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.


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.



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?


The PR powers recently saw fit to send me a bottle of Denizen Rum, a relatively new product that’s available in New York and via online merchants such as and Astor Wines.

Denizen is a white rum, but if you’re expecting it to be bland and lackluster as a result, you might be surprised. Denizen is a rum with character and body. The promotional literature tells me that Denizen starts with rum from the Angostura distillery in Trinidad. That rum is charcoal-filtered to remove the color, leaving a clear rum. The blenders then add trace amounts of 15 types of aged Jamaican rum (which I assume is also filtered).

The resulting spirit is richly bodied, with aromas and flavors of tropical fruits and flowers, and the grassy, vegetal notes of fresh sugar cane. Funky enough to be sipped on ice, Denizen also mixes well. I put it up to the daiquiri test and absolutely loved it.

Denizen retails for about $15.99 for a 750ml bottle, and at that price, I want to keep it constantly stocked on my home bar.

PRODUCT REVIEW: Bastille 1789 French Whisky

I recently received a sample bottle of a new French whisky, Bastille 1789, from the Cognac region of France.

First thing I want to note is the producer’s preferred spelling: whisky. If you note there’s no e, that might give you a clue as to the style of whisky on offer. Bastille offers a blended whisky in a Scotch style. The whisky’s made of malted barley and wheat, and distilled in alembic pot stills; what sets it apart from blended Scotch is that Bastille is aged in Limousin oak, cherry, and acacia casks.

The color is light, in keeping with most blends. The flavor is malty, fruity, spicy, and lightly sweet; what I really enjoyed about it were the unique flavors from the cask. Body is medium.

Overall, I found Bastille pleasant to sip on its own at the end of a long day, caring for my son. My favorite cocktail use of whiskey these days is in Old Fashioneds, and there I don’t think I’d care for the Bastille. It’s a little too light to hold up to the hefty amount of bitters I like in an Old Fashioned, and it’s sweet enough on its own that it doesn’t need sugaring. Likewise, although the promotional literature recommended mixing it into a Manhattan, I can’t see it playing well with sweet vermouth. But I speak as a guy who prefers rye whiskey and rye-forward bourbons, to softer, wheatier whiskeys, so my prejudices may be showing.

If you, your friends, or your customers prefer softer tipples, you may be pleased with how it works in cocktails. For myself, I quite enjoyed just sipping it on ice, and also neat. As a sipping whisky, it may well find a steady home on my bar, for days I want something lighter than rye.

Bastille 1789 is currently available in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. It launches nationally in May. Suggested retail price is $29.99. 40% alcohol by volume.

Johnnie Walker Double Black Review

Man, it’s like I forgot there was a blog around here. I guess there’s something about a newborn baby that distracts a man from writing.

Some time ago, I received a package from Johnnie Walker, sent to me for review purposes. Inside was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, two rocks glasses, coasters, and a bottle of the walking man’s newest offering, Johnnie Walker Double Black. Released last year into the duty-free market, Double Black makes its U.S. debut in time for holiday entertaining and gift giving.

I’ve grown very fond of ol’ John over the last few years, so I was eager to try this. At first, I wasn’t impressed. You see, the idea behind Double Black is to bring more of the smoky smoothness of an Islay malt to the Walker mix, while still retaining the sweet but complex maltiness that makes Johnnie Johnnie. I have to admit, on my first sip, I thought the idea was better in theory than in execution. I love a smoky scotch and would go miles out of my way for Laphroaig or Compass Box’s Peat Monster.

And maybe that’s where I set up myself, and Double Black, to fail. At first I felt that John’s new dram was schizophrenic, smoothly sweet and smoky but in a way that failed to highlight the best aspects of both. But as I tried it again (and again), I came to a different conclusion. As I taste the new blend now, it reminds me on first sip of vanilla and toffee with light heather notes. The smoke now seems more integrated and–forgive me for using this word, but it’s accurate–holistic. Some whiskies just need some attention before you can appreciate them.

Review: Chasing the White Dog

My brother Bill runs a still on the hill
Where he turns out a gallon or two
And the buzzards in the sky get so drunk they can not fly
Just from sniffing that good old mountain dew.

In popular conception, moonshine is a hillbilly thing. Imagine a bearded, overall-clad, avuncular fellow manning his still. Meanwhile, his good-ol’-boy nephews are straightenin’ the curves, staying one step ahead of the county sheriff while delivering the goods. If that’s your view of ‘shine, well, you’re not alone.

