March 4, 2012

Bourbon Book Review: "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey" by Charles K. Cowdery

Chuck Cowdery is an American whiskey enthusiast, an author, a blogger, a drinks writer for the Chicago Examiner, a marketing professional, and an attorney. In addition to "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey," Cowdery produced a DVD about bourbon, named "Made and Bottled in Kentucky." Cowdery also writes and publishes "The Bourbon County Reader," which is a bi-monthly American whiskey newsletter. He certainly had the advantage of experience when he wrote this book.

"Bourbon, Straight" is an unadorned, no-frills account of this history of bourbon. I very much appreciate that. Cowdery has taken the snobbery and pompousness from his book that is so often found in enthusiast- and connoisseur- related books and articles while simultaneously delivering an authoritative, rich story about a subject he clearly loves.

The book shows how bourbon was and is an integral and integrated part of American history. It is so much more than a dry regurgitation of names, places, dates, and locations. Rather, Cowdery illustrates the extent to which bourbon shaped a surprisingly significant part of American culture, business, and even war. Cowdery subtly but convincingly shows how one of bourbon’s best characteristics is its truly American heritage. However, that is not to say that the piece is not jammed with great whiskey facts, like the real story behind bourbon’s name, the actual differences between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, how barrel charring first occurred, and why E.H. Taylor was so important in bourbon’s early days.

Mr. Cowdery also does an impeccable job combining the elements of his book to appeal to both bourbon amateurs and experts. While no book on bourbon would be complete without a detailed explanation of how it’s made, aged, and bottled, Bourbon, Straight goes on to review over 30 whiskeys and to provide a discussion on tasting methods. More interesting are Cowdery’s opinions about such diverse topics as the taste of Jack Daniel’s to the marketing of Bulleit Bourbon. It is immediately obvious that his opinions are given based on years of experience, and are told with such well-deserved conviction that they may well lead you to change your mind about some things.

What I value most about the book is written in the Introduction. Cowdery writes, "One example of [people’s] ignorance [about bourbon], of relevance to whiskey fans, is the prejudice against 'hard liquor' embodied in that very expression. Conventional wisdom holds that distilled spirits are a uniquely dangerous form of alcohol, more prone to abuse than beer or wine. [W]hiskey drinkers are often unfairly pigeonholed as 'hard drinkers' solely based on what they drink. But if I’m sipping a couple fingers of Kentucky bourbon and you’re pounding glass after glass of white wine, who is taking in more alcohol? It is not 'what,' only 'how much' that matters."

Before reading this, I hadn’t consciously realized how this “hard drinking” stigma had actually affected me and how guarded I would be at times about my admiration and enjoyment of bourbon. So, Mr. Cowdery, a hearty thanks for crafting a truly important American whiskey book, and for doing your part to make us bourbon drinkers feel at ease with such a fulfilling hobby.

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