March 15, 2012

Bourbon Book Review: "Bourbon At Its Best: The Lore & Allure of America's Finest Spirits," by Ron Givens

Ron Givens is a drinks writer, and contributor to the New York Daily News, Newsweek, Time Out New York, and Drinks magazine. In "Bourbon At Its Best: The Lore & Allure of America’s Finest Spirits," Givens displays both his appreciation of bourbon and his to-the-point manner of writing.

"Bourbon At Its Best" does not take as an in-depth approach to bourbon’s story as other authors have. But that’s okay – Givens’ work serves as an impeccable introduction to bourbon and discusses the major players in the industry, historical facts and lore, and present-day whiskey production. Givens’ effort acts as a survey of bourbon, from how it’s made to how it’s enjoyed, and the reader’s feeling of satisfaction will come not from microscopic views of historical events but rather from an overall sense of why bourbon is America’s finest spirit.

The book is also very aesthetically pleasing, and includes several color photographs of people and places. These visual aspects add substantially to the enjoyment of the work, showing the reader images from modern day rickhouses to illegal distillation equipment from the Prohibition era. Givens also provides tasting notes and product information for over 50 bourbons, offers information about touring Kentucky’s distilleries, and explains numerous bourbon cocktail recipes. And, one of the most appreciated parts of the book talks about the American distilleries that exist today, matching to them the bourbons produced there – considering the handfuls and handfuls of bourbon labels you see on a liquor store shelf, knowing in what distillery each was made greatly helps you make sense of it all.

In "Bourbon At Its Best: The Lore & Allure of America’s Finest Spirit," Ron Givens gives you an extraordinary place to begin your appreciation of bourbon. Of course, the information is still fascinating to bourbon experts, but the book’s purpose is to provide direction in the bourbon world. Perhaps Givens says it best when he explains why his book exists: “to help you sort through a world of difficult, wonderful decisions” that is bourbon whiskey.

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.