Monday, December 1, 2014

New Whiskey Books by Heather Greene and Lew Bryson

When I first started getting interested in whiskey, good information wasn't easy to come by.  There were some books, but they were fairly specialized. There was Cowdery on bourbon and Michael Jackson on Scotch, but nothing that gave a good general overview on whiskey in all its different forms.

Well, the whiskey boom has changed thing.  It seems like a new whiskey book comes out every month, some good, some not so good.  This fall though, we are lucky to have two general whiskey books from writers who know their stuff: Heather Greene and Lew Bryson.  Both books are general whiskey surveys and include chapters on how whiskey is made, what the different types are, tips on tasting, recommended bottles, cocktails and food pairings.  While they cover a lot of the same ground, the two books have somewhat different styles.

Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life by Heather Greene, Viking Studio (Penguin) ($19)

Heather Greene was a long-time Glenfiddich brand ambassador who now curates spirits for the Flatiron Room in Manhattan.  Her book is definitely written for novices.  Greene has a conversational tone and does a good job covering all of the basics while launching into some geeky detail as well (the impact of hard vs. soft water on distilling, the three tier distribution system, different types of barrels, etc).  The information is presented in a concise, clear fashion with no nonsense advice, and I particularly liked the Cook's Illustrated style sketches sprinkled throughout which illustrate things like the size of different barrels and how to read the label on a bottle of Scotch or bourbon.

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits, by Lew Bryson, Storey Publishing ($14) 

Lew Bryson is a long-time whiskey and beer writer and the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine.  His book contains much similar content to Greene's with a bit more historical background and more detail in some areas.  It's nicely laid out with plentiful photos, charts and graphs. Like Greene, Bryson covers all the basics along with some geeky detail, including a great section on the way in which warehouse location impacts flavor and a very helpful chart of mashbills.


These are both very strong books, but as a whiskey geek, I reserve the right to quibble, so here is some nitpicking.  Greene centers her discussion of Scotch on the largely irrelevant regions of Scotland which I have always thought of as more confusing than helpful to novices.  In discussing bourbon, Bryson resorts to a flavor graph, another staple of whiskey education that I think is wholly unhelpful.

Greene gives short shrift to Canadian Whisky (less than two pages) whereas Bryson barely even acknowledges whiskeys made in countries outside of the big five. And while Greene does have a short section on world whiskey, she makes some odd choices, covering France and South Africa but not Taiwan, whose Kavalan is much better known and well regarded than any South African or French whiskey.

Both books have helpful charts listing the ppm level of various peated whiskeys, but they don't agree on exactly what they are (Greene says Bowmore is 18-25 ppm, Bryson says it's 25-30).

In the only glaring error in either book, Greene has a list of bourbon mashbills that is inexact and error prone (for instance, it lists Eagle Rare as "traditional mash bill" and Buffalo Trace as "high-rye," though in fact, they use the same low-rye mashbill).

All that being said, these are very minor criticisms of two excellent introductions to whiskey which will easily join the top tier of any list of whiskey books.

Choosing a Book

So which of these books should you buy?  You certainly don't need both given how similar they are. Here's how I would choose.

If you are looking for a book for a true novice, I would pick Greene's book.  While both books cover the basics, Greene writes in a more introductory style, always remembering that she may be writing for someone who knows nothing about whiskey.  She is particularly attuned to the possibility of wine lovers trying to learn about whiskey and has a very interesting section on whiskey choices likely to please fans of specific wines.

For the intermediate level whiskey drinker, maybe the one who has had a few whiskeys, knows the basics, and wants a bit more or for the intense bourbon or Scotch lover who wants to branch out, I'd pick Bryson.  He goes a bit more in depth on some whiskey geek type issues and seems to write more for an intermediate level whiskey drinker.

All in all though, you will do any novice or intermediate whiskey drinker who wants to learn more a great service with either of these books. Kudos to both Greene and Bryson for expanding our whiskey library.


tanstaafl2 said...

Very helpful reviews! Helps me decide not only whether I might like them but which to choose for gift giving depending on who I plan to give them to.

Anonymous said...

Well, one of the authors is definitely easier on the eyes than the other (sorry!) :-O

sku said...

Lew is a looker. No doubt about it.