I am a voracious reader, and I happen to adore brown likker. So when I got an email some months ago asking whether I’d like to be sent a review copy of a book about bourbon, I sent a pretty enthusiastic yes in reply. Here’s my review of that book.
I was a very late bloomer when it comes to drinking. I’ve never much cared for beer, didn’t start drinking wine until I was 26, and barely dipped my toe in the syrupy cocktail end of the pool by the age of 30. I don’t even recall the path that got me from there to the place I am now – a 43-year-old who likes what my mother calls “boozy” drinks.
Not only do I like boozy drinks, I especially love the alchemy that happens in a cocktail glass and the stories behind historic drinks. I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that I really enjoyed most of Fred Minnick’s book, Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker, which is part history book and part tasting guide.
The first part of the book breaks down what’s known about the history of bourbon – turns out the origin stories are a little murky – and puts some of the best known legends around certain brands to the test. (Spoiler: most don’t stand up to even the faintest degree of scrutiny.) Bourbon producers not only stretch the truth (which is putting it mildly in some cases), they’re pretty eager to hide the truth sometimes. Bourbon has survived – and thrived – in part thanks to some pretty shady dealings with things like slavery, prostitution, bootlegging, and snake oil salesmen. Not surprising at all, then, that distilleries make up their own origin stories.
There’s some really interesting myth-busting going on in this book – enough that a more combative person than I am might actually hope for that ill-informed blowhard at the bar to start in on how it can’t be called “bourbon” if it’s not made in Kentucky. (Spoiler: yes, it can.) Me, I’m satisfied just learning the history without needing to incite a riot at the bar.
After all the backstory, though, the most handy (to me) part of the book comes next. Minnick breaks bourbon down into four flavor profiles – grain, nutmeg, caramel, and cinnamon. Most bourbon will have a few (if not all) of those flavors present, but Minnick categorizes several popular bourbons by which flavor is most “forward.” I thought this was particularly useful, especially if you’re looking to pair bourbon or a bourbon cocktail with food, or if you’re looking for the right bourbon for a certain cocktail.
The last third (give or take) of the book was the part I could personally have done without. It’s a series of Minnick’s detailed tasting notes from a variety of bourbons, including space for your own tasting notes should you sample the same bottles included in the book. I once tried to keep a diary of wine tastings, but lost interest so quickly I think I didn’t get past the first page. I’m not a tasting notes girl. If you’re someone who keeps such notes, then this section might be just your cup of tea. Me? Not so much. I skimmed it.
Overall, I found Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker to be an informative, interesting, and quick read. I’ll be keeping it on my cookbook/barbook shelf for future reference in that middle third of the book that I thought was the most useful section. Honestly, I would love that section as a standalone bar reference book or – maybe – a smartphone app. The latter would be even more useful than the book, as it could include many more bourbons than are listed. There you go, Fred, that’s my contribution to your post-book to-do list. You’re welcome.
Did you know September is National Bourbon Heritage Month?
- Fred Minnick’s website
- Minnick’s other bourbon book, “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, & Irish Whiskey” (I haven’t read this one)