29 May 2009

Book Review: 99 Drams of Whiskey

As I first opened up this book, I heard the voice of some long dead Scottish ancestor in my head. "Ach, nae colleen ken owt aboat ye hweiskeee..." To which I replied, "Whiskey isn't just a man's pursuit, Angus. If the movie Thelma and Louise had been about two smart women on a whiskey tour, I would have seen it a dozen times in the theater and later purchased the deluxe collector's edition DVD."

I'm talking about 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink by Kate Hopkins, known to the blogosphere as The Accidental Hedonist. Kate and her trusty sidekick Krysta toured the distilleries and sampled the whiskeys and whiskys of Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Pennsylvania, and had the dignity and clarity of mind to conclude their journey with the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Great State of Tennessee.

In addition to tasting notes in each chapter, this is a frequently hilarious story about researching a great topic, and in the great tradition of travel literature, the best parts are when things don't go quite right. Troubles with the GPS, being surrounded by tourists, difficulties with the increasingly surreal airline industry... I've been there. Kate pulls no punches, and tells the truth no matter how grisly.

Someone once asked Governor Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian, "What is best in life?" He replied, "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women." While those activities are not frequently on my agenda, I'd like to think I did pretty well here: good book, good Scotch, good cigar, good music.

The cigar was a Montecristo No. 4 from... well, I don't know precisely where it came from. Just in case it wasn't entirely legal, I did my patriotic duty and destroyed it. By burning. Slowly, over the course of an hour. The Scotch is leftover from our Burns Night celebration, a gift from my father who really knows his whisky. This is The Macallan 12 year old, aged in Sherry oak casks from Spain. Nice and dark, rich flavors with a hint of spice and vanilla, and an aroma that will last for days. And while savoring this perfect late afternoon, I listened to The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five.

Having all of these elements in place is not required when reading this book, but if you have even the slightest love for the dark liquors, you will get mighty thirsty while turning pages. Ideally you'd want to match your whiskey consumption to the geographical chapter of the book, but I found that even a glass of wine worked well in a pinch.

* * *

Kids, back in the early days, The Daily Show was hosted by Craig Kilborn. He wasn't the strongest interviewer in the world, so the writers developed the concept of "The Five Questions", trivial or goofy queries that he could posit to celebrities. In this spirit, I always try to ask questions that go off the usual script, something that hasn't already been asked a million times or addressed in the source material. Kate was kind enough to respond:

#1: Which musician or musical group would you recommend listening to while reading this book?

"As for Music, Dropkick Murphy and Flogging Molly are what we had on our iPods as we traveled, but I would also suggest a bit o' Frank Sinatra."

#2: Have you found a perfect dessert pairing with a good Scotch?

"A great pairing with Scotch Whisky is dried ginger believe it or not. Chocolate bars can also work well, but I'd avoid pastries or anything with cream."

#3: Which city provided the most unintelligible dialect of English for American ears?

"Glasgow, by far. But it still wasn't as bad as many people would have you believe."

#4: Irish coffee: real whipped cream or the fake stuff from a can?

"Irish Coffee is a waste of good whiskey. But, if you must have some, forego the whipped cream all together."

#5: What's your favorite type of glass for serving whiskey?

"A clean one ;-) In all honesty, I like a smooth Scotch glass, as I like adding an ice cube or two to my whiskey."

* * *

With Father's Day approaching, this would be an outstanding gift if your Dad is a guy who appreciates a good whiskey. Or if you're a novice to the whole scene, this will save you thousands of dollars in travel, allowing you to pinpoint your favorite spots in the future. At just over 300 pages, this is not a textbook, not an encyclopedia... it's an entertaining read for anyone who appreciates a good travelogue.


Glenn said...

One question...where in PA is whiskey made?

Samantha Dugan said...

I'm not even a Whiskey drinker and that sounds like a fun read.

Benito said...


The role of Pennsylvania in the book is mostly historical. It's a shame what Prohibition did to whiskey in America.


Based on some of your stories about traveling in France, I think you'd really enjoy this.


fredric koeppel said...

The bit about ginger is correct. LL and I discovered years ago that single malt and a Dancing Deer Ginger-Lime Cookie were made for each other. It was a great epiphany. (Other cookies of a rather stern character work too.)

Benito said...


I'll have to keep that in mind--I like ginger, but it's not an ingredient that I think about often.

Speaking of whiskey and cookies... I'm not big on dessert, but when I make chocolate chip cookies I tend to load them up with pecans and replace some of the chocolate chips with butterscotch chips, but instead of a dash of vanilla I splash in Bourbon. Tastes great and people always wonder what the secret spice is.

Blender Benefits said...

Wow I had never know about Ginger either. This bit of knowledge will home in handy this holiday season.