The best bartenders are also often 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.
From Kentucky bourbon to Scotch, Irish, Japanese and beyond, there’s a world of whiskey out there just waiting to be explored. Each of the following books offers a different way into learning about this sprawling spirits category.
From a comprehensive book by a recently retired scotch whisky pro to a science-minded one ideal for those seeking a geekier deep-dive and a map-heavy world atlas that uses whiskey as its compass, each of these three books offers a unique perspective to those seeking to develop or expand their whiskey expertise.
Of course, these are only a fraction of the books available on the topic. For those seeking even more knowledge, consider these master-class-style volumes, a guide to road-tripping between America’s whiskey distilleries, or a picture-heavy guide ideal for visual learners.
The Terroir of Whiskey: A Distiller's Journey Into the Flavor of Place
Rob Arnold (Columbia University Press, $28)
The concept of “terroir,” so often used in the wine world, isn’t just about the romance of sense of place; it’s also about the effect of the environment on raw materials, whether grapes or grains. This book, the author of which stepped down in October 2021 as the master distiller of TX Whiskey and is the head of sustainable agriculture initiatives for Pernod Ricard North America, offers a thorough exploration of the terroir of whiskey through science and a look at the distilleries and farmers who are attempting to distance their whiskey from the commodity grain system. Reward yourself for learning by sipping through one of the “terroir tasting flights” suggested in the back of the book.
Excerpt: “Some whiskeys are labeled by the type of grain species—barley for single malts, corn for bourbon—but you will find no mention of the grain variety. You might find some whiskeys labeled by where they come from, but almost without exception this has no bearing on where the grains were grown. When a wine is labeled Napa Valley, that is where the grapes were grown. When a whiskey is labeled Kentucky, the grains may have been grown as far away as Europe.”
Everything You Need to Know About Whisky (But Are Too Afraid to Ask)
Nick Morgan (Ebury Press, $40)
Coming in December 2021 from an author who was until recently the head of whisky outreach at Diageo, this wide-ranging book centers not just the liquid but also the people who make it, past and present, and the people around the periphery of the whiskey world, from bartenders (there’s a cocktail recipe section) to whisky barons and mobsters, and plenty of story-telling. In a meta moment, there’s also a section about whisky writers and recommended books, which brings us neatly to the next book listed here.
Excerpt: “There’s an interesting, and long-standing tension between science and the ‘practical operator,’ as Stuart Hastie described distillers back in the 1920s. … Over decades and generations, the ‘practical distillers’ have developed unwritten strategies and practice from experience, not textbooks, to deal with most eventualities, as this distillery manager was gently reminded by his nighttime call-out. I also recall at Clynelish a visitor asking the stillman, bent over his spirit safe, carefully measuring the strength of the distillate, when he knew how to make the cut. ‘When it smells of pineapple,’ he replied.”
The World Atlas of Whisky
Dave Broom (Octopus Books, $40)
The second edition of this book was published in 2014; although an updated version would be welcome, this still provides an excellent way to orient oneself in the geographic world of whiskey. Full-page maps show where key distilleries are located, while guides to more than 200 distilleries and expert tasting notes for 750 bottlings provide further insight.
Excerpt: “Whisky is ‘slow.’ It speaks of place, craftsmanship, and a timeless approach to taking an ingredient and magically extracting its essence. It is also slow in its ability to make you pause and consider what is happening to your senses when you take a sip. At the same time, it is moving rapidly. One reason for this book is to give some frame of reference in this increasingly cluttered world. What are flavors? What do they mean? Where do they come from? Who crafted them? It will, hopefully, give you waypoints on your journey.”