The best bartenders are also bookworms, constantly researching the latest tastes and trends. But with so many titles to choose from, it’s easy to wind up lost in a sea of stale prose and sloppy recipes. We’ve paged through the stack to give you the essential booze books to read this month.
Sure, it would be nice to enroll in a whiskey “master class” to unravel and understand this vast spirits category. But the following books all take an educational approach, schooling readers in whiskey, minus the classroom.
If you don’t have a semester to devote to learning about whiskey, pick up one of the following books and use it as a lesson plan. Whether you choose to speed-read or take a more leisurely approach, the expert authors of these books have laid the groundwork for deepening your whiskey knowledge. From a laser-focused guide to how whiskey is made to a plain-spoken approach to tastings to a more comprehensive encyclopedia-like tome, each of the following books will arm you with fresh information about whiskey.
Robin Robinson (Sterling Epicure, $28)
A sprawling coffee-table-style book, this guide allots ample space to colorful photos, bottle beauty shots and even full-page guides to decoding the labels of selected whiskey bottles. It’s a book that invites you to pour a dram and settle in.
Robinson is a longtime whiskey instructor at New York City’s Astor Center; this book is the next best thing to sitting in on one of his classes with a flight of whiskeys already poured. It’s organized by whiskey regions, and it’s clear that the author’s intent is for readers to taste as they go. Bottle recommendation layouts exhort readers to “Taste This,” and each chapter concludes with a curated “Guided Tasting” section.
Excerpt: "Laphroaig 10 Year is where you cross over the bridge to claim your whisky-drinker badge. It’s perhaps as good a stand-in as any when the aliens land and ask you: ‘What is scotch?’ Pour them a dram of this oily, medicinal, peaty and fruit-laden elixir and watch them blast off with it, wrapped in their tentacles."
Heather Greene (Viking Studio, $25)
When this book first came out in 2014 (the paperback, pictured, followed in 2015), Greene was the “spirits sommelier” at NYC’s Flatiron Room and a former Glenfiddich brand ambassador, and this book was novel in its approach: It encouraged readers to taste whiskey as a means of learning about it, even handing readers a “shopping list” of bottles.
While this book is aimed at consumers, not pros, it’s still stuffed full of useful information. For industry professionals interested in guiding consumers through tastings, the book offers plenty of insight into consumer psychology and how to discuss often-complex whiskey concepts with novice drinkers. Somms also will want to scan the “whiskey for the wine lover” section to glean tips for translating between liquids.
Today, Greene is the CEO and master blender of whiskey brand Milam & Greene, so it’s fair to assume she knows what she’s talking about.
Excerpt: "As you approach the third or fourth whiskey in a tasting, the whiskeys miraculously become 'smooth.' Your brain, tongue and nose already know what to expect and are fully prepared for the experience. You adapt. The first whiskey offered up in a tasting is at a clear disadvantage, and so I am always rearranging my whiskey-tasting glass arrangements to get a better picture of a taster’s feelings about a particular whiskey brand of style. When a new student exclaims that 'number 1' in a lineup is his or her favorite, I know it’s a winner!"
Lew Bryson (Harvard Common Press, $27)
The first question you’ll likely have: How can so much information fit into such a compact book? But this book, hot off the presses in February, outlines it all for students of whiskey.
Specifically, this book efficiently drills down on how whiskey is made. It’s not a bottle guide (though it’s dotted with tasting notes here and there) nor a history book nor a regional tour guide. The focus is squarely on the producers: “It’s about how whiskey makers go about creating, building and integrating flavor,” Bryson explains in the first chapter, aptly titled “The Syllabus.” Even seasoned experts can flip open to pretty much any page, read a section or two and walk away having learned something almost directly from the pros, filtered through Bryson’s jovial voice.
Excerpt: "Yeast is the weirdest part of making whiskey. … I was talking about yeast to Conor O’Driscoll, the master distiller at Heaven Hill, in Louisville, Kentucky. It turned out to be his favorite topic. … The two of us were chattering away (he was chattering, I was mostly taking notes and asking him to slow down) when he suddenly stopped and cocked his head. 'I wonder,' he said, 'Has yeast merely figured out how to get us to feed it?'"
Looking to drill down on a specific whiskey-making region? Here are three more to read:
- “Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert, Second Edition” by Davin De Kergommeaux ($25, Penguin Random House)
- “From Barley to Blarney: A Whiskey Lover’s Guide to Ireland” by Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry, Tim Herlihy and Conor Kelly ($28, Andrews McMeel)
- “Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit” by Brian Ashcraft ($20, Tuttle Publishing)