Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Whisky Literature Pilgrim. Five books for novices to know-it-alls.

Remember books? Those things made from trees that took up so much space when you were trying to fine-tune the economics of packing to go on holiday?

Well perhaps it’s just a hangover from the English degree; more likely my technophobic failure to pass as a digital native, but I’m a massive Bibliophile. Absolutely love a book. God only knows what percentage of my life has been spent curled up with some tome or other, but it’s probably frightening. And whilst my fiction consumption has taken a disgraceful downhill turn in the last few years, my non-fiction intake has rocketed. Unsurprisingly that’s mainly fuelled by booze books; exam study, diploma prep and lately just attempting to make sure my blog posts aren’t too embarrassingly inaccurate!

As a colleague and fellow bookworm pointed out, books are one of society’s great levellers. You may not have the chance to sample the Macallan Laliques, Highland Park 50 year olds or Pappy Van Winkle 20s of this world, but as long as you’re privileged enough to be literate there’s no fiscal bar to what you can and can’t read. (As long as you’re not too fussed on things like signed First Editions, and frankly the text’s the same either way.)

It’s through reading widely on the subjects that I really fell in love with wine and whisky. I remember, when starting out, reading about all the different styles, flavours and textures available before heading to the bottle shop to discover them for myself. Of course no such text should be treated religiously, and there will always be writers, however expert, whose palates simply aren’t in line with yours. But I do believe that a good whisky book is the best and quickest way to expand your Universe and give you a sketch map with which to begin your personal exploration.

With that in mind I’ve picked five whisk(e)y books which have had particular impact on my own spirited adventure over the years. Are they the best, or best written? Not necessarily. Are they an exhaustive list? Of course not. Are they gospel? Don’t be silly. You should never slavishly follow a single drinks writer any more than you should take all your political information from one newspaper. But all five of these, for whatever reasons, are well worth looking up and spooling through.

So in no particular order, here goes:

Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible (Released annually.)

Bit of a suck-in-of-breath with this one. Opening the innings with Mr Murray and then shoving this blog piece into the whiskynet feels a little like inserting one's delicates into a hornet's nest. So hear me out! Long before I went online with whisky - we’re talking right when I started actually enjoying the stuff at the back end of my teens - this was the first book I encountered on the subject, as I’m sure it is for many people. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, whether you agree with his scores or not, whether you believe in a 'best whisky in the world' or not (I don't), whether you want to feed the man into a mincer or not, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible remains, at worst, a list of the vast majority of the world’s commercially available whiskies. It was therefore very handy when I was looking to move beyond the 4 or 5 bottles I was buying on a more or less cyclical basis at the time.

Of course I swiftly found that my tastes weren’t always in line with Mr Murray’s, and whilst I still buy the annual editions on publication I primarily use them for a vague flick through. By this stage, as you’d hope, I can make up my own mind on what to purchase, and can fill in the map myself. But the Whisky Bible remains, if you can bring yourself to take opinions with a pinch of salt, a decent indicator of how big the whisky universe is. I just hope that this year they’ll dispense with the whisky-coloured eyes on the cover, which are just plain terrifying.

Malt Whisky Yearbook, ed. Ingvar Ronde (Released annually)

Comfortably the whisky book I find most indispensable - and a very enjoyable read it is too. As you’d expect from the title there’s a huge influence on Scotland, but of course that’s where most Malt Whisky comes from. Up-to-date information on the happenings and core expressions of all of Scotland’s distilleries, extant, extinct and imminent. Also covers most of the Malt whisky distilleries found in the elsewheres of the world, albeit not quite in such detail. 

As a serial distillery visitor I also find the phone numbers, websites and addresses of each distillery to be immensely useful - takes away most of the legwork! Each edition also comes with several very interesting articles from noted whisky luminaries and a good chunk of history to boot. 

Best of all, it manages to communicate this wealth of information in a very readable way, commendably avoiding any sense of dryness which could all too easily slip into such a work. If you buy one book on whisky this year I would heartily recommend that you make it this one.

MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky, by Charles MacLean

Charles MacLean is one of the few notables of the whisky industry whom I have actually met - albeit he wouldn’t remember me. I was at a tasting he led, and interacted with him for all of three - or maybe even four - seconds to shake his hand and say thank you at the end. Mind you I do have a very memorable handshake...

