Discover The World’s Best Whiskies with Dominic Roskrow »

And enjoy 750 unmissable drams from Tain to Tokyo

By Robyn Lewis
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Sampling the spirits on hand at Whiskey Live

Sampling the spirits on hand at Whiskey Live

<i>The World's Best Whiskies</i> by Dominic Roskrow
Many bottles to try and buy at Whiskey Live
McHenry whisky & distillery
Atrium lounge and whisky bar at The Nant Distillery, Bothwell, Tasmania

 

Whisky (including rye-based whiskey) is now centre-stage in bars around the world. Along with gin, it has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity in the last decade, brought about in part by its discovery by younger drinkers, consumers’ search for provenance (perhaps driven in part by wine marketing), the craft distilling movement, and our increasing ability to source hitherto rare and obscure drinks online and in specialist stores.

Whisky is now cool and production has burgeoned, with established names increasing their output to try to meet demand (hello China) and craft distillers popping up like mushrooms around the globe (the number of distilleries in Scotland has grown from 100 to 150, with now over 1000 globally, although mainly in cooler countries thus far).

It seems that anywhere outside the tropics where you can access relatively pure water and the necessary grains, you can make whisky, from Japan and Taiwan to Sweden, South Africa and Argentina.

But what brands are good, especially amongst the new arrivals, some of which are commanding huge prices? (A bottle of Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 sixty-year-old whisky – admittedly no newcomer – has just sold at auction for an eye-watering £846,000!)

Enter Dominic Roskrow  "a leading international whisky expert who has been writing and commentating on the drinks industry for more than 25 years." He is the author of many successful books about whisky, including Need to Know Whiskies (2008), 1001 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, and he recently updated the world’s best-selling whisky book, Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion.

It seems he’s distilled his significant knowledge into this latest book, cutting down from over 1000 to 750 “unmissable drams”, packed into 288 pages. No doubt it was tough culling, but it’s perhaps just as well, because tasting a different whisky every day it would still take you over two years!

Even though I love whisky, I doubt my liver could manage that pace, so let’s look at the highlights. The book starts predictably enough with a brief overview of the exciting modern whisky industry; the “story of whisky”; how whisky is made from just three ingredients, water, barley and yeast; the role of peat and oak in contributing to final flavour; the styles of whisky including how to make a single-malt whisky and its cousin, blended whisky.

Helpfully in the latter there is also an explanation of the difference between blended malt whisky (two more different malt whiskies) and blended whisky which included ‘grain whisky’, which can be made from a variety of grains including corn, wheat, rye, malted and unmalted barley, in a continuous process.

Roskrow explains that these grain whiskies formerly gave some blends an inconsistent/poor reputation, especially at the lower end of the price scale, although used judiciously they can apparently ‘round off’ some of the more extreme flavours of single malts and make them more palatable to a wider cross-section of drinkers.

As with tea, and some wines, blending is an art, performed by skilled master blenders, and I discover that a blend may include more than 40 malts and grains!

A section on bourbon follows, and I learn several more things: that bourbon in America must be made from at least 51% corn “although in practice this percentage is much higher” – suddenly the US corn industry takes on a whole new meaning – and that bourbon making is a continuous not a batch-still process. (I’m already discovering why I prefer single malts). Further on in the book all these styles are further explained, with the major brands categorised.

Roskrow then moves onto the basics of tasting, and confirms that I have the correct tulip-shaped whisky tasting glasses required to fully appreciate the aromas of single malts (invest in a couple, they are not expensive).

After that things get a bit greyer: to add water, or not? Opinions vary, but because of whisky’s high alcohol content, most tasters add water to bring it down to around 20% ABV, so as not to hurt their nostrils when nosing the aromas.

To spit, or to swallow? Ditto your palate will tire quickly if you don’t spit (and, you will be affected by the alcohol), but perhaps we can leave that step for professional judges who have to sample many. At home, or in the bar, we’re drinking to enjoy.

The other relevant factor is in describing ‘the finish’. Roskrow’s excellent analogy says it all: “it’s like watching a film then leaving 15 minutes before the end” if you don’t swallow it and experience the warming feeling down your throat and the taste left in your mouth afterwards.

There follow two excellent pages of the three main categories of whisky flavours:

  1. Peaty/smoky, or not?

  2. Sweet, or

  3. Savoury?

These are further broken down into sub-categories, which starts to get a bit like wine descriptors, but appears far less complex and with fewer variables, at least from this excellent table. The book is worth buying for these 2 pages alone if you are even half-serious about getting more from your whisky drinking. Who knew whisky could also have fruity notes of guava and lychee, or hints of Banoffee Pie, as well as the better-known characteristics of leather, wood, honey and spices?