In his book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, author Max Watman explores this view of ‘shine and finds that it’s far from the whole picture. In researching his book, released February 2010 in hardback and earlier this year in paperback, Watman shadowed prosecutors and federal agents, talked to the legendary Junior Johnson, and drove through the hills and forests of Virginia and the Carolinas on the trail of hooch.

As Watman recounts in this entertaining and well-researched book, however, there’s far more to illegal distillation than just podunk corn likker. Watman recounts his own efforts to get an illegal still going, and the sometimes-comical, sometimes-delicious results. He tracks down microdistillers–places like Colorado’s Stranahan’s–that specialize in small-batch, craft distilling.

Many of the folks involved in the craft distilling scene started out making artisan spirits at home, prior to going pro, and Watman speaks to a few of these people as well–men and women making whiskeys, eaux de vie, and applejack for their own use or to share with friends.

Now Preacher John walked by, with a tear in his eye
Said that his wife had the flu
And hadn’t I ought just to give him a quart
Of that good old mountain dew

But Watman also examines an area of illegal distillation that few people are paying attention to–one that’s become a serious problem in urban areas. Y’see, Uncle Jesse’s been branching out. Ol’ Jess learned a few years ago that there’s not much money in making a few gallons for his neighbors in Hazzard County. So Jesse’s gone big.

He invested in an industrial-quality still and started buying pallets of pure sugar. If he’s very careful, he can hide behind the old cornpone stereotypes, while making vast quantities of something called sugar jack. This stuff ain’t no mellow sipper, meant for you to enjoy while barbecuing.

No, sugar jack is rotgut; it’s harsh and acrid. Jesse can pump it out fast, cheap, and in massive amounts, and it’s not meant for rural consumption. Most of it is sold for a dollar a shot at so-called nip joints, or shot houses, which are unregulated, unlicensed establishments. Aimed mostly at the urban poor, nip joints foster other criminal activities in addition to illegal hooch: gambling, narcotics, and prostitution, namely.

The sugar jack itself is nasty work; Watman describes his only taste of it in terms that are both funny and frightening. You can easily believe the liquid itself poses significant health risks. In conjunction with the nip joints in which it’s sold, though, it has become a deadly serious public-health problem, especially in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia.

There’s an old hollow tree, just a little way from me
Where you lay down a dollar or two
If you hush up your mug, then they’ll give you a jug
Of that good old mountain dew.

But it’s not all sinister. As I mentioned earlier, Watman talks to hobbyists, and briefly becomes one himself, who make artisan brandies and white-dog whiskeys with very small stills. And he asks himself, why is this illegal?

And make no mistakes here: unlicensed small-batch distilling is entirely and completely illegal in the United States. You can lose your home and all of your assets if you’re caught, and then you’ll get to go to jail. Now, the likelihood of such dire consequences isn’t high; after all, law enforcement has far bigger problems with sugar jack production and nip joints. But you need to be aware of them anyway.

I’ve blogged on this topic before, first when I reviewed Matt Rowley‘s book Moonshine and again in a three-part interview about small-batch home distilling, with Rowley, Mike McCaw, and Ian Smiley [part 1, part 2, part 3]. I think the conclusion of most rational human beings (it’s certainly Watman’s conclusion) is that, yes, large-scale unlicensed distillation can and should remain a felony, punishable by serious jail time and property seizure.

But the law really does need to make some provision for small-batch distilling. Set limits on how much you can make, sure, just as there are currently limits on how much beer and wine a person can make at home. Retain a prohibition on selling home distillates. But for god’s sake, allow a person to bring home a few bushels of apples from the farmer’s market every October and make some bloody applejack! Where’s the harm in that, really?

My uncle Mort, he is sawed off and short,
He measure ’bout four foot two,
But he thinks he’s a giant when you give him a pint
Of that good old mountain dew.

They call it that good old mountan dew,
And them that refuse it are few.
I’ll hush up my mug if you’ll fill up my jug
With that good old mountain dew.

[Chasing the White Dog was provided to me by the publisher for review purposes.]

NewAir Ice Maker Review

Note: This is a review of a product supplied to me for promotional consideration. Take it with however much salt you wish.

A few weeks ago, a company called Air & Water offered to send me a portable ice maker to review for promotional consideration. Upon receipt, it took up space in storage for almost two weeks because I have a small kitchen and limited counter space to test it. Finally, I had to cave in and make room: I had a moment of crisis in the late afternoon when I realized that not one tray of Tovolo cubes in my freezer was solid, and my wife would soon be home, demanding cocktails and brooking no excuses.

