Thursday, May 15, 2014

Stay Positive: Three Books about Bourbon

From time to time, I get into a reading habit about a certain topic or in a certain genre. A while back, I read three different biographies in a row about Woody Guthrie, Thomas Jefferson, and American Emperor, which is part biography-part history about Aaron Burr and what his plans might have been. 

Recently, I've gone through a trivium of books about whiskey, specifically bourbon. 

As hard liquor goes, bourbon has always been my favorite with gin a solid second behind it. As some of my readers might recall, I worked in my dad's liquor store during the summers when I came home from college and during holiday breaks. When it was a slow night at Independence Avenue Liquors, I sometimes did research about liquor. My dad had a bartending book in the store, and I learned a lot about the libations we sold. 

Mrs. Nasty bought me a book about whiskey a long time ago, but that one covered all manner of whiskies. 

In my recent academic tour de bourbon, I started with Clay Risen's American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit. Risen does a solid job of relating the history of bourbon at the start of the book. 

However, the bulk of the tome features histories of brands and his descriptions and ratings of them. He turned his love of bourbon into a helpful guide to what whiskey a person should buy and why. Risen provides descriptions of each whiskey's "nose," "color," "body," and "palate" along with a general description. 

For example, here's how he describes Four Roses Small Batch, one of my favorites. It's a "medium" bodied spirit that is "russet/tawny" with nose of "hibiscus, grape jam, eucalyptus, honey, roasted nuts, and Now and Later candy." It garners three stars out of four possible and is described as a " truly great session bourbon; not too heavy and full of captivating notes." 

Some of the descriptions are hilarious. And it's also surprising how many NR (not recommended) ratings many whiskies get that are high-dollar investments. Caveat emptor.

In the section for recommended books in Risen's book, I learned about Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Straight: The Uncet and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. Cowdery, I found out later, worked in the bourbon industry for quite some time, and his book shows it. He drops all kinds of knowledge. 

Many of the chapters take readers through the specific histories of bourbon-making families, but others exemplify the "straight" used in the title. He's a no nonsense kind of writer. He's willing to call people on their lies, bullshit, subterfuge, especially the marketing side of the bourbon game. Lots of good stories out there, folks. His chapter on George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon and Abe Lincoln's booze-selling occupation is interesting stuff, and the "Why Ratings are Bull" chapter gives you an idea of his direct approach to the subject. 

Cowdery also has an informative blog that you should check out if all this bourbon talk interests you.

I finished up my book tour about bourbon this week by finishing Dane Huckelbridge's Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. The author has fun writing style. He uses an informative tone with sprinkles of humorous diction in the chapters. 

Also, he likes a good footnote, and many of them are quite interesting. Who knew that dentist-turned-gunfighter Doc Holliday enjoyed Old Overholt rye, a whiskey that you can still get nowadays? And I believe that's the same distillery Andrew Mellon acquired during Prohibition that was briefly played with on Boardwalk Empire

Regardless of all those interesting asides, Huckelbridge supports his thesis effectively. He presents bourbon as the true American spirit backed by lots of historical evidence, and he's right. You get to learn about Captain George Thorpe in Jamestown and the details, as much as one can piece together, about Washington's distillery. Then it's on to the influence of the Scots-Irish, the effect of the Gilded Age on bourbon, the dangerous experiment of Prohibition that is also tied to xenophobic tendencies in the republic, and so on and so forth. And there are some pretty fun pictures along the way. 

So if you like bourbon, you can feel good about a true American product via these three books. 

Buy American and all that. 

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