Next there’s a short section (only 4 pages) on Whisky Cocktails, outlining the classics and modern whisky cocktails, and the Top 10 bars in which to drink them globally. (If cocktails are your thing, invest in a cocktail book as well, some suggestions are in the links below).

A map shows the modern whisky-producing countries, although a notable graphic omission is the island of Tasmania, especially given its significance in the Australian whisky scene and the fact that there are two pages devoted to Tasmanian whiskies later. But never mind. All the more for us!

The remainder of the book, over 200 pages – bar two more sections called Making the Selection (including tasting symbols) and The Face of Modern Whisky (describing what needs to be on the labels) – follows this international geographic breakdown.

Perhaps needless to say it starts with Scotland, the home of whisky. Roskrow opines “Scotland… is where every whisky lover returns eventually. No matter what is happening elsewhere, that will not change any time soon. If ever.” And I have to say I agree: the more other whiskies I try, the more I return to the Scottish benchmarks. Perhaps it runs in my blood.

Scotches take up the next 100 pages, alphabetically by distillery/brand, and then by sub-labels, if they have them (eg various ages, special releases etc) with helpful tips on the ‘key whiskies’ of each distillery. There are also fun facts on whisky tourism, and key makers, but most pages are tasting notes and information on the distilleries and whisky tours.

It’s going to take me months to get through all of these, even just reading about them, let alone tasting them. This isn't the sort of book you can take to a pub, although you might get away with it in a whisky bar, but of course there they bartenders should have copies available!

To help you make your selection there’s a handy list of symbols on p 43, although a serious (to me) omission is one indicating relative price. Some makers may have ten or more labels listed, and there’s not much point in my lusting after say an Ardbeg Corryvreckan if it’s way beyond my budget and when a Supernova might be more affordable (or vice versa, or something else again).

You’ll need to refer to p 43 a lot until you get the hang of these symbols too – the one for ‘Session Sip’ is not intuitive, but once you know what it is (let’s call it an ‘everyday’ whisky) you’ll quickly get the hang of that one. The difference between a ‘Connoisseur Classic’ and a ‘Premium Tipple’ is less obvious to me however.

Curiously too there is a symbol for ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’, being “whiskies from a distillery now closed”, which I guess must be still loitering about bottleshops or online somewhere. Given the space premium in this book, I wonder why he bothered? But perhaps it could be a new whisky game for you and your friends, to try and find one of them!

The style of the tasting notes is modern, fun and punchy, with interesting stories, music references and other side bits thrown in to stop them become too boring, flowery and descriptive, like wine tasting notes can be. You’ll learn a lot about the makers, locations and quirks by reading a selection, even if you have no intention of trying all the whiskies.

Interspersed amongst the images of bottles there are also small sections devoted to some of the makers, the tasters and blenders, the premium merchants and some amazing characters, including the American ballerina Allison Parc who turned whisky maker in Cognac, France!

Bourbons of the USA and Canada take up 50 pages, then 15 on Irish whiskey, closely followed by Japan, proving that there’s more than Suntory.

The ‘New World’ ends the book, including Argentina, Australia, various European countries including Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany and England (perhaps he means ‘new-to-whisky world?!), India, South Africa and Taiwan. I guess it’s only a matter of time before mainland China starts to produce whiskies in its mountainous regions where there is clean springwater too.

The penultimate section covers some independent bottlers, who buy up stocks of surplus malts, and blend or further mature them before selling under their own labels. Here the tasting notes are brief and to-the-point: “cornflakes (who knew?!), tinned fruit, cinnamon” or “peat, chilli, green fruits, mint”. Some of these sound worth trying too.

Lastly there’s a Whisky Directory, of festivals, magazines, websites, blogs and books where you can further your whisky knowledge, should The World’s Best Whiskies prove insufficient. Whiskyfun.com sounds like my kind of site too.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone from a beginner to a whisky expert – the range covered is broad and you can dip or dive in deep as you choose.

It would make a perfect gift for a whisky lover virtually anywhere in the world, and I agree with the Harper’s Wine and Spirits review on the cover: “It’s designed to capture the personality of whisky, tell its story from a human point of view, and bring the spirit alive”. Sláinte, Dominic Roskrow!

 

The World’s Best Whiskies: 750 Unmissable Drams from Tain to Tokyo by Dominic Roskrow is published by Jacqui Small for White Lion Publishing/Quarto Group (London, UK, Oct 2018; HC 288 pp) and is distributed in Australia by Murdoch Books, where it retails for RRP A$45.

 

It can be purchased online via Booko.com here »

 

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October 30th, 2018
 
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