Wednesday, September 5, 2012

101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die By Ian Buxton

I'm not going to beat around the bush here, Ian Buxton's 101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die is utterly indispensable for both serious whisky enthusiast and the casual malt sipper alike. There is essential information on the explosion of new whiskies transforming the universe of malt that you will not find anywhere else - certainly not presented in such a cheerful, accessible, non-threatening fashion. Furthermore, in a subtle and not immediately obvious way that I will discuss later in this review it is an important whisky book - perhaps the most important in years. You need to own this book.

101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die
101 World Whiskies is, initially it seems, very like the extremely well regarded tome Ian Buxton wrote a few years prior, 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die, which did so very much to fan the flames of Scotch appreciation in its current renaissance of popularity. Ian Buxton is a distinguished writer of many books, articles, and columns in top whisky magazines such as Whisky Advocate. He's the kind of guy who knows absolutely everybody and is one of the folks who gets invited to taste and describe those $20,000 bottles that mortals like us never taste. As for the "101 Whiskies" books, these are both excellent works that, paradoxically, move me alternately to flights of delighted appreciation and spitting fits of wrath and rage as will become readily apparent. Both of these books are more collection of profiles and brief tasting notes than conventional 'whisky books'. By that, I mean that many common features of whisky books are absent. There are no ponderous chapters on whisky philosophy, production details and methodology, or history, and only a brief one paragraph on "how to drink" with no instructions on deciphering your own palate such as maps of the tongue. All this stuff is almost inexcusably omitted (or refreshingly so, depending on your perspective). Also missing are detailed history chapters that explain the roots of an industry, or even very detailed histories of various distilleries. You also will not find extensive and carefully written tasting notes. Buxton, indeed, sometimes omits tasting notes altogether; sometimes for the most important distilleries listed. An example is Highland Park, where Buxton not only fails to give us any tasting notes at all - he also cannot be pinned down to a recommended expression either - otherwise a firm rule throughout the book(s). I mean, if it's 101 whiskies you HAVE to taste before you shuffle off this mortal coil you should have 101 of them. Instead Buxton suggests, in the case of Highland Park, that we just have "all of them" - a suggestion he acknowledges as patently absurd even within that very chapter given the explosion of limited collector's releases and the fact that the 50 year old expression he depicts on that chapter's front retails for £10,000. This last part is particularly galling given that he assured us in the introduction that he would give us a tour of whiskies for drinking and that absurdly priced drams £1,000 and up flatly wouldn't be considered. Tasting notes, when actually provided, are often inexcusably brief - although I'll readily grant that what little is there is usually spot on. Furthermore, you don't get any scoring or rankings at all. Each chapter is illustrated with frontally nude bottle shots and nothing else - no illustrations of distilleries or images of the faces of the personalities mentioned. Images of lovely barley fields, castles, and malting floors are totally MIA.

But this isn't what really burns me up. What really gets me mad and confused and toss the book to the floor in a rage periodically are the facts that Buxton 1) doesn't like peat - but appears guilty enough of this that he includes a number of peat monsters ***in case YOU do***. 2) Sometimes includes whiskies he hasn't even tried or that don't even exist yet! 3) includes items that aren't even properly (ie legally) whisky. 4) Seems to evangelize major blends that I'm busy ignoring because I'm a whisky snob and look down my nose at major manufacturer blends in favor of rare single malts and interesting craft whiskies. To give you a taste of what I'm talking about let's look at # 1: Bakery Hill Cask Strength Peated Malt from Australia. Fascinating stuff. However, as Buxton readily admits, he hasn't actually tasted it. He provides us some tasting notes from the cut sheet. **Bam** - sound of book (Kindle, actually) hitting floor in a rage. How about # 78: Buffalo Trace, White Dog - Mash #1. Wow, a fascinating unaged new make that doesn't qualify as a Bourbon because it's new. It's technically whiskey - in the old sense of our colonial forebears. Well, if Ian Buxton is putting this in the 101 Whiskies you MUST try before you DIE he probably thinks it's pretty damn well good, right? Not so fast. I'm going to actually quote Mr. Buxton on this one:

"Apart from the curiousity value, though, what do you actually use this stuff for? Well, enterprising cocktail experts have been mixing it into some innovative and truly unusual cocktails where the very high strength has some value and, er, that's about it."