How It Works

The appliance in question, the AI-100SS from NewAir, is bulky but lighter than you’d perhaps expect. Its operation is actually pretty interesting. First, it’s portable, which means it’s not plumbed into your water lines. You fill it with whatever water you prefer–tap, distilled, spring, or Christina Hendricks’s bathwater, it’s up to you. The reservoir has a capacity of about 2 quarts of water. You fill it by lifting the cover, removing an ice basket that sits above the reservoir (more on this later), and pouring the water in. A drain-off cap allows you to empty the reservoir if you need to move or store the machine while it still has water in it.

The ice it produces is thimble shaped, and that’s a result of the machine’s operation. Once you turn it on, the machine sucks water from the reservoir into a sort of tub. The water forms a bath into which metal rods are descended, which chill the water, forming ice around the rods. Selecting the size of your ice thimbles simply means that you’re selecting the thickness of the ice that forms around the rods. When the ice is finished forming, the machine turns off the chilling power of the rods, the ice drops off the rods and is ejected into a basket.

The ice basket has small perforations, and as I said before, it sits atop the water reservoir. So as unused ice melts in the basket, the water drips back into the reservoir, ready for another session of ice-making. Smart design. The machine takes about 6 – 15 minutes to make the first batch of ice, depending on the size you selected. Once the basket fills up or the reservoir runs out of water, the machine shuts itself off.

My first batch of ice tasted a little off, with sort of a plastic taste, so I followed the instructions that said to use a bit of vinegar or lemon juice and allow it to cycle a few times. I first tried vinegar, and although it didn’t immediately impart a vinegar flavor to the ice, it did make an iced drink taste vinegary as the ice melted. I switched to lemon juice, which eventually washed away all the vinegar and provided me with tasty lemony ice water, so I’d definitely advise using lemon if needed.

How’s the Ice?

Enough already, I can hear you saying. How’s the ice?

  • First, it’s opaque, thanks to air dissolved in the water. If clear ice alone suits you, you’ll want another solution.
  • Next, even the large size is kind of brittle.
  • Third, it’s warm. The interior of the machine isn’t chilled except by the ice itself, so the thimbles sit a few degrees below room temperature until you use them.
  • The thimble shape means the ice has a lot of surface area to allow melting liquid into your drink.
  • Because the ice is warm and brittle, it melts quickly. In a drink, it fast degrades into a shell that you can easily crunch between your teeth. Further, it breaks easily into shards after only a few minutes.


I used this ice the first night to make a couple of drinks, and here’s what I decided:

  • Using the largest sized ice will provide you with serviceable, even good, ice for stirring a cocktail. The drink will chill and reach desired dilution quickly, though, so stir more briefly than you would using larger cubes.
  • The ice breaks down quickly in a shaker, into very small shards. I personally wouldn’t use it for shaken drinks for this reason, but if you do, shake just long enough to blend, dilute, and chill–just a few short seconds.
  • Because it melts quickly, it’s very much less than ideal for drinks served on ice, unless you’re tossing one back quickly or one or more of your ingredients are already cold.
  • I haven’t tried using it as crushed ice, but I imagine it would crush pretty well and work just fine for, say, a julep.

I work from home, and I have a glass of ice water at my side at all times. Aside from coffee (black, please), water is usually the only beverage I drink until the start of cocktail hour. Until the NewAir came along, that meant several trips a day into our small, overloaded freezer. Now, however, I leave the freezer shut all day, which frankly, is better for the freezer, and better for the food (and ice) inside. It means that when it’s time to mix drinks, I know I can rely on having many frozen Tovolo cubes.

And, I no longer have to whack away at the cubes to make chipped ice for chilling down cocktail glasses. Instead, I can just scoop some machine ice into them and top them off with water. The quick melting is ideal for this because it chills the glasses down quickly.

I’ve seen Fred Yarm, from the Cocktail Virgin blog, comment in a couple of places that a friend of his owns a NewAir and stores her thimbles in the freezer in plastic containers. This seems smart because the ice would get hard and cold. I might try it and report back.

I can’t tell you I’d have bought this machine for myself. To be honest, it never even occurred to me that portable ice machines were a product category you could purchase from. I do, though, love that these little thimbles allow our freezer to work more efficiently, free up the Tovolo cubes from the humble act of daily hydration, and chill my glassware lickety-split. I won’t say I can’t live without it; if I had a freezer with a built-in ice machine, I’d probably box this up until company was over. But I don’t have a built-in ice maker, and so I find this portable model very handy.

If you’re in the market for a portable, countertop ice machine, the NewAir AI-100SS won’t disappoint you.