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.


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.


Best Budget Irish Whiskeys

With St. Patrick’s Day coming, I thought this would be a great time to look at a few good value brands of Irish whiskey. These bottles have character but won’t set you back more than $25.

Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing liquor categories in the United States right now, especially among younger people who are looking to develop a taste for whiskies. It’s easy to see why: Irish whiskey is smooth and sweet, but still tastes like a rich brown spirit. It’s a good transitional drink for people who are beginning to explore the world beyond vodka-sodas and tequila shots.

[Read more!]

Review: Drinks by the Dram

There’s a liquor retailer in the UK called Master of Malt, and despite its name, it sells more than just whisk(e)y. In the summer of 2010, they started a program called Drinks by the Dram, wherein they’ll sell you little sample bottles of many of their products–from low-end to high. The samples are 3cl/30ml, or a little over an ounce.

The goal is to provide a try-before-you-buy program, allowing consumers to buy small drams at reasonable prices, so that they may sample unique and hard-to-find bottlings without paying possibly hundreds of dollars for something they may not like.

Someone from MoM contacted me a couple of weeks ago, and offered to send me a package of them if I was interested in covering this program. Wanting to learn more about Irish and Scotch whiskies, I agreed. So just before Christmas, I got these:


Edradour 1998 Sassicaia

Highland malt. Bottled at cask strength, 56.9%. Distilled and matured in 1998, bottled in 2009.

[Edradour 1998 Sassicaia – Straight from the Cask sample; £4.45 for 30ml, or about $7.35 US]

Sassicaia is an Italian wine, so this means it’s aged in wine barrels to pick up some of that flavor. Fewer than 500 bottles of this were released.

Color: A pale amber with reddish undertones.

Nose: Floral, spicy, sweet but not cloying.

Tasting notes: Well-balanced scotch. Hot, in keeping with its barrel strength. Drying. Notes of chocolate and stone fruit, the latter probably from the wine barrel. The stone fruit reminds me a bit of cherry. At this strength, it definitely needs some water. Moderately creamy texture. Subtle smoke.

Final word: At the price point (£41.97, or about $70 US) for a 500-ml bottle, there are better scotches on the market.

Johnnie Walker Blue

Nuff said. Does this require a review? I think they’re including it mainly to show that their samplers cover a range of whisk(e)y styles, including high-end blends.

[Johnnie Walker Blue Label sample; £8.45 for 30ml, or about $13.95 US]

Master of Malt 12 Year Old Lowland

I know next to nothing about this. It’s from something called Master of Malt’s Secret Bottlings Series, which bottles scotches from undisclosed distilleries.

[Master of Malt 12 Year Old Lowland sample; £3.45 for 30ml, or about $5.75 US]

Lowland malt, 40% abv.

Color: Honey/amber.

Nose: Walnut, pecan. Butterscotch, toffee, honey.

Tasting notes: Candied nuts, hint of smoke, honey, malt. Fresh and light, with hints of lemon and grass. Moderately bitter on finish.

Final word: Tasty example of Lowlands style. At £34.95 (or about $58 US) for 700ml, might make a nice present for a scotch lover who’s a completest, or at the opposite end of the scale, for someone fairly new to scotch, since the Lowlands style tends to appeal to beginners.

Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Sherry Cask Finish

Single-malt Irish whiskey is a category that seems to be little-known among US consumers. Shame, if this one’s any indication.

[Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Sherry Cask Finish sample; £3.95 for 30ml; or about $6.50 US]

Single-malt Irish whiskey, 46% abv.

Color: Copper, dark amber.

Nose: Malt, hint of spice, caramel, chocolate, white pepper. Nose opens up over time.

Tasting notes: Not winey, despite the sherry finish, but there is a hint of stone fruit and sherry-nuttiness, possibly from the cask. Dried fruit–apricot, maybe. Rich, well-balanced.

Final word: Delicious. I’d drink this often, if I could find and afford it. I want to linger over the precious grams that remain in my glass.

Master of Malt offers this for £49.14 for 700ml, or about $81 US.

Greenore 15 Year Old

Single-grain Irish whiskey, 43% abv.

[Greenore 15 Year Old sample; £4.45 for 30ml; or about $7.35 US]

Color: Light amber, honey.


Tasting notes: Chocolate, vanilla, honey, bourbon.

Final word: Would recommend for bourbon drinkers branching out into single malts. Very smooth whiskey. Definitely lighter and sweeter than most single malts, so a good stepping stone to single-malt Irish and Scotch bottlings. The grain here is corn, with just a little bit of malted barley to start the fermentation process, according to the Cooley Distillery website. Aged in bourbon casks. The 15-year retails for £52.45 for 700ml, or about US$86, but Greenore also makes an 8-year that goes for about $50.

