Books on History and Philosophy of Whiskey

Mark Peterson writes:

I teach Philosophy at one of the University of Wisconsin Campuses and a colleague over in History and I were thinking about a course to be called something like “The Spirit(s) of America”… that would use whiskey as the focus for the history and political philosophy of the US (eg. I usually use the rules of drinking from Greek symposia to explain arete)… anyway, you get the idea.

So I’ve been rooting around for a text I could use. Probably a 200 or 300 level class.

Any suggestions?

Love the blog and thanks!

Hi Mark! Welcome. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog.

Sounds like you’re planning a great class. As for texts, here’s a few ideas:

  1. Whiskey & Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas – I never found the time for the reflections on the book that I promised here, but so far as I know, it is the only philosophical text on the subject out there.
  2. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol – I’ve not read the whole thing, but I’ve used several of the chapters for reference, and I’m pretty happy with it. Much broader than your interests, but several chapters of interest. (Don’t know if it is up to the professional historian’s historiographical standards.)
  3. And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails – A lot of the book is about early America, and so rum is centered over whiskey, but whiskey is still a part of the story. (Same historiographical caveat.)
  4. It wouldn’t work for your class, but since I’m a philosopher of science by day, I thought I’d mention a book that is on my wishlist: Proof: The Science of Booze.

I hope that helps, Mark. Cheers!

Tasting, Drinking, and Drunking

Hi there. It’s been… yikes, almost 3 years since my last post. Obviously, I haven’t started the posting on promised read-through of Whiskey & Philosophy, not out of lack of interest, just because life got busy. But in lieu of that, I have been thinking for some time now about an important distinction between three ways of consuming whiskey that might be an interesting to think about. As we learned from Sidney Morgenbesser in my introductory post, in philosophy, “You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living.”

  1. Tasting: Tasting whiskey in order to evaluate, analyze, often with an eye to producing tasting notes, reviewing, and ranking. (What whiskey bloggers do, in other words. 😉 )

  2. Drinking: What we do when we just sit down to enjoy and appreciate whiskey, when we’re not trying to evaluate or analyze it.

  3. Drunking: When we’re out not to enjoy the whiskey itself, but the psycho-physiological effects we get from drinking it.

Do these categories have any evaluative weight? Tasting and drinking both treat the whiskey as an end unto itself, whereas drunking treats it as a means to an end. It could just as well be vodka or beer for these purposes. I’m not interested in passing judgment on those engaged in drunking, per se, but from the perspective of the whiskey lover, it may seem a little disrespectful to the complex and artful process of making whiskey.

What about the difference between tasting and drinking? There’s an important place for both, it seems to me. The former is akin to the active process of aesthetic appreciation and art criticism; the latter is more like dwelling in and with aesthetically pleasing surroundings and artifacts.

One interesting thing is that different whiskeys, and different contexts of enjoyment, might be appropriate to the two activities. For instance, I would never consider tasting on ice, because it would alter the flavor in the wrong way. I might add water, but only filtered and only to bring out flavors that might be missed if the proof is too high. On the other hand, if I am just drinking, and it is hot out, or I’m in a certain kind of mood, I might add ice, or even club soda. If someone turns their nose up at that, it seems to me they’re failing to appreciate the distinction between tasting and drinking.

When I’m tasting, I’m more interested in challenging, different, and rarer whiskeys. Something that I’d only be interested in consuming an ounce of in a sitting is a perfectly worthwhile experience. On the other hand, if I’m convivially drinking, I’ll value different features of the whiskey, something less challenging, interesting but more pleasant, something that is enjoyable for a little longer, and often something considerably less expensive. Although whiskey bloggers complain about the difficulty of finding “good” whiskeys these days, and the high prices, I think there are plenty of reasonably priced and very good drinking whiskeys (Heaven Hill makes many of my favorites). They’re honestly not very interesting for tasting, but they’re absolutely lovely for drinking.

What do you think?

I’m hoping to welcome another author to blog here soon. Stay tuned.

A Great Recommendation for an American Whiskey Sampler

Chuck Cowdery, a great America whiskey historian and the self-publisher of the Bourbon Country Reader (remarkable in its own right as a snail-mailed, paper newsletter in this day and age), has posted a great recommendation for those looking to give a whiskey gift (he posted it in the context of Mothers and Fathers days), to have as a good start at American whiskey starter collection, or those interested in learning more about the American whiskey industry—that is, bourbon, Tennessee, and rye whiskey, which focused on the political economy and material production process behind our whiskeys:

Micro-distilleries aside, every drop of American whiskey (bourbon, Tennessee and rye) is made by eight companies at 13 distilleries. The gift? A sampler of one bottle from each, either the eight or the 13.

I particularly like the distillery-based suggestion:

One from each of the 13 distilleries: Maker’s Mark (Maker’s Mark), Knob Creek (Jim Beam Clermont), Bookers (Beam Booker Noe), Woodford Reserve (Woodford Reserve), Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (Brown-Forman), Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel (Jack Daniel’s), George Dickel No. 12 (George Dickel), Bulleit Rye (MGP), Evan Williams Single Barrel (Heaven Hill), Four Roses Single Barrel (Four Roses), Buffalo Trace (Buffalo Trace), Ridgemont Reserve 1792 (Barton 1792), Rare Breed (Wild Turkey).

