Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: "The World's Best Whiskies" by Dominic Roskrow


Lately, I am hearing the hushed tones of polished English accents quietly discussing romance, good table manners, and the scandal of poorly chosen cuff links against the background theme music of a very popular British TV series: Downton Abbey.  In the United States, the program is featured on the PBS Masterpiece series.  Need I say more . . .

The hired help at Downton Abbey










Every evening my wife watches this British period piece about how World War I forever changed the lives of servants and an aristocratic family.  I have to restrain myself from making snide remarks that will attract a stare colder than a crisp December morning in Moscow, and endure a plot with liberal helpings of unfulfilled destinies, servants with a sense of duty, and scandalous behavior with a host of good and devilish characters.

The Downton Abbey aristocratic family.







If it was up to me, I and my significantly more cultured other, would be watching Boss, a fantastic new show starring Kelsey Grammer about a corrupt, psychopath mayor of Chicago.  You wanna see serious political double-crossing, murderous larceny with some nice T&A, this, my friend, is the show for you!  Kelsey Grammer is brilliant in his role as Tom Kaine.  No wise-cracking jokes from the high brow duff-us Frasier character here.  Mayor Tom Kaine is coldly calculating the political crises he faces on a daily basis and uses a ruthlessness that is reminiscent of Attila the Hun.  Riveting, must watch!  To borrow an adage from the board game Monopoly, Do not pass 'Go'  Do not collect $200 either if you fail to watch Boss!
Kelsey Grammer in his role as 'Tom Kaine' on 'Boss.'





But, Downton Abbey is on the 'telly' as they say in the UK.  So, I must amuse myself.  And what precisely have I been doing?  Reading books on whisky in an effort to block out that syrupy music at the top of this post and the whispered conversations of children out of wedlock, lost loves, and general bad manners at the dinner table.








Whisky Books
Books on whisky suffer from one great malaise: they can be extremely boring.  I mean, do we really care how many millions of litres of spirit are produced by a given distillery?  Doesn't change anything in my life?  No, I think not.  Nor do we care to know the precise year that there was a terrible fire or that it started next to the boiler room.  What was the janitor keeping in his closet that was so flammable?  We don't need to hear about the monumental reconstruction effort that even employed the tiny tots of the town.  Out of the ashes rose a great distillery. . . . blah, blah, blah.

You and I really only care about what a given whisky tastes like and maybe some of the basics.  Accordingly, a clear writing style is a definite must (would be helpful if I made efforts to utilize one too!).  In any event, I find many books on whisky employ a sleepy literary style that is in the tradition of the latest scientific literature on physics or game theory.

The World's Best Whiskies by Dominic Roskrow










Whisky critic, Dominic Roskrow, doesn't make the mistake that so many authors contributing articles to scientific journals, that no one will ever read, do.  His writing style is fairly engaging, succinct and he recognizes that other whisky books can devote far too much space to legends, stories and other sleep inducing anecdotes that put the reader in a catatonic state very quickly.

Roskrow is keenly aware of the habit of many whisky critics to spend inordinate pages devoted to the 'history' of whisky.  He writes in the introduction:

". . . I have never been big on history, and right from a very young age I was up there painting the wagon with Lee Marvin looking forward to the next adventure."

Spare us the history lesson . . .
OK, I applaud this sentiment.  But what does he do two pages later?  He spends two full pages discussing the history of whisky.  Fortunately, he limits it to two pages, but Dominic, buddy, if you really have no use for regurgitating the history of whisky, why do so?  Skip it dude!  To hell with the publishing house suits that say it must be in the book.  Write a book with no damn history!  Break the mold!  Stick a finger in the eye of the whisky publishers!  That's what Lee Marvin would do!





Dominic!  Look into Lee's eyes!  See that intensity?  Does he look like a guy that's gonna say one thing and do another?  Maybe re-watch Point Blank (1967).

Dominic redeemed by his crystal clear writing style
While Dominic dropped the ball for the reader by doing the obligatory 'history' lesson on whisky, he does redeem himself elsewhere, and again it comes back to his concise writing style.  Consider his explanation of what "non chill-filtered" means that appears on page 25:

"Naturally produced whisky clouds when it is cold because the fats in the solution solidify at lower temperatures.  To prevent this and ensure clear whisky, makers have tended to chill the whisky and filter out the solidified fats.  But in recent years there has been a trend toward leaving these fats in because they also contain flavor.  So, 'non chill-filtered' is regarded as a statement of quality and reflects the fact that drinkers are becoming increasingly demanding and knowledgeable about their drinks."

The above passage is the best damn explanation of the phrase "non chill-filtered" that appears on so many bottles of scotch these days.  It's straight forward, accurate, to the point.

Don't know what "cask strength" means on the label of your most recent scotch whisky purchase?  Have no fear.  Dominic has a clear, understandable explanation:

"Simply that the whisky has been put into the bottle at the strength at which it came out of the cask."









