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Whisky: The Manual – Book Review

Whisky: The Manual by Dave Broom is an entertaining, enlightening, and instructive book on how to achieve maximum enjoyment from the world’s most famous drink.

Small in size yet full of useful stuff, this is a portable companion of potable spirits that examines whisky from a fresh perspective, revealing how it was imbibed in the past, while focusing on the various and often inspiring ways it is enjoyed around the world today. This is a must-have book for whisky fans, but may also convert non-whisky drinkers on the spot.

Whisky: The Manual will make you see whisky in a whole new way, whether it is your favorite spirit or one you thought you could never like.

Challenging and Informative

From the first page, the author sets about “exploding myths” including the belief that whisky is old-fashioned, that it is a drink for old men, that it must be drunk neat, that is only for after dinner, that single malts are superior to blends, and that Scotland makes the best whisky (or whiskey as it is spelled in some parts of the world.) Such narrow points of view, Broom argues, only serve to limit one’s experience and potential enjoyment of what is an amazingly flexible spirit.

Whisky: The Manual by Dave Broom review at One Man's Malt 1mansmalt.comHe recounts the story of a Scottish cabdriver who had avoided whisky his whole life because he “couldn’t take the burn,” until he was on a distillery tour where someone told him to put water in it, and then “It was great!”

According to Broom, the last thing he wants to do is impose a new set of rules about how to drink whisky. But he very much wants to instruct others on how to drink whisky “without the pain,” while increasing the pleasure as much as possible.

Many have been made to feel sheepish about diluting whisky. But here is no less than spirits expert Dave Broom giving everyone permission to drink whisky in any way they most enjoy it. To prove his point he sampled 202 whiskies from around the globe, mixed with some surprising components.

The premise that quality whisky may be and should be enjoyed in mixed drinks, and that it was in fact distilled with such flavor intensity expressly for that purpose, is what sets Whisky: The Manual apart from all those venerable books repeating the same facts about whisky production in different parts of the world, with tasting notes based on drinking them neat.

While skeptics set in their whisky ways may argue such claims, Broom’s thesis is persuasive and he backs it up with considerable evidence acquired by focusing his research on how whisky is enjoyed out in the everyday world by real people in their real lives, typically with a lot of ice and mixers.

Research Well Presented

For Broom’s tastings, he tried each whisky with five of the most popular mixers in the world: soda water (the U.S. and Canada,) ginger ale (the U.K. and Ireland), cola (Eastern Europe and Russia,) sweetened green tea (Taiwan and China,) and coconut water (Brazil and Central America.)

The last two may raise some eyebrows, or even pinch up a few noses in reflexive doubt. I felt much the same way before I took part in a private tasting back in October, at the offices of the North American distributor of Dave Broom’s upcoming book. There, we sampled varieties of blended scotch with these five mixers. At the time, I was surprised at how this approach to whisky worked, but I didn’t take it all that seriously, until the book was released and I actually read it.

It makes a great gift idea for readers who may see whisky as high-octane liquor for only hard core drinkers, because they have never experienced the many excellent mixed drinks that can be made with it, from the classic highballs to inventive and exotic cocktails. But it makes an even better gift for those hard core drinkers of premium whisky, for the very same reason. And this is where Broom’s efforts have the greatest impact. Even confirmed drinkers of cask strength single malts have had their whole world of drinking blown wide open by this one little book.

There is an accurate character sketch of each whisky sampled, followed by a succinct assessment of how well it mixes, with a specific rating applied to each of the five mixers, on a scale of 1 for “avoid” to 5 for “superb,” where the combination of mixer and whisky creates a great drink, while also highlighting the whisky’s unique characteristics. There is even a 5* for the “the very best, must-try” and several N/A listings, where he felt the whisky was best on its own.

The subjects are segregated by type (i.e. Scotch Blends, Scotch Malts) and are given a flavor camp designation (i.e. Light and Fragrant, Rich and Fruity.) He chose whiskies that are generally available and treats them as equals when it comes to mixed drinks. So there is Clan MacGregor, a bargain blend scrutinized to the same degree as 18-year-old Macallan, along with many different varieties from Ireland, America, Canada, Japan, and even Taiwan.

Whisky: The Manual by Dave Broom example page

(click to enlarge)

Entertaining Stories

Before getting into the tasting notes and mixer ratings, Whisky: The Manual first presents a concise and fascinating “History” that manages to surprise and enlighten even history buffs among veteran whisky fans. Broom plumbs the past for clues to how whisky was actually drunk by commoners and the gentry over the centuries  – primarily mixed or flavored with other stuff. The earliest written history of Scotland dates from the 1520s and mentions that “ancestors” of the historian flavored their whisky with “such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens” when they were “determined of a set purpose to be merry.”

