|101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die|
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 Dramming.com 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.