In the interest of maintaining balance in the universe, posts about Kennedy and posts about Bush, posts about jazz and posts not about jazz, we follow-up the last post on teetotaling with a review of a new book about whisky. Comment-leaver “Canadian Trad” takes it on.
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Taste in clothes and taste in booze don’t have to line-up. One man might choose to sip vintage port in a velour tracksuit and Crocs, while another might don a 3/2 sack and shell cordovan loafers to down a few Jägerbombs. Historically though, drinkers who wore the Ivy League Look have been associated with particular beverages, including G&Ts, Bloodys, Dark ’n’ Stormys, cheap beer, and, my personal favourite, whisky.
In my experience, few solitary pleasures surpass a quiet evening at home nosing a dram or two while reading or just pondering the meaning of it all. Now, I’m not a true connoisseur: my budget is modest, my nose can’t pick out every note in a glass, and, frankly, I rarely have more than a few drinks a week. But I really enjoy trying different scotches, bourbons, ryes and other whiskies. I’m just an equal opportunity whisky enthusiast on the hunt for bottles that titillate my palate without emptying my wallet.
Released on May 1st, Whisky: The Connoisseur’s Journal was produced by La Maison de Whisky, a major French whisky importer and retailer. I have never associated whisky with France, but, according to a 2016 study, French adults drink an average of 2.15 litres each a year. While that seems like a trifling amount—not even three ‘fifths’—that’s more than anyone else drinks.
This isn’t just a French whisky book, it is also a whisky book in French. Like Canadian government publications, this book is fully bilingual with English text on the left hand side of the page and French on the right. This is certainly a selling point for francophiles and also for Canadians trying to bone up on a second official language to increase their mating or job prospects.
The book has four main sections. The first is a guide to enjoying whisky. It includes recommendations on storing your whisky collection, glassware, and how to use all of your senses to extract the most pleasure from a drink. There’s even a part on hearing, believe it or not. Some may complain that this is overthinking it, but the French are known for taking pleasure seriously. While I often just drink my drink, taking the time and effort to eek out every scintilla of nuance in a glass can be delightful.
The second section contains a chronology and a history of whisky. These are entertaining and informative, but they are too short and many significant contributions were omitted. Canadian whisky, to cite a not entirely unbiased example, is entirely unmentioned in the book. Il faut corriger cette lacune, mes amis. Canada’s contributions to whisky were crucial. For instance, in 1890, Canada was the first country to require that whisky be aged. Barrel aging is what gives whisky its colour and much of its flavour. Without it, you’re basically left with rough, less bland vodka. Canadian whisky was also the top selling whisky category in the United States from the Civil War (the American one, Canada has only had civil skirmishes) until the bourbon boom hit in 2010. But is it any good? Before anyone brings up the “brown vodka” slander, go pick up a bottle of Lot No. 40 ($27-45 US) and give it a taste. It is incredible, especially for the price. Of course, we don’t export the best stuff. You’ll have to come up and pay our exorbitant liquor taxes to get those bottles.
Next is the Cellar Notes section—the “journal” part of The Connoisseur’s Journal—in which 106 pages are provided to help you track your personal whisky history. This is the most valuable part of the volume in my view. Cellar books or wine journals are commonly used by oenophiles to keep track of the wines in their collections and to keep tasting notes on the vintages they have tried. Most whisky drinkers simply rely on their memories.That’s fine, of course, through our memories may fail us even when we aren’t in our cups. I prefer to log my impressions. I use my notes to help me select future purchases and to reflect on past pleasures.
The final section is called The World’s Finest Whiskies. It includes very brief descriptions of 50 distillers (41 Scottish, 6 Japanese, 1 Indian, 1 Irish, and 1 Taiwanese) and recommends several whiskies to try from each. A few additional bottles are suggested from broad categories that are largely unrepresented by the selected distillers, including American Whiskey, Blends, New World Whiskies, Grain Whiskies, and Micro-& Craft Distillery. Most of the recommendations are rare and dear, such as Springbank 1966 ($3,000+ US online) and Glenmorangie 18 years 1987 Margaux finish ($1,207+ US online). They do recommend a few deals, though. WL Weller 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon, for one, has a pedigree worthy of its own post and is a steal at $24.99 MSRP. Unfortunately, people have caught on to this and it can sometimes retail for ten times as much. Another reasonably priced bottle is Laphroaig 10 (around $50 US). This is a classic peated Islay Single Malt. It tastes like a fire at a band-aid factory on the beach, in a good way.
While I enjoyed reading the recommendations and the historical sections in this book, their brevity makes them insufficient for anyone embarking on a serious whisky education. However, if you are looking for an elegant volume in which to record tasting notes and track your collection, pick up Whisky: The Connoisseur’s Journal. — ANDREW MCCALLUM