Book Review: Tasting Whiskey

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits is a new book from longtime whiskey and beer writer Lew Bryson.  I follow Lew on Twitter and saw him pitch the book there. After deciding Buy Tasting Whiskey on Amazonto spend 2015 learning about whiskey and bourbon I saw Amazon’s description of the book, below, and decided this was a great place to start learning.

Whiskey lovers will devour this fresh and comprehensive guide to everything there is to know about the world’s whiskeys, including Scotch and bourbon as well as Tennessee, Irish, Japanese, and Canadian whiskeys. You’ll learn about the types of whiskey and the distilling traditions of the regions where they are made, how to serve and taste whiskeys to best appreciate and savor them, how to collect and age whiskey for great results, and much more. There are even recipes for cocktails and suggestions for food pairings. This is the guide no whiskey drinker will want to be without!

Beyond being a cool person to follow on Twitter, Bryson has written a series of books about the breweries of states from Virginia to New York. Further back, he was the long-time writer and editor of Whiskey Advocate. I feel all that is quite enough to say this guy knows what he’s talking about when it comes to beer & whiskey!

The book breaks down everything you need to know about whiskey and its varieties. From the history to a simple introduction to the process of distilling spirits, and into how those spirits are aged. After covering the basics, we get to my favorite chapter. Bryson calls this chapter “The Wall and the Work” in general the chapter is about getting over “The Wall” or the ethanol burn of whiskey. I’m confident everyone has encountered this, you take a drink of liquor and it burns your mouth and leaves a fire running down your throat. According to Bryson, the only way to get over this is to keep drinking every day and eventually the burn will subside and the flavors will emerge.

That’s not what I love, that’s good info, but what I love, no adore, is a 3 page section that begins with:

The first thing there is to learn about the work and pleasure is this: there are no shortcuts; there is no One Best Whiskey

This launches us down the road of how all those “best of” lists and “must have” whiskeys are full of shit. The best whiskey is the whiskey you like. The next whiskey you should have? It’s one that you haven’t had yet. Why spend time standing in line to spend hundreds of dollars on a whiskey that might be marginally better than a modestly priced one on any liquor store shelf? We’ve got the same problem in the beer world from KBS to Hill Farmstead. Are these great beers? hell yeah! Are they proportionally greater than a beer on any bottle shop shelf any day of the year? Nope.

Now we get into the meat of the book which is a huge section of chapters breaking down all the varieties of whiskey, from Scotch to Bourbon and Canadian to Japanese. I didn’t realize there was Japanese whiskey. I’m not going to get into each chapter and will keep it short by saying that it’s great and in-depth information.

The book finishes out with chapters on adding ice, water, or mixing whiskey into cocktails. A chapter about pairing whiskey with food, which immediately seemed obvious but I’d never thought of before, much the same as I’d thought of beer for a long time. You have a beer with dinner, doesn’t matter what beer. Then we end with how to go about collecting whiskey… which is honestly in stark contrast to the early bit about ignoring all those “best of” lists.

I learned a lot from this book, but its name was deceiving. At no point in the book is there a clear-cut guide for what different whiskeys taste like. I partially think I was predisposed to looking for this thanks to Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer. Randy breaks down different styles and what flavors or aromas you’ll pull out of beers from that style. Bryson drops a few hints here and there, but never “Bourbon can give flavors ranging from tobacco or vanilla to spices.” In the end everyone does perceive things differently so what you taste may be different than I taste which could be different than what Lew Bryson tastes.

Bottom line I learned a lot and enjoyed reading this. It’s written in an easy to read style with plenty of side boxes on various subjects. If you’re ready to dip your toe into the world of whiskey I’d advise starting with Tasting Whiskey.

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