Dominic is, of course, a renowned whisky critic.  Accordingly, it comes as no great surprise that the balance of the book comprises a great number of whisky tasting notes.  Approximately 700.

But, is he honest?
My measure of a whisky critic is honesty.  Will he call a spade a spade when it comes to bad whisky?  It is easy to praise the great examples of this type of spirit, but does the critic have the cojones to warn the reader of disappointing malts?

I am happy to report that Mr. Roskrow will advise the reader against certain malts.  Mind you, he writes more subtly than say I.  Where I would say a malt may induce projectile vomiting, he is more diplomatic.  Consider his review of Glengoyne Burnfoot which appears on page 93:

"Something of a victory for style over substance, although full marks to the owners for trying to do something genuinely different with the packaging and presentation.  Subtle, this isn't.  There is no age statement, and it tastes young and two-dimensional.  But in its favor, it is a clean and robust whisky, with some endearing sweet malt notes."  (emphasis added)

Or how about his review of Isle of Jura 10-year old appearing on page 108:

"A soft and unassertive malt, with a sweet and fruity backbone.  The abrasive tangy notes and 'baby sick' notes have gone, so if you were put off in the past, it might be time for a revisit.  That said, it continues to be quite two-dimensional and unexceptional, apart from the well-designed packaging."  (emphasis added)









He is not a Scotch dogmatist
Finally, Dominic devotes a section of his book to whiskies made outside of Scotland, America, Canada and Japan.  He recognizes and praises the efforts of whisky distilling going on in Australia, Europe, India, New Zealand and South Africa.

Mr. Roskrow draws the reader's attention to up and coming distilleries in France, Belgium and even Germany.  I particularly enjoyed his review of the Blaue Maus Distillery.  Roskrow has a wonderfully open mind when he approaches whiskies produced outside of Scotland, US, Canada and Japan.  He is willing to give them a chance.  He does not suffer from the dogmatism that all great whisky must hail from Scotland.

On page 252, he writes about a friend, another renowned whisky critic, who vehemently argues that central Europe will never produce any good whisky.  Dominic writes:  "I like my friend, but he is wrong."  Discussing the German whisky of the Blaue Maus distillery, he wrote:

"This is not Scottish single malt whisky and is not trying to be, nor is it bourbon or Irish whiskey - but that does not mean it cannot be great.  And Blaue Maus does make great whisky.  Adjust your taste buds, throw away your prejudices, and approach these whiskies as if they were a brand-new drinks category all of their own, and you may find yourself enjoying a roller-coaster ride."

Now that's the attitude to have when drinking any whisky!

Good job Dominic!

Cheers!


Jason Debly
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for images above taken from the film "Point Blank" as they belong to MGM.    I do not own any rights to "Point Blank" which is posted for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.

22 comments:

  1. Good post Jason, I agree that I can't really bring myself to care about all that distillery history. I just want to know what's going into the whisky.

    I recently read (and re-read, actually) "101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die" by Ian Buxton. I found it to be informative and entertaining both, even if Ian Buxton is not the most relatable guy. You might enjoy that one, too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And you can tell when he really dislikes a whisky when he writes three+ paragraphs on anything but the whisky he's reviewing. :-)

    -- Mantisking

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, and he tries to say something positive even if it is about the packaging only.

      Delete
  3. I have three of the four books you have listed (along with 2010 Whiskey Bible, and Michael Jackson's Guide to Single Malts). They are great downtime reading...(and very educational). And who doesn't like to look at all of the different bottles and packaging...
    (and give Downton Abbey a chance...it's not too bad.)

    KBailey

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reading whisky books beat the hell out of being in a vegetative state watching TV. Very relaxing indeed and I agree the pics of all the different bottles and packaging is somehow calming.

      As for Downton Abbey, I suppose I am being a wee bit harsh . . .

      Delete
  4. I have an older edition of Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, but it is old enough to not be specific to many of the malts on the market today. He grades whiskies by points, a fairly subjective procedure I imagine, but if brevity is the soul of wit, this gets it done.

    I also have a copy of Single Malt & Scotch Whisky by Daniel Lerner. Pretty pictures, but that's about all.

    I am considering purchasing Whiskypedia by Charles MacLean (2010), but the copy I'm eyeing is on the internet, so I'm not sure what I'd be getting. Do you know anything about that particular book? Clearly, I need an update to Mr. Jackson. Perhaps you have a recommendation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have always enjoyed the late Michael Jackson's writing. His whisky reviews were generally short, elegant and usually accurate. He and Roskrow use rather coded language when expressing reservations about certain whiskies. Kinda like watching films of the 1940's that hint at sex.

      In any case, if you are in the market for a new whisky book, I would recommend Roskrow's. It is very comprehensive, well illustrated and well written.

      I don't know anything about Whiskypedia by Charles MacLean. Stay away from "World Whisky" that is pictured in my post, as it is nothing more that a couple hundred page whisky infomercial.