Drinks by the Dram: The Takeaway

I really enjoyed sampling through these whiskeys, so I think Masters of Malt has a good program going here. These wee bottles would make great individual stocking stuffers. A multi-bottle sampler box would be perfect for the aficionado who’s looking to try new bottlings.

Ads of the Week: William Jameson Irish American Whiskey

Yes, you’ve read that headline correctly: Irish American whiskey. What on earth?

You might recall my post from October in which I first showed you William Jameson’s whiskey. It sparked a bit of discussion about the connections between William and John Jameson, the Jameson brand we know today. As a commenter there pointed out, William was the son of John and started a distillery to compete with old dad. But as I recounted in October, the Irish uprising, followed quickly by Prohibition, resulted in the demise of many an Irish whiskey distillery, Wm Jameson included. (Ads are from various 1937/1938 issues of Life magazine.)



What remaining stocks William’s company had left were quickly bottled and shipped into the American market to fill the growing post-Repeal thirst for whiskey. As supplies dwindled, and as American distilleries ramped up production, the William Jameson company began blending its own whiskey with American product as a way to stretch its inventories–hence, Irish American whiskey.



Ad of the week: William Jameson Irish whiskey

VF, 1/35 (be sure to click through and hit View All Sizes; it’s interesting what you’ll see on the ad):

William Jameson

Now, this is fun. The Jameson you can buy today is John Jameson–the brand from last week’s ad. This is William Jameson, and if you click through, you’ll see William in italics throughout the ad, and you’ll see it in red type on the label.

Sad story here: by the time this ad ran, the William Jameson distillery was closed, its stocks were being sold off, and its physical plant was being demolished to make way for housing. The site for the Irish Whiskey Trail has the full story. But I learned something about Irish whiskey when I was studying for BarSmarts, and now’s a good time to pass it on.

Irish whiskey was once the dominant whiskey in most parts of the world, much the way Scotch whisky is today (everywhere except the U.S., of course). What happened to change this?

First, it was the Irish war for independence that began in 1912. You see, one reason Irish whiskey was so dominant was that Londoners loved it. And when they colonized the rest of the world, they took it along with them. But when these upstarts in Eire got their knickers in a twist and kicked the English (mostly) out, London balked at Irish whiskey. Sales plummeted. At any other time, the Irish might have turned their eyes toward the American market. After all, think of how many Irish emigrated west in the 19th century. But, ouch. In 1919, Prohibition dropped itself onto America and suddenly the market for Irish whiskey nearly dried up entirely.

Hundreds of distilleries across Ireland closed down during these years, and Irish whiskey as a product category very nearly completely disappeared. Of the distilleries open in 1912, only three survived to today. A few new companies have taken up the craft since 1990, but the Irish whiskey business is barely a shadow of what it was at its peak.

The other thing of note about this ad is the text and the way this Irish is being marketed. I’ll reproduce here the part I’m interested in:

Ireland’s Oldest Whiskey comes to America just in time to “fill the gap” in the rapidly dwindling stocks of fully aged American whiskies. Every drop of this choice Irish Whiskey is a FULL 10 YEARS OLD.

Think about when this ad ran. 1935. Just two years after the ignoble experiment, Prohibition, ended in the United States. The ad’s correct; there would have been very little aged American whiskey in the U.S. Thanks to Prohibition, every distillery was shut down and every bottle (supposedly) destroyed. When production ramped back up with repeal, of course whiskey makers resumed distilling, but they would have had nothing ready for sale by 1935. It appears that the William Jameson company took advantage of this to try to unload its own remaining stocks into the U.S. market.

According to the Irish Whiskey Trail site I linked out to above, the Wm. Jameson people even went so far as to blend their whiskey with young American whiskey in the 1930s, as a way to extend the life of its remaining stocks.

MxMo11: Winter Warmers

MxMo WarmersThis month’s edition of Mixology Monday comes to us from that fine new magazine, Imbibe, whose editors have chosen the theme winter warmers, in keeping with the issue on the stands right now.

My contribution isn’t particularly original, but it’s a drink I’ve wanted to try at home for a while now: Irish coffee. Jen and I wanted something yummy to go with the ham-and-cheese baked eggs she made for brunch, and Irish coffee seemed like a good pairing.

Imbibe did a piece on this drink in the previous issue–the holiday issue–and although I referred to that feature while prepping the drink, I also consulted other sources to try to get the technique down.

Obviously, it’s not difficult. Irish coffee depends only a little on your technique–mainly layering the cream on top in the right way–and more on the quality of the ingredients. If you have good coffee, whiskey, sugar, and cream, you’ll make a yummy Irish coffee even if you flub the technique. It might not be best in show, but it’ll still taste great.
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