"Rather than buy a whole bottle yourself (even allowing for the fact that it comes in a half-bottle size), you might want to consider buying this with friends and using it to kick off a tasting session. Nothing will more clearly demonstrate the role of barrel aging and the impact of good wood on whisky. After which you can quickly move on to the proper stuff!"

**BAM** (sound of kindle hitting the floor in a rage... again... poor little e-book reader). There are so many amazing whiskies, and Buxton is having me buy something that's maybe good for cocktails (like gin or vodka) but isn't so fine on its own (as new make) so I should plan on splitting it with friends rather than own a whole bottle. Is this just me or is this august gentleman looking for a kick in the shins?

Now, where was I? Oh yes, you absolutely must read 101 World Whiskies. Why? because it is a superb profile of where the world's malt whisky distilling scene is headed at the current moment. Interesting and worthy new malt whiskies are coming out of crazy places such as Holland, Germany, France, South Africa, the USA, Australia, England, Spain, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Wales, and even (this may shock you) Scotland. Buxton describes scores of distilleries and expressions I've never even heard of - and I follow this stuff somewhat avidly. Buxton does more than list these revelations, he describes their context and why, exactly, you want to taste them. Why you need to, in fact. He does so with merciful brevity, an infectious good cheer, and a friendly aspect often missing from enthusiast's narratives. This is one part of the magic of "101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die". He makes you fall in love with a new whisky on virtually every page. He very quietly fills you with a passion for the malt and its people and its houses both great and small. He attacks your biases, (seemingly no matter what they are) yet he evangelizes the whisky topics I, personally find most vital: whisky tastes better bottled at higher strength, for example, and the less messed with the better.

But 101 World Whiskies isn't simply a catalog of obscure and weird drams.  It's far too varied.  Rather it's a catalog of what you should want to try - and why. And, yes, there are tons of weird obscure drams you've never heard of - but there are also tons of mainstream blends you may have been too snooty to desire lustfully (I certainly was). Buxton fixes that. There are some non-whisky items here too, a liqueur and a whisky fruit/spice infusion. Buxton leaves you lusting hard for those too. Indeed, it's this quality if inciting interest and lust, all without hyperbole or rants or volume of any kind that is on the whole, rather remarkable.

Did I mention that each short chapter is exactly the right length to enjoy while "using the facilities"? This "bite size" aspect makes reading Buxton feel a lot like feeding from your favorite bag of chips ("crisps" if you come from one of the countries where people drive on the wrong side of the road - like Ian Buxton). 'Once you pop', so to speak, 'you can't stop'. And you emerge revitalized and incredibly aware of a whole brave new world, with such wondrous drams in it. There is a special talent in being able to convey a great deal of information in a very small number of words. Buxton is a master at it. His brief profiles tell you a tremendous amount, almost without you realizing it. He has an ability to pack a dense amount of information into few words but have it feel breezy, conversational, and, above all, friendly.

