Saturday 16 October 2010

Review: 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die

It's pretty intimidating taking the first steps into the world of whiskey. For a start, you're on your own in the pub, because everyone else is sucking down bottles of soapy water. There isn't a "Whiskey Appreciation" night class round at the local school to hold your hand either. And one glance at a row of bottles with unpronounceable Scottish names would nearly put you off the pursuit for life.

In my own case, I decided to limit the flood of new knowledge by focusing on Irish whiskey, while accepting random opportunities to taste the output of other countries. That has worked out well, as has joining with like-minded individuals to form the Irish Whiskey Society.

A guidebook that picked out a path of exploration among the endless winding byways of this landscape would have been useful. It still would, actually, for I have a long way to go yet.

I now have that guidebook. It's called 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, but the title is quite misleading. It's not a list of the pinnacles of the whiskey art that must be scaled before you check out, satisfied. It's more of a Lonely Planet guide to whiskey: Around the World in 101 Whiskies. Or a primer in whiskey enjoyment: Whiskey 101.

It is a list of Ian Buxton's recommendations to someone who wants the best overview of this wonderful spirit, encompassing all styles and some surprising whiskey-distilling nations (Sweden, for example). It's an elegant little book, just right for dipping in and out of. Each whiskey gets a generous page of commentary, often subjective and amusing. There are tasting notes but the point here is that the included whiskeys are accessible enough that you can locate and sample them yourself. No single-cask limited editions here.

So how does Ian's selection of Irish whiskeys stack up? Only five make the cut but they do represent the three well-established distilleries on the island (of course Kilbeggan doesn't get in there yet). Do I agree with the five selected (The Tyrconnell, Bushmills 16yo, Green Spot, Jameson 18yo, Redbreast 12yo)? No, that would not be my list of representative Irish whiskeys, but that's the fun and the purpose of a book like this: developing enough of an opinion to disagree with the author. Ian would expect no less.

I'm going to call the author (or over-eager editor) out on misspelling "Midleton" throughout. That gripe aside, this is a beautifully produced book that would be a very nice gift for anyone who enjoys a tot of whiskey.