d go so far as Cowdery. I’ve read some damn fine whiskey books in my years as a tippler, and I’d recommend them all.

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But I will say this much: this is the book you want and need if you’re just starting out in whiskey.

Bryson maps the major styles of whiskey, from bourbon to rye to Canadian, from Irish to Scotch to Japanese, and from craft to the various world whiskeys (that is, from growing markets such as India and Taiwan). He describes what sets the various styles apart from one another; so, for example, he details the grains that are in each style, the barrels it’s aged in, the climates and warehouses that hold it, and the length of time its aged.

Scotch, for example, is made primarily or exclusively from malted barley; it’s aged in used barrels (normally bourbon, but with some sherry and other wine casks tossed in for additional flavor); it ages in a cooler climate that enables longer aging; and it can age for up to 30 years or more without getting too woody.

Bourbon, conversely, is made primarily from corn, with other grains in the mix to add accent flavors; it ages in new oak barrels that impart more woodiness than do scotch’s used barrels; it ages in a warmer climate that ages it more rapidly than Scotland’s cooler climate; and therefore, it usually reaches its peak at roughly 10-12 years.

Each individual style is different, and Bryson masterfully explains how those differences affect the flavors of the finished product.

Every whiskey drinker starts somewhere. I started with bourbon and moved to scotch and then rye and on to other styles. When I started drinking scotch, I couldn’t begin to understand what made it unique until I started reading books that helped me puzzle it all out. Tasting Whiskey is such a book.

Its other strength is the infographics the book uses to illustrate some rather complicated concepts. I write about whiskey, and so I know that it’s not always easy to describe, in words, the effects of barrel aging, or how barrel placement in a warehouse affects how quickly or slowly the whiskey ages. These infographics, illustrated masterfully by Andrew Heath, demonstrate these concepts concisely and thoroughly.

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Excerpted from Tasting Whiskey (c) Lew Bryson. Illustrations by (c) Andrew Heath. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

After describing the major styles, Bryson then provides advice on how to drink the stuff, in an enjoyable chapter on water, ice, and cocktails. Is it okay to drink your whiskey with a bit of water? Bryson tells you. On the rocks or neat? He has some answers for that as well. Cocktails? Of course! What I enjoyed about this chapter was how conversational and story-oriented it was. No recipes at all, just a description of how to make a damn good Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

I’ve met Bryson in person; we were in Kentucky together earlier this year for Jimmy Russell’s anniversary celebration at Wild Turkey. He impressed me with his approachable and avuncular temperament, and that personality shines through this book.

If you’re new to whiskey, and you need a friendly guide to the topic, Bryson’s book is for you. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll still find this book to be enjoyable and useful. I learned quite a bit from it.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, and Lew Bryson is a personal friend of mine.

Weekend recap

I spent my weekend on the road, taking the Acela from Penn Station up to Boston on Saturday.

I stayed with friends Friday and Saturday. On Saturday afternoon, I demoed shrubmaking and signed books at the Boston Shaker in Somerville. The weather was nice, and so there was a good amount of foot traffic past the store. We served shrub cocktails using Privateer rum and moved a fair amount of books. Successful day.

I ended the day at The Hawthorne, attached to the Commonwealth Hotel near the Fenway, and owned by Jackson Cannon, formerly of the Commonwealth’s other bar, Eastern Standard. The Hawthorne is a lovely place, very calming and comfortable, and with a stellar list of cocktails, beers, and wines.

Sunday, I took the Amtrak to Providence. I made my way up to Stock about an hour before the demo was to begin, and I walked that stretch of Hope Street for a few minutes. I used to live in Stock’s neighborhood, and so it felt a little like Old Home Week. The weather, again, was conducive to foot traffic, and we had a lot of people stop by.

At both the Shaker and Stock, I was delighted to sell copies of the book to people who had never previously tasted shrubs. Talking to these folks and then signing books for them were quite fun, and it’s really gratifying to know that the book is reaching new audiences for shrubs.

Here’s a tip I probably shouldn’t share, regarding taking the Amtrak from Penn. At present, Amtrak does a really stupid thing to its riders at Penn and a few other stations. When a Northeast Regional or an Acela Express arrives at Penn, Amtrak announces the track number and then makes everyone line up to go down to the platform level to board the train. So what always happens is, Amtrak announces the track, and a giant knot of people surges toward the escalator down to the platform. I avoid this mess these days by asking for a red-cap, a porter who helps with baggage and gets passengers down to the platform level before the official announcement. So by the time the knot of people has surged down the escalator, I’m seated and ready to roll.

Just a quick reminder, I’ll be on A Taste of the Past, hosted by culinary historian Linda Pellacio, today at noon (eastern time) on Heritage Radio. Listen to the live stream at noon, or listen to the podcast at your convenience.

Sipping Scotch in Sophistication

Ever had a whisky older than you? Opportunities such as this don’t come along very often, especially as “you” get older and older and older. When I was in my 20s, for example, finding 30-year-old scotches was relatively easy and only relatively expensive. Now that I’m 45, though, finding a 50-year-old scotch is not just logistically difficult; it’s expensive by nearly anyone terms.

Case in point: the inaugural release of the Glenlivet Winchester Collection, barreled in 1964 and bottled for release this year. Want one? Sell your children; only 100 bottles are available worldwide, and each bottle will run you $25,000.