Recently Steve Urey (Sku) wrote about the end of whisky's 'Golden Age' on top American whisky blog Sku's Recent Eats. His point was that the explosion of popularity of whisky has resulted in prices shooting through the roof, and hard to find expressions becoming unobtainable. There's also the question about the loss of complexity in the flavor profiles of whiskies over the past few decades because of mechanization (or perhaps deliberate choice) - such as the one I frequently wrestle with as described in the article Has Whisky Become Better, Worse, Or Just Different. These discussions can lead to a sense of loss. The implications of these narratives is that the epicurean opportunities of the Whisky world are becoming diminished. 101 World Whiskies is an antidote to these feelings. Reading Buxton fills me with a contrary "sense of gain". There is a huge world of new whiskies, and new expressions, and even new flavor profiles and some of them are really good. And there is more of this new good stuff going on than you knew about, or even had hopes of in your secret heart. And, furthermore, this new good stuff is coming from all over, including established brands and even stuffy mainstream blends that you wouldn't think of at all in searching for what's new. Reading Buxton makes me feel that the golden age is yet to come.  This optimism creeps in many parts of the lovingly detailed descriptions in many areas of the book, such as Whisky Castle from Switzerland, where Ian's prose waxes into the beauty of true affection. In this radiant light the true impact of 101 Whiskies becomes apparent: an almost seditious expansion of whisky's world view. This isn't Ian Buxton's invention, but with this book he has taken up the mantle of an evangelist for a kind of positivism about the future of whisky.

But, wait, there's more.  In a subtle and almost sneaky way, the biggest and most disruptive aspect of Buxton's 101 Whiskies books isn't the text narrative, factual content, or editorial perspective. It's the selections themselves. In choosing a set, Buxton is making an argument. As it is, the argument is as personal and subjective as an argument can possibly be. Buxton bends over backwards to say so in the introduction and at various points. However, Buxton isn't making his decisions lightly and it shows. He is carving a set and they stand like the stones of Stonehenge - individual and hewn - but in a common configuration and forming a common whole. This common whole, that you don't immediately see until you've read and understood and thought about the set of selections, is a powerful statement about how to appreciate whisky. In this aspect 101 World Whiskies stands head and shoulders above its brother and emerges, in my opinion, as an important book. Buxton wants you to be rounded. He wants you to be worldly. He wants you to transcend your own limitations and the blinders of preconception that hinder virtually every community of drinkers I've ever come across. That is the special genius of this book. This is why I picked up my kindle off the floor and resolved to grab a bottle of Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 - tail firmly planted between my legs - and take my medicine. I know that if I follow Buxton down all these paths I will grow as a whisky drinker. It's a little bit like the part in Karate Kid where the master has the kid picking up the coat over and over. The logic isn't immediately apparent - but one day it's going to be the margin of glory and honor.

So buy 101 World Whiskies. Buy it as a bathroom read. Buy it as an excellent shopping list. But most of all buy it to have Ian Buxton lead you to become bigger inside. Buy it to have Ian Buxton fill your heart and your sails with the joy of discovery and the delicious anticipation for what is yet to come.


  1. I own and am a big fan of the original 101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die. I read it through cover to cover at least twice (and yes, I had it conveniently placed on the shelf right next to the bathroom!).

    I agree with your assessment of Buxton. I found the read very enjoyable. I didn't enjoy his plugging Dewar's where he used to work, but at least he was open about it. At first I also thought he was crazy about the peat thing, but now I'm not so sure. He thinks there is "an element of fashion in the current peat craze," and that there might be a peat bubble coming up. I actually am starting to agree with him. Those heavily peated expressions are really mostly for the tasting nerds - the guys who sit around nosing a dram and contemplating. They aren't very good for "having a drink;" which is where I would suspect long-term stability for a segment will come from. Anyway, I am going far afield here. I will have to check out this sequel.

    1. I'm a big fan of the original 101 Whiskies too. I catch your point about Dewars. There's more Dewars in the new book too, with the same honest disclaimer. There's some similar potential conflict about Cutty. I must say, it doesn't bother me. Buxton's feelings about good blends are clearly genuine. He has done work for so many whisky companies he simply cannot reasonably recuse himself from brands he has worked for.

      The business about peat - it's just a matter of taste in my opinion. Huge peat monsters like Octomore & Supernova are showboats, to be sure (and not comfortable as everyday drams) but heavily peated malts are nothing new and many people truly love them (me among them). That being said, I feel the pendulum swinging back to sweet in the Zeitgeist. I'm increasingly there myself.