You’d have to call Mr MacLean a whisky academic really, and a claret-drinking gentleman of the traditional school. Again the focus is very much on Scotch, but if you’re after something really scholarly - something meaty, but consumable in bite-size chunks, then look no further. This is a compilation of selected essays, articles and lectures of his, covering the vast majority of what you ‘need’ to know about Scotch whisky, but in more rigorous detail than you’d find in an ‘introduction to...’ style of book.

One to read once you’ve got a few other tomes and a good number of tastes under your belt, rather than as a first foray into whisky and whisky literature. That said - fits in a (large) pocket, and doesn’t leave you asking too many questions. One of my coffee-shop staples, and my first port of call when it comes to research. Read this if you want to understand what serious Scotch nerds are on about. (Anorak not included.)

Bourbon Curious, by Fred Minnick

When it comes to drinks writers I have a basic test, which is ‘would I want to go for a drink with this person?’ By which I don’t mean a pretentious sip’n’spit, but a proper trip to the local for a pint and a burger. If the answer’s ‘no,’ I’ll still read the book, but I’m always impressed when someone manages to write in a hugely intellectual way whilst still coming across as friendly, approachable and fundamentally human. To date, only three writers have passed the ‘Pint and Burger Test’ (trademarked by the way, so don’t you go using it). They are Oz Clarke and Neal Martin, both wine, and Fred Minnick.

If Bourbon Curious isn’t the first book you read on the subject of American Whiskey then you have done your reading in the wrong order. It is quite simply the best introduction to a drink that I’ve read, and that’s because at no point is it at all condescending or patronising. No prior knowledge is assumed or necessary, and you will emerge at the end of the book with a thorough grounding in Bourbon - and an insatiable thirst for the stuff. It’s brilliantly written, it’s easy to read and it’s satisfyingly comprehensive. 

There’s a real sense of approachability, and also of fun; something all too often missing from tomes covering fine wine or whisk(e)y. There’s no snobbery, and there’s certainly no elitism. If I was feeling in a poke-the-bear mood I’d say that it is, in itself, a nice metaphor for how Bourbon stands against Single Malt Scotch. Yes, I’d go for a pint and a burger with Mr Minnick. Though in deference to me, I’d ask that we keep the portion sizes British.

The World Atlas of Whisky, by Dave Broom

The whisky book I keep closest to hand - though mostly because it doubles as my mouse mat! A beautifully done ‘coffee-table’ book, which gives you a thorough look at all the Scottish distilleries and a large number of the distilleries elsewhere, alongside the whisky-book staple ‘introduction to whisky’ at the start. 

Where it really stands out from other tomes on the subject is aesthetically; gorgeous photos of distilleries and the landscapes surrounding them abound - as you’d expect from an Atlas. If they’re places you haven’t been, you will be filled with desire to wander the shores of Scottish Lochs and the verdant green hills of Kentucky, and if you have been lucky enough to tread those paths before, you will instantly be transported back again. Obviously it’s not quite as rich in aesthetic as a wine atlas might be - but of course wine is blessed to be made more or less exclusively in places of extreme natural beauty, and is also rather more a celebration of nature than whisky is. (And that is not an invitation to reopen a debate on terroir.) Broom’s language is also, at times, approaching poetic, and he is certainly one of the world’s foremost whisk(e)y authorities. (With an additional hand in the pots of gin and rum respectively.) 

If I were to offer a single criticism it is that he doesn’t seem to have fixed an individual to write for in his head - by which I mean that he segues somewhat erratically from trying to sound fun to trying to sound scholarly, and his voice occasionally becomes a little disjointed as a result. 

That being said, he comes very close to passing the P&B Test® and is certainly one of the most talented communicators in the business; possibly even the number one. Besides, all is forgiven for his tasting notes in this book; the best I’ve ever struck, for the simple reason that they end with recommendations of what to try next if you’ve enjoyed this particular dram. Which frankly is the most useful thing a tasting note can possibly do.      

So there you have it. Five to try, and if you don’t enjoy them - well you can’t win ‘em all. Just make sure you’ve got a glass next to you as you read - guaranteed to make the experience more pleasurable!



  1. Only the first one that I completely disagree with however, fully realizing the typical whisky novice has nothing else to use as reference, I feel that many buy it and then quickly move on to other references...

    1. Hi Johanne - thanks for reading. (Flattered!) I do take your point, and agree that most, like myself, move on fairly quickly. But certainly in the UK it's the first book that many whisky drinkers encounter, and since the bulk of my readers are in the category of just starting out in whisky I'd have felt remiss not to list it.