October 11th, 2010
Here’s another book review, exclusive to WDJK, by Malt Advocate features writer, Jonny McCormick.
101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die by Ian Buxton
Hachette Scotland | 224 pages
by Jonny McCormick
The prolific Mr Buxton returns with his third book of the year (I’ll leave you to insert your own Bruichladdich analogy here) but this publication championing 101 whiskies probably has the greatest mass appeal. The cover art is sharp and contemporary, reminiscent of a David McCandless graphic and whilst the title encapsulates the contents perfectly, this is no rampant bucket list of unobtainable luxuries. Buxton’s ground rules for inclusion are availability, affordability and advocacy and the list includes single malts and blends, Japanese, American, Irish, Canadian and English whiskies (Highland Park have more entries than anyone else). Premium bottles costing greater than £1000 are excluded and scarcity explains the absence of closed distillery bottlings (no Rosebank, Brora or Port Ellen here). Each double-page spread contains the bottle image, website, price bracket and distillery details on the left with justification, anecdotes and opinion about each brand or bottling opposite. The tasting notes are straight-forward, no nonsense descriptions of the big flavours devoid of hyperbole and bluster; appropriately and deliberately, he doesn’t score them either. Making the list is recommendation enough and I doubt many experienced palates will have tried every single one on the list, though I can see that could lead to some competitive blogging boasts! (One friend of mine has set the benchmark at 74 having bought a copy already). It’ll make for great bar conversations, as what makes your own 101 list will be highly personal and equally valid as this list. The book’s style is inclusive and companionable, yet sidesteps endless plauditory prose. Where necessary, he can sound the clarion call to galvanize support for particular causes such as Raymond Armstrong’s efforts at Bladnoch and Alex Nicol’s resurrection of Sheep Dip, then turn on a dime and have you chuckling with a humorous aside (can anyone suggest a more bizarre use for a Dewar’s Signature box once you’ve enjoyed the whisky?) This has clearly been both hugely enjoyable to write but also quite therapeutic and Buxton gets everything that’s been buggin’ him off his chest, accusing the Scotch Whisky Association of stifling innovation, taking a swipe at Isle of Jura whiskies which he dismisses as “bland”, criticizing the marketing of Ardbeg and “the overly self-congratulatory” Compass Box website.
This book is a gateway into the world of whisk(e)y for friends who are on the fringes; for those who’ve only dipped their toes in the pool, this book will give them the metaphorical nudge to dive on in. For novices, it’s a more approachable book than the standard texts on single malt whisky, concentrating on brands and flavour and much less worried about production nuances. Whilst the selected whiskies are global, the text contains some UK colloquialisms (for example, I’m not sure that his analogy of Bruichladdich with Millwall soccer fans will travel too well). I did notice some minor errors such as the wrong bottle photograph on the entry for Thomas H Handy (the standard Sazerac rye bottle is shown) and the price banding for Knob Creek 9 year old, which is displayed at greater than £150 a bottle (if you are Ian Buxton’s ostentatiously wealthy whisky merchant then shame on you). Whilst the whiskies run A-Z from Aberfeldy to Yoichi, it appears pedantic that Balvenie, Dalmore, Glenlivet, Glenrothes and Macallan aren’t listed by name but lumped at the rear of the book under the definite article and filed under “T”.
This is the book you wish you had when you first got interested in whisky especially the judicious steers towards value for money bottlings, but it still works for the more committed imbiber. Every home should have one.
What would be on your 101 Whiskies to try before you die list? How many of the 101 have you tried?