      By all means check the sequel. Its a worthy successor and a great stand alone effort. I found it so much fun and of such tremendous use. I must warn you though, Buxton doesn't shine when discussing bourbons (the last dozen or so selections). It isn't pretty - but he was absolutely right in including them. That being said I disagreed with many of his bourbon selections. Bakers instead of Knob Creek? Blantons instead of Rock Hill Farms? etc... But these are quibbles.

    2. Yeah you can't ask a non-American to review bourbons ;-) If I remember correctly, Knob Creek was in the first book, so no surprise there (though, I'm a big fan of Baker's - love it!). And, whether or not you think RHF is better, I can't imagine you have any surprise about Blanton's being there!

    3. Ha! I wonder if the Scots feel the same way about the English and the Americans (and the world) commenting all over their Scotch Whisky? It's true that Bourbon is a primarily American obsession, but one of the best blogs out there about Bourbon is Danish: Steffen Bräuner's blog

      Your points are completely correct. Knob Creek was previously listed by Buxton, rightly so, and Baker's is certainly defensible. Blanton's too - particularly given its pioneering landmark status. I have samples of both in the wings and feel acutely the need to review them (and more bourbon in general). It's funny - I feel the need to write about Scotch more than Bourbon - but I probably drink just as much Bourbon, if not more. Bourbon is like breathing. You just do it and don't need to talk about it. If you cut America - it bleeds corn juice.

    4. Good point - I've never thought of it from the Scottish perspective before! Actually, I wasn't trying to be patriotic or anything. I simply observe that Europeans et al tend to view bourbon differently than "we" do. I think it is heavily influenced by availability and price. Bourbon is so available and cheap for us, but not so for others, and this changes the view of it. I think this leads Americans to view bourbon first and then whisky in general as something to be drunk and enjoyed, whereas elsewhere Scotch sets the tone for whisky; thus whisky is viewed more as a savored luxury, more akin to fine wine than table wine. I don't know, I could be way off base but that is my perception. I've never checked out Steffen's blog, I'll have to do so. If you look at some of Ralfy's bourbon reviews, for example, you'll see that he clearly sees bourbon through a different lens than us.

    5. I actually like Baker's a hair more than Knob Creek, but it's not the same kind of value. If Baker's was only $30-35, I'd snap that stuff up, but at $50 or more, I'm going to give it a pass.

      I really like the Jim Beam Small Batch sample pack, as it gives you a good way to compare all of their whiskies side-by-side for a rather reasonable price. Admittedly I came away thinking that I'm not going to be buying any of them but KC, but it was still a good experience (except for Basil Hayden - that stuff is just too weak to even be mentioned in the same sentence as the others).

    6. All valid points, Jordan. I'll be working through the sack of miniatures from Party Central and formally reviewing Bakers and that low-proof version of Old Grand Dad: Basil H.

  2. Bakery Hill Victorian not Tasmanian

    1. Quite right. That's what comes from rushing. I've fixed this error in the review - with my apologies and gratitude for pointing this out.

  3. Excellent post, Josh! I enjoyed Buxton's first 101. Even when I, a peathead, felt differently than he about a number of whiskys, I always enjoyed his writing. Also, one cannot discount the need for loo reading.

  4. Coop, you're a single malt snob! We should remedy that. Try Great King Street, Chivas 18, Bushmills 1608 (the 400th special) and tell me they aren't special. I dare you!

    don't give me that too "engineered" argument: almost all whiskies are. They use many different barrels of different types, age, refills, etc. to create one single malt. Even single barrel edition are chosen because they fit in the taste profile for that particular brand.

    Except for the small independent, possibly.

    And as a bourbon drinker, don't give me the anigrain speech!

    love the post, though. Loved that book as well. And the other

    1. It's true that I'm a single malt snob, but that attitude was more for comic effect. I've loved plenty of blends here including 2 out off the 3 you mention:

      Great King Street:

      Bushmills 1608 was the very first post on this blog:

      As far as grain is concerned - I raved over Compass Box Hedonism, and mature single grains from North British and Girvan.

      But I appreciate your attempts to widen my horizons, Brother. But I'm with you. I'm already there!