We are reminded that the trend of drinking single malt scotch with ne’er but a drop of water is less than 40 years old. Each single malt from Scotland developed its unique flavor profile expressly to contribute to some variety of blended scotch. And even the most celebrated blends were carefully crafted to exploit the qualities of specific mixers.

Whisky: The Manual Broom history

One of the more involved recipes

For example, the spicy bite of Johnnie Walker Red Label was formulated to best be drunk in ginger ale (invented in Northern Ireland and used as a mixer for brandy and whisky since the 1850s,) while the smokier qualities of velvety Black Label was an ideal choice for the whisky and soda quaffed by so many a Victorian gentleman. And for that matter by James Bond, who drank much more scotch and soda in Ian Fleming’s novels than martinis. Hollywood converted 007 to vodka in 1960 to put him more in line with the young hipsters who saw whisky as their father’s drink, and not something to fuel the current dance crazes.

From the usquabagh of the 1600s (whisky re-distilled with flavorings such as herbs, spices, seeds, and fruit) to the complicated whisky punches of the 1700s, to the hot toddies and cold sours of the 1800s, whisky was made and meant to be drank long, with a mixer or as part of some complex recipe.

Placed throughout the history section are some of those very recipes from bygone days, which show that these were not just concoctions thrown together, but precise and interesting drinks, much like the tried and tested signature dishes of a celebrated cook. They sound quite appealing, and adventurous readers are invited to try making them at home.

Practical Knowledge to Put to Good Use

There is also a section on the “Essentials” of whisky, including its components of grain, water and yeast. These three simple ingredients, when influenced by smoke, copper stills, and oak casks undergo an alchemy that transform them into a product that scientists say has more identifiable flavors, by the hundreds, than any other spirit in the world. Broom explains how and why this happens and why it matters, in easy to understand terms, before including the influence of the people who make whisky, the art of blending and how that varies from country to country, and even the importance of occasion when choosing a whisky and how it is drunk.

At the end of the book are found recipes for whisky-based cocktails. Beginning with classics like the Manhattan, the Old Fashion, and the Julep, and what is required to make a great one, they are followed by recipes lesser-known or more involved, many of them created by celebrated mixology bars. Some appear easy to make, while others require long lists of ingredients, including several that qualify as downright bizarre, but are reputedly delectable.

Whisky: The Manual Broom recipes 1mansmalt.comThe author is convinced that a greater population of whisky drinkers could be realized, once they come to realize how convivial and delicious whisky can be when experienced in the most pleasant and tasty ways possible. I can vouch for that.

I have done considerable experiments based on the findings in Whisky: The Manual, and I have led my own tastings in three different states, with people from five different countries, including whisky drinkers and those unfamiliar with whisky. We tested several of 202 whiskies in the book, along with some significant whiskies not included, and while we do not always agree with Broom’s ratings, or each other’s, everyone has been pleasantly surprised at how much they have enjoyed the results.

One participant is a professional bartender in a trendy Manhattan restaurant. She has taken the coconut water and whisky combo to her superiors, who were thrilled, and are now exploring some cocktails based on it.

An Enriched and Broader Perspective

If someone had bet serious money a year ago that I, a dyed in the wool drinker of straight single malts, would routinely be enjoying mixed drinks and that a favorite would be coconut water on the rocks mixed with blended scotch, I would be a poorer man today. But I consider myself much richer for having opened my mind and pallet to the wider world of whisky drinking. And I owe it all to Dave Broom.

Personally, I find his attempts to explode those five “myths” are only partially successful. I have never found a whisky produced outside of Scotland that I prefer to those distilled there, and there isn’t a blended scotch made that I would choose over a large number of single malts and vatted malts, at least when it comes to drinking them straight from the bottle or with a bit of water or ice.

But my opinion of many blends has skyrocketed when I began trying them in highballs or other mixed drinks. Many work better than my favorite single malts when mixed, and while I remain a scotch drinker through and through, I have for the first time gained a greater appreciation for other styles of whisky and their potential when combined with mixers.

Now, when I am out with friends in a bar or cocktail lounge, I do not have to nurse an expensive sliver of single malt next to a glass of water, while they make their way through pints of beer or two-fisted margaritas. Instead, I reach for a ginger ale highball with Famous Grouse, or a pint of seltzer with ice and a double shot of Powers Irish whisky. However, I may soon be converted to a Presbyterian, which is whisky mixed with equal parts ginger ale and soda water. But according to Martha Stewart, it is best made with the addition of some Angostura bitters. “And that’s a good thing.”

And that is one man’s word on…

Whisky: The Manual, by Dave Broom

Available from Barnes and Nobles, or your local community book shop.

Related Reading:

Our exploration into mixing whisky ala Dave Broom

Dave Broom Get’s Whisky All Mixed Up, from October, 2013


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