Category Archives: Bourbon

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.

Tasting_Whiskey

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.

49_cAndrewHeath_StorageLocation_TastingWhiskey 60_cAndrewHeath_EvolutionofFlavor_TastingWhiskey

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.

A Visit to Wild Turkey

If you ever visit the Wild Turkey distillery, do yourself a favor and arrive from the east. As you approach the distillery, U.S. Route 62 descends a hill through lush green woods, passes over a quarry on the banks of the Kentucky River, and takes a sharp left before riding the Blackburn Bridge over the river. As you approach the bridge, you can see buildings on a ridge in the near distance. These are warehouses and distillery buildings at Wild Turkey. Just beyond the highway bridge stands the remains of a railroad bridge, 283 feet above the river. The rail bridge is now out of service, but it formerly carried freight and passengers on what became the Norfolk Southern Railway, connecting all the Southern states. Passenger traffic ended in the 1930s, and freight stopped traversing the bridge about 50 years later, but for a time, the bridge carried grain into the Wild Turkey plant and finished bourbon back out.

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View of the two bridges, from the visitors’ center at Wild Turkey. (All images are clickable. Make ‘em big!)

I visited a couple of weeks ago. The purpose was twofold. Wild Turkey is opening a beautiful new visitors’ center, with stunning views of the river and its bluffs. The center itself is made of wood and glass, as you’d probably expect from a bourbon distillery. I failed to get a good exterior shot of the building, but it’s described as a cathedral to bourbon, and as you view the soaring ceilings, you’d probably agree.

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Ramp to upper level of the Wild Turkey visitors center.
Soaring ceiling
Soaring ceiling

In the tasting room is a large copper still that spans both floors of the visitors center, pulled out of production when the old distillery was torn down.

Copper still
Copper still
Low quality image of a rectifying plate within the still.
Low quality image of a rectifying plate within the still.

As impressive as all that is, though, the other reason for the visit is even better. 2014 marks master distiller Jimmy Russell’s 60th year at Wild Turkey. Can you imagine spending 60 years in one place? Jimmy can, and even after 60, he has no plans to retire.

Salt of the earth. Jimmy Russell.
Salt of the earth. Jimmy Russell.

Our visit ended with a cocktail reception, to launch the visitors center and pay homage to Jimmy. Among the VIPs were Kentucky governor Steve Beshear and brand reps and master distillers from other bourbon plants, including Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Woodford. The bourbon industry is pretty tight, and less personally competitive than you’d expect, so a guy like Jimmy has fans at rival distilleries. Jimmy’s family were there. His son Eddie is his right hand at Wild Turkey, even though Eddie only has 33 years tenure there and is still a relative novice compared to Dad. Jimmy’s other offspring were there, along with his grandkids and a few great-grandkids.

I felt honored being among his family and friends on such a great occasion. I’ve always loved Wild Turkey 101; it might be my favorite American whiskey. Being there for this celebration was a real treat.

We took a lengthy tour of the distillery. Those notes and photos will follow in another post.

10 Best Budget Bourbons

With the holidays behind us, it’s time to scale back, tighten the belt, buckle down, and engage in other cliches that mean spending less money on booze. This week, we’ll start considering the best ways to save a little cash and still drink well, one spirit at a time.

Today, I’m covering bourbon. [Read more, at Serious Eats]

10 Bourbon Terms You Should Know

I’ve heard a rumor that in other parts of the country, the weather is turning colder, leaves are starting to drop from the trees, mountain men and other rustic types are gathering wood for their fireplaces, and drinkers are turning their bloodshot eyes toward the brown spirits.

Me? I have the air conditioning on as I type this. It’s about 80°F out there. Then again, my bloodshot eyes never turn away from brown spirits even when the temperatures crack the triple digits, but I’m unusual that way.

A few months ago, I provided a primer on Scotch terms. Today, I thought I’d turn my gaze inward and explain a few things about good old bourbon whiskey.

[Fill ‘er up!]

Ad of the week: Early Times

The whiskey that made Kentucky whiskies famous. Wait, that sounds familiar.

 

earlytimes

 

Life; February 7, 1938.

Early Times has a history dating back to 1860, when the first whiskey under this name was produced. Brown-Forman acquired it in 1923 and still owns the today. During Prohibition, BF marketed Early Times as a medicinal whiskey.

Today, the product is known as a “Kentucky whisky” (why they drop the e that’s traditional when describing American whiskeys is a question I can’t answer). It’s made the way bourbon is made, except that Early Times, today, is aged in used oak barrels. Straight bourbon, by law, must be aged in new oak barrels. New barrels impart more woody flavors into a distillate than do used barrels, and thus Early Times doesn’t taste as bourbony as bourbon should.

Early Times continued as a straight bourbon until the 1980s, and as of two years ago, a bourbon version is again marketed by Brown-Forman. The two products are now sold side-by-side; the bourbon is called Early Times 354.