My friend forwarded me a post from the Accidental Hedonist blog asking whether any other food/ drink bloggers wanted to review her new book. I like whiskey, I like to read and I like both food and travel books, so I did not hesitate to ask for a review copy.
99 Drams of Whisky is part travelogue, part history, and part a collection of tasting notes. In my opinion it is most successful at the latter but it cannot be categorical in its stated aim, the quest for ‘the perfect shot’ because it is not comprehensive enough. I found the travelogue tedious in places with too much recounting of mundane dialogue. And whilst I definitely learned more about the history of whiskey, Kate seemed to get bogged down in detail about things like taxation law, going into much greater depth than seemed necessary. We are initially advised to treat the book as entertainment but at times it strays too far towards academic. Subsequently there is too much contrast in tone and pace between the descriptions of the tax laws and the accounts of the wayward GPS. It seems that the book is trying to be too many different things and as a result does not fully succeed at any of them.
It was the tasting notes that really captivated me with each whiskey personified in often-laugh-out-loud eccentric characterizations.Famous Grouse is ‘the high-school cheerleader everyone was friends with but no one can remember what happened to after graduation’; Bruichladdich 10-year-old is ‘a morning person’, Bushmills White Label is the Julia Roberts of Whiskey and Glen Grant 25-year-old is the ‘Don Juan of Scotland’s spirit”. It is hard to pick a favorite but I loved the depiction of Redbreast 12-year-old pot still whiskey as ‘the secret restaurant tucked away in the back of a strip mall that only a handful of people know about. The atmosphere is great and the food divine, but no one is sure that they should tell other people about it because either it’ll become too crowded (and thus it will be impossible to get a table) or the increased production by the staff in the back will affect the overall quality of the place’.
Despite its flaws there is a lot to enjoy in the book and definitely some interesting insights and trivia, if you are willing to skim through some of the less engaging sections. I imagine that even whiskey aficionado would learn something from it. Some of the things I found interesting were the history of the Gin Act (and the staggering amount of gin that was drunk before then). Understanding more of the history helps to illuminate how the current industry structure and I particularly enjoyed the elucidation of the legacy of prohibition on the US whiskey industry.
There is a lot of good advice for whiskey neophytes, including how to taste whiskey (blind), drink whiskey (with friends) and whether to add water (yes, if it is cask strength). ‘Drinking whiskey is not about impressing others. It’s about enjoying yourself. And while an educated palate may help increase one’s exploration of whiskey, it is not a requirement’. Kate also expounds on whiskey snobs and obsessives and the perils of drinking 3 glasses of whiskey in an hour.
Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the book despite my gripes and my copy has many folded corners. I would recommend it for the tasting notes alone. One final gripe though is the title which did not to me represent the mission of the book. Throughout the book Kate says that she is trying to understand the mythical Mr Disposable Income a man reputed to have spent more than $70,000 on a bottle of whiskey. This quest to understand why whisky has such a status and mystique is a noble aim, but not the same thing as searching for the perfect shot. The title is also confusingly worded. Is she also questing for the history of whiskey or is the history just something additional? I may be accused of being overly literal and pedantic but it didn’t seem to fit and it bothered me.