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But what a bottle. Each bottle is hand-blown glass, capped with a silver stopper, and accented with gold. The bottle sits in a cabinet with a lock and a hidden key, just in case you don’t sell the kids and one of them tries to sneak a sip.

I had a chance to sample one of the 100 bottles this past Wednesday, at a dinner at Le Bernadin. Along with about 30 other journalists, I had a fantastic multi-course meal with wine pairings, punctuated by samples from the Glenlivet range: the 18, XXV (25), and 50.

All three scotches are typical of the Glenlivet style–honeyed, lightly fruity, tasting of toffee and a hint of barley malt, and only the barest, lightest hint of smoke. The 1964 was barreled in used bourbon casks, and for the age it has on it, it didn’t taste woody at all. I found that, all told, it had lighter, more subtle flavors than the 18 or XXV, though I was enjoying it after rounds of seafood and wine, and so my palate may have been a bit dulled.

All in all, this is clearly a whisky for collectors. Scotch, after all, is a luxury good, and all luxury markets have to cater to the collector segment. Glenlivet has put together a beautiful package and a tasty dram. If only I had the $25,000. Anyone in the market for kids?

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Bibliophilia

When I was a child, I loved books. I still do, but when I was a child, I was endlessly fascinated with them. I would pick up a book and study it closely, examining the slip jacket; the corners of the cover, where the paper folds over the boards; the point where the body of the book is glued into the hardcover; the little fabric strip at the top, where the spine is glued in. I was fascinated with books as objects, and not just as storehouses of literature or information.

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I used to daydream as a child, wondering how books came to be. Who wrote them? How? What happened after that? How did an author’s words become this physical object I’m holding?

When I went to college, I majored in education, but I never pursued it as a career. I entered publishing instead, working first as a proofreader, then as a page-layout tech, and then finally as a copy editor.

Twice, I had the chance to travel offsite to a nearby printing facility to see books being produced. I saw giant rolls of paper; I saw machines making metal plates for the presses; I saw large sheets of paper roll across the plates to collect the ink, and then those sheets folded into signatures. I saw the signatures folded up and collected together and bound up in a certain way, and then inserted into their covers and glued to make a book.

Meanwhile, at the office, I learned how editors acquired and developed new projects, shepherding authors through the writing process to produce a complete manuscript, and then, in my role on the backend, I saw how the manuscript became a fully designed, full laid-out book, ready to go to press.

I even know a thing or two about how indexes are written.

As a child, I daydreamed about how books come into being, and as an adult, I had the chance to see it happen, and to help authors in my own small way to see their words take physical form as a printed book. Even that small part felt like fulfilling a childhood dream; even just the part about seeing the physical processes of printing and binding books was weirdly thrilling to me.

Now, here I am, with one of my own out there, and I cannot explain how much joy I felt to come home on Friday and see these.

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Odd Drinks To Be Had.

I came across an unusual article in the purpose of researching Shrubs. It ended up having no bearing whatsoever on the final manuscript, but I was fascinated enough by the piece that I OCR’d it, and cleaned up the inevitable typos.

Here, from the December 26, 1893, issue of the New York Sun, is an article about the various drinking establishments of Lower Manhattan, from the Battery up to about 28th Street. Be aware, some of the ethnic attitudes expressed in this piece are very much of their time. You’ll also note peculiarities of style and spelling; those are all in the original.

Continue reading

SHRUBS Update

The book still comes out October 6, and you can and should still preorder it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell’s.

I recently spoke with Kara Newman at Tasting Table about shrubs. You can and should read that here.

I also recently spoke with Paul Clarke at Imbibe magazine. Paul was doing a photo feature on shrubs, and the piece included a quote from me and a couple of my recipes. You can’t find it online, but here’s a supplemental piece on the website.

We’re currently firming up other media appearances, a radio appearance or two, and possibly some in-person events, if you want to see my mug live and up close. More to come.

New Standout Bitters

Man. Every time I think humankind has created every form of cocktail bitters imaginable, someone goes and proves me wrong. New bitters brands just keep coming, some with unusual flavors and others with delicious variations on classic styles. I’m working my way through the growing cornucopia of cocktail bitters, sampling the wares of upstart bitterers to let you know which bottles are worth buying.

The offerings I’ve reviewed here demonstrate the creativity of today’s producers of bitters. From your traditional cherry and orange bitters to more esoteric styles such as hop and fig, here are several bottles to seek out (and a couple that are skippable).

Read on.

SHRUBS in the Washington Post

I seem to have forgotten to mention it here, but Carrie Allen of the Washington Post called me up recently to discuss the past, present, and future of shrubs. We talked a bit about the book (she enjoys it! neener neener, she’s seen it and you haven’t!) and discussed why shrubs are good to drink, either as a non-boozy treat or as a boozy one.

The conversation was fun, and her piece, which ran last week, captures my voice well, so I’m really delighted with it. Check it out here!

10 Best Budget Rums

My posting frequency at SE has slipped to about twice a month these days, because BUSY. Anyway, here’s my latest.

We who love rum are very lucky people. It’s a category of spirits that offers many wonderful values—bottles that taste like they should cost way more than they actually do. You can very easily find great rums, both white and dark, under $20, and today, I’ll introduce you to a few of my favorites.

[Get the list!]