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.

6 Best Budget Ryes

Bad rye whiskey? Sadly, there is such a thing as bad rye; usually, the juice is so young, it has no nuance or subtlety, and all you get is fire and unpleasant fruity flavors. But enough about the not-so-good stuff. Let’s talk instead of the stars of the budget-rye universe.

Good rye should be spicy, somewhat fruity, and a little more rugged than bourbon. A common analogy is to compare rye bread to corn bread, and use that comparison to point out the differences between rye and bourbon. (The analogy is imperfect, but it’s a reasonable starting point.)

[Read more]

Rye Resurgent

From Shanken News Daily, a look at the rise of rye whiskey.

Rye Whiskey Rising Fast, Spurred By Dynamic On-Trade Cocktail Culture

The U.S. whisk(e)y renaissance and vibrant cocktail culture have created ideal timing for rye whiskey’s serious return to the marketplace. The category, which never really recovered from Prohibition (1920-1933) and was relegated to near-oblivion as other whisk(e)y categories filled the void, is now back on track and making headway with support from some of the biggest U.S. whiskey producers.

[Link to full article.]

Country star makes a Manhattan

I got a funny sort of PR email today. A country artist I’ve never heard of, Kelleigh Bannen, has a new song out, and to promote it, she did a video in which she makes a Manhattan.

Ordinarily, I’d let this sort of thing pass me right by, or if I were mildly interested, I’d watch the video and then forget about it entirely. A couple of reasons I’m not doing that now. Watch the video; it’s under three minutes. I think you’ll see the first notable thing right away.


Tell me you weren’t surprised by the whiskey. Oh, and she chose rye, which sadly is notable in itself. The cherries aren’t a bad call, either. Technique? Y’know what, I don’t sweat shaking vs. stirring when it comes to mixing a drink at home. The primary reason to stir a Manhattan is to maintain clarity in the drink when you serve it. Shaking agitates the cocktail and makes it hazy looking. Aesthetics matter in cocktail making, but they’re not always crucial. Serving it on the rocks? Well, first, it’s the giant Tovolo tray, so there’s that. Second, here’s my shameful secret: I prefer Manhattans on a giant rock like that.

My only real quibble is why she’s so adamant that the bitters go on at the end.

A Very Hoppy MxMo

MxMo HopsWow, I don’t even want to think about how long it’s been since I’ve participated in a Mixology Monday. All sorts of things–lazyness, apathy, antipathy, psychopathy–have gotten in the way. But I’m back, dammit, at least for this one. I love this month’s theme–beer cocktails–so I’m happy to play along. Ta muchly to Cocktail Virgin Slut for hosting!

I’ve decided to update a cocktail I submitted to a Food52 competition, in the long-ago days of October 2009. I didn’t win or place or even show, unfortunately, but I love the drink I made, so I’m hoping this time it meets with more enthusiasm. Here’s my writeup from Food52:

The Seelbock is a variant of the classic Seelbach cocktail, from the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky–bourbon, Cointreau, and generous amounts of both Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, topped off with a big pour of champagne. For this version, I used a 100-proof rye whiskey in place of bourbon and I tinkered with the bitters. And most importantly, I used a weisse beer, a wheat beer, in place of the champagne. Wheat beers are light, effervescent, and yeasty, just like champagne. For this, I chose the Schneider & Brooklyner Hopfen Weisse, a collaboration between Schneider Weissbier and Brooklyn Brewery. If you can’t find this brew, substitute any good quality wheat beer. If you can’t find lemon bitters, you can muddle lemon peel into the mixing glass before you add the other ingredients.

Some things I didn’t tell the Food52 crowd (I like to keep my headnotes there short):

  • I swapped rye for bourbon because I thought it would provide a stronger backbone for a beer cocktail.
  • I ditched the Peychaud’s because, frankly, I didn’t like it at all in this drink. I found it clashed with the beer. So instead I used lemon bitters (The Bitter Truth’s version), and that was a great choice because it highlights the natural citrus notes in the beer.

photo © Jennifer Hess; all rights reserved

Now, as I said, the July 2011 version of the Seelbock is an update, and here are the changes I’ve made:

First, although it makes a lot of sense to choose a Weisse beer that somewhat resembles champagne (light, effervescent, and yeasty), I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to name a drink -bock when you’re using a Weisse. And, since I wasn’t sure I’d find the Schneider & Brooklyner Hopfen Weisse again (since it was a limited-edition brew), I thought, well, hell, Dietsch, just get a goddamn bock this time.

So I got a goddamn bock this time, but I kept it in the G. Schneider und Sohn family, choosing their Aventinus doppelbock. It’s wheaty, of course, like their Brooklyn Brewery collab, but it’s a lot darker and richer. I wanted to play with it in this cocktail, to see what a darker brew would add.

The only other change I made to the original recipe was here: “1 ounce rye whiskey”. Let me be honest: I did that for Food52, concocting a less-potent cocktail than I normally drink, in hopes that civilians would try it. I don’t need to do that here.

Between the oils from the lemon twist, the lemon bitters, and the Cointreau, this is a brightly citrusy cocktail, which makes it all the more refreshing for a hot July day. I think I’m happier with this version than I was the Food52 edition.


  • 1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey (I used Rittenhouse, as I did in the original)
  • 1/2 oz. Cointreau (I don’t know why I preferred Grand Marnier originally; perhaps it was all I had at the moment)
  • 1/4 oz. lemon bitters (measure!)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 4-5 oz. Aventinus doppelbock
  • lemon twist, for garnish
  1. In a mixing glass filled with ice, stir rye, Cointreau, and both bitters.
  2. Strain into champagne flute and top with beer.
  3. Add garnish.
  4. Burp and be happy.