      Delete
  5. Thanks for this review, Jason - excellently written and just as forthright as you expect whisky authors to be. Fair point about the history lesson, but publishers are often from another era and are very set as to what must be included -so two pages of history was the compromise. Amusingly, I think there are three dates in the whole book - and I got one of them wrong! You'll appreciate that in The Whisky Opus, published next October, I won a battle not to have 20 pages of 'how to make whisky' (yuck) and replaced it with whisky personalities from across the world answering questions such as 'what was whisky's seminal moment?' 'who is whisky's biggest hero?' and 'who invented whisky?' Much more fun... Keep up the great writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow! Hello Mr. Roskrow!

      As you have confirmed, I suppose there can be quite a battle between the author (you) and the book publisher as to what must be in the book, its structure, etc.

      You waged the good fight though and produced an excellent book on whisky.

      I look forward to your next one where you seem to break further away from the traditional writing of the past.

      Cheers!

      Delete
  6. Erie...I have that EXACT pile of hardback Whisky books on a table in our family room!

    Overall, I agree with your assessment of this book. I enjoy it very much.

    As for all of the minutia of distillery history and facts/figures found in some books, there are geeks out there (why are you looking at me?) who like having access to that info as well. :-)

    Cheers,
    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jeff, distillery history is great for the history buffs and at one point I read it like it was a Tolkien novel. I think I overdosed on history though and now, I just skip over to something else.

      Hey, I see you posted a review of Mortlach. I have been wondering about that for ages as to what it tastes like.

      Delete
  7. Jason -- Thanks for the recommendation on the Roskrow book. Pretty cool that he reads your blog and took time to weigh in. That's good enough for me. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I am flattered that he commented.

      Delete
  8. nice review you have here...I haven't bought this book yet or even read it, but thought about this. I read a couple of reviews and I found that in most cases the book has high marks for design, rather than for content. People notice various discrepancies mostly because this book was based on the author's opinion. So I'm confused if is it really worth to buy and read it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ed,

      Whether or not this book is the right one for you will depend on your needs.

      If you are seeking facts, figures and laser beam precise tasting notes, then I suppose Roskrow's book is not for you.

      If you are looking for a fun read with interesting anecdotes, and fairly good assessments of whisky, I think you are in safe territory.

      By the way, Ed, I see you are from an online spirits vendor. Do you ship to Canada?

      Delete
  9. After reading both this review, and then the gentlemanly comment from the author, I have decided to buy this book.

    I must admit though that what attracted me to it was finally finding the whisky glass I've been searching for right smack in the middle of the cover.

    Can anyone tell me what company makes them and where to buy a set?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a very informative book.

      As for the whisky glasses, they are called Glencairn and if you visit the site: http://www.whiskyglass.com/ you should be able to find a link to a vendor. If you are in Canada try: http://www.whiskyglass.ca/

      I have had great success with them. Reasonable prices and prompt shipping.

      Delete
    2. I've been on the Glencairn site many times and haven't found the exact profile of the glass in the middle of the book cover, but I'll give it another try later today when I get a little more time.
      Thanks for the suggestion and if I'm in luck they'll be there.

      Delete
    3. It looks like I may have found them, made by Villeroy and Boch!
      Thanks for your help and I'm looking forward to getting a set of these.
      They come in at least two sizes and shapes with one specified as being for Island whiskies.

      Delete
  10. Jason,

    Are there any other similar books you would recommend over this one? I ask because the only whiskey book I have purchased (2013 Malt Whisky Yearbook) was a huge disappointment. I bought it because it was highly recommended on another whiskey website (I'll never trust that site again). But it's written in the tone of a trade publication -- one that's being paid to market a product. I'd like to find a book with a more independent voice (if one exists).

    Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

    - Josh

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Josh, you pose a tough question.

      There are many whisky books out in the market place because whisky consumption is very much in vogue. I find that publishers are churning out big, glossy, coffee table editions that have lots of pictures and reviews, but the reviews are all positive and in some cases read like the liner notes on the back of a bottle.
      Hence, the reviews are not very reliable. Do not buy most of these books as a basis for making whisky purchasing decisions. Buy these books if you want to understand the history of whisky, trends, production details, distillery history and that sort of thing.

      Don't take my word for it. Next time you are tempted to buy such a book, test the review. Think of a really bad whisky like Lauder's Scotch and if they say it is good, you know they are full of shit.

      I think there is a bit of a relationship between the author, publisher and the alcohol beverage companies. The author and publisher do not take all those photographs appearing in the book. Those photos are often supplied by the respective multinational drinks company. Those samples that the author tastes also come from the same company. So, writing the nasty truth may interfere with getting the book published. That's my own personal theory.

      That being said there are some books out there. Dave Broom's "The World Atlas of Whisky" is pretty good.

      A really good online source for tasting notes comes from:

      http://www.whiskymag.com/

      That is the Whisky Magazine site and go to the "Forum" section where people like you and I write about whiskies and you learn a tremendous amount from some very knowledgeable people.

      Cheers!

      Delete