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.
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!
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.