How to Order My Books

My latest book, WHISKEY, arrives in May 2016, from Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton. WHISKEY covers the history of the venerable brown beverage, the differences between — say — bourbon and scotch, and the abundance of cocktail applications for all the many different whiskeys of the world. Preorder here:

My first book, SHRUBS, premiered in September 2014 also from Countryman. In SHRUBS, I look at the history of the beverage called shrub, from its origins in the Middle East up through to its modern use in the trendiest cocktail bars and restaurants. Order here:

Jack Daniel’s, If You Please

In a one-stoplight town in the south-central part of Tennessee, you’ll find the home of the top-selling American whiskey brand in the world.

Photograph by Michael Dietsch

Photograph: Michael Dietsch

In November, I attended a press trip to the Jack Daniel Distillery, where I saw how the iconic brand is produced, aged, and bottled. We even got our hands dirty helping out a little around the distillery. And I learned some curious and interesting facts about the brand’s history and production.

Drier Than the Sahara

One thing that’s quite unusual about Jack is that you can’t drink much of it on the official tour, not even a full ounce per sample.  You see, Lynchburg sits in a dry county and even the small amount you can drink required a special exemption.

Now, you might have heard this story once upon a time, about how crazy it is that one of the largest-selling whiskey brands in the world is made in a dry county. What you might not know, though, is why the county chooses to remain dry all these decades after the repeal of Prohibition. Daniel’s brings in a lot of tourism, to the tune of 250,000 visitors a year. Imagine 250,000 people a year coming into a small town like Lynchburg, touring the distillery, and then sticking around well after dark to have a drink or twelve. Lynchburg fears, probably rightly so, becoming the Vegas of the South. I’m all for less Prohibition, and right now please, but I don’t live in their community, and I can mostly see their point.

Charcoal: Not Just for Grilling Out

Not much distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon, and in fact, Jack Daniel’s could legally call itself a bourbon if the company wished to do so. The main difference between Jack and bourbon is that Jack uses a charcoal-filtering process to smooth out the whiskey prior to aging. Here’s how it works.

First, the company brings in sugar maple, grown sustainably in the region. The sugar maple comes to Jack cut into long, thin planks, or ricks. Jack employs a couple of guys whose job it is to burn the ricks of sugar maple into charcoal. First, they douse the sugar maple with an accelerant to help it burn quickly and efficiently. The accelerant isn’t gasoline or kerosene, either of which would impart an off taste to the final product. Instead, it’s high-proof unaged Jack Daniel’s, straight off the still.

Here’s a photo of a guy setting the sugar maple on fire. He’s not one of the aforementioned employees, but just a chump who got the chance to do something fun once.

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Photograph: Jack Daniel Distillery

After the sugar maple burns, it resembles the stuff you’d buy if you got a bag of hardwood lump charcoal–not the briquettes, but the natural stuff you can get at specialty grocers. I used to grill out using lump charcoal all the time, and I loved the way it burned–clean, without the binders and other gunk you get from briquettes. (I asked whether anyone had ever taken some of the sugar-maple charcoal lumps home to grill with, and I don’t think our host understood me because he mentioned the Jack Daniel’s brand briquettes you can buy.)

That aside, Jack doesn’t use this lump charcoal to filter its whiskey. Instead, they grind up the charcoal into fine pellets, which they use to fill giant tanks inside the facility. The unaged distillate is pumped to spouts atop the tanks, where it dribbles out of the spouts and down onto the charcoal below. In a process that takes weeks, the whiskey slowly trickles through the tanks of charcoal pellets, until it emerges at the bottom, stripped of some of the chemical compounds that would otherwise make the whiskey taste bitter or tart. When the charcoal pellets are at the end of their lifespan, they’re ground up further, into dust, and used to make Jack’s charcoal briquettes, thus ensuring that no part of the sugar maple goes to waste. To make the even-smoother Gentleman Jack, the company filters the aged product through the charcoal one more time, thus mellowing it even further.

Sundown in Nashville

Before our group went to Jack, however, we spent a night in Nashville. I arrived early on a Monday afternoon, checked into my hotel, and grabbed a cab to get lunch. I chose a meat-and-three place, which are pretty common in Nashville. They’re cafeteria-style joints, usually mom-n-pop places, that sell you a lunch of some kind of meaty main dish, with up to three sides. (Hence, “meat-and-three.”) The most famous in Nashville is Arnold’s Country Kitchen, about seven minutes out of downtown. I was lucky; you can always find roast beef on the mains at Arnold’s, but the rest of the mains rotate through the week, and on the day I was there, one of the choices was fried chicken. I ordered that, and I was very pleased.

I also spent sometime at the Country Music Hall of Fame; I probably would have gone there anyway, but they were having an exhibition on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and the influence of Nashville musicians on rock albums of the late 1960s and 1970s. A large group of talented session musicians set in on those recordings, contributing a unique sound to music of the era and helping to revitalize the country genre at the same time Outlaw Country was coming up. The exhibit was great, and I’m glad I had the time to go, but I wish I could have stayed longer at the museum and seen more.

Shrubs on ABC’s Shark Tank

This is interesting.

ABC has a reality program called Shark Tank. I’ve never seen it. Apparently, the idea is that, if you have an idea for a business, you can pitch it to the show, and if the producers feel it has merit, they’ll bring you on and you can pitch the idea to a team of “sharks,” or hard-hitting business tycoons who will decide whether to fund your company.

The season premiere is this Friday, September 25, and it features the McClary Bros. line of drinking vinegars. I’ve had their shrubs, and I’m excited to see that shrubs will get some prime-time attention.

I also have a mercenary motivation for this post. I want people to search online for “Shark Tank” and “drinking vinegars” or “shrubs” or “McClary” and find this page. I want them to click this link: Buy My Books. And then I want them to buy my book. It’s a simple idea, really. Can you blame me?

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.

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?