I suggest you head over and read the whole thing!

Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit

According to the label: Copper Still, Triple Distillation, Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Small Batch, 90°

Price: $30.

Bottle of Bowman Brothers Pioneer SpiritIn honor of the recently deceased Truman Cox of the A. Smith Bowman distillery, I picked up a bottle of this today, the lowest level of their small batch bourbons. According to Chuck Cowdery, “The whiskey is distilled at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. The new make is sent to Virginia where it is distilled a third time and entered into barrels. Aging and bottling is done in Virginia,” in the copper pot still mentioned on the label. No age statement, nor does it mention when it was bottled, though the number “12221” printed on the bottle suggest it may be have been bottled 2012-22-1. It does have a cute fake tax stamp on it.

Light tawny honey color. Beautiful sweet nose, fruity and floral, honey and apples. Tastes less sweet than the nose would lead you to believe, with crisp and fresh taste, maybe white grapes and honeydew melon, along with some dried apricot. If there is any problem with this one, it is a slight bitter, astringent note on the finish, which is accompanied by a nice, darker fruit flavor (raisins or dried plums or Beaujolais nouveau).

Overall, an interesting, nice change of pace from what I’m used to in the ryes and bourbons I’ve been drinking lately. I tend to like a lot of rye spice and wood influence, and there’s very little of that here. It is less often I go for the sweeter stuff, though I do occasionally like a really nice wheater (I love Old Weller Antique 107°), and I do like Angel’s Envy, which is definitely on the sweet side. This isn’t really like any of those. Not sure I’ve had a bourbon I would describe as crispy before. Let’s call it a B+.

What this really does is make me want to try the John J. or the Abraham Bowman.

Angel’s Envy Bourbon Review

Angel’s Envy is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that has been finished in port pipes, which is unusual for bourbon but common for scotch.Angel's Envy Bourbon It is the brainchild of Lincoln Henderson. Angel’s Envy apparently skirts a line with respect to the arcane legalities of American whiskey labeling, as the Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon are pretty strict as to what you can call “Bourbon.” This is why the bottle clearly indicates how it has been finished, to avoid any miscommunication that would defy those standards.

Age: At least 4 years (probably more like 5-7)
Proof: 86.6°
Price: $46.00

Color: Light golden honey. In lightness, almost closer to the color of many scotches than a normal bourbon. I would think that the port pipes would give it a darker color, but no.

Nose: Light and very sweet, with a clear whiff of vanilla, and also a bit of a light floral scent.

Palate: Nice and creamy, with vanilla and dried fruits prominent, especially dried apricot, and a little bit of fig drizzled with honey.

Finish: Glowing, with a bit of pepper and warming spices, medium length.

Overall: I love this whiskey. I’ve been holding on to this bottle for some time, taking a dram every now and again, and revising the tasting notes in my spreadsheet several times. It’s not perfect for every occasion, as it is definitely very sweet and also a bit low proof—you’re not going to want to drink this any way but neat. It is a fantastically crafted bourbon, and the peppery finish really clears the sweetness for the palate and gets you ready for the second dram. Hopefully we’ll see more innovation tempered by careful craftsmanship of this type in the future. Thank you, Mr. Henderson!

Rating: A 

Whiskey Review Post Formats

One of the exciting things about getting my blog up and running is having a place to post some longer-form whiskey reviews. (I’ve done some micro reviews on Twitter.) My first is my review of Baker’s! (Actually, one I’ve had stored in a spreadsheet for some time.) But the real question is, what style for the reviews? I tried a pretty long, structured version like Whiskey Wonka or Bourbon Enthusiast, but should I go for a shorter, less formal review like Sku or John Hansell?  Longer, informal, more narrative reviews like Drinkhacker or Scotch & Ice Cream? What sort of reviews do you like to read?

Baker’s Bourbon Review

Bottle of Baker's BourbonAge: 7 years
Proof: 107°
Price: $43.00

Color: Medium-dark amber

Nose: Dry sawdust and hay. A splash of water brings out some nice sweet and floral notes.

Palate: Starts with candied fruit that evolves quickly into heat and spice, burns in the nose. The 107° really shows on this one. A splash of water helps, brings out lot of caramel, but it’s almost too sweet.

Finish: Nice and long, a lot of black pepper and oak.

Overall: Baker’s is a good bourbon, less rye than a lot of the Jim Beam small batch bourbons. It turns out to be a tricky bourbon to drink, though, since the heat really comes through when you take it neat, while water makes it almost too sweet. The big problem with Baker’s is the price: you can get better bourbon’s for less. Compare this to Old Weller Antique, which is the same proof without as much heat, definitely sweeter but easier drinking and more interesting overall, and usually only runs $25 or less.

Rating: B+