New Whiskey Book Brings Out the Kid In Us
All photos by Brian Petro. Any spirits aficionado is thrilled by this current explosion of wines, beers, and liquors we are currently enjoying. Stores and bars are filling their shelves with drinks that have not seen the light of day since before Prohibition. The flood of different spirits is just one part of the equation. Popular beverages like gin and bourbon have been expanding at such a rapid pace that it is difficult for those that are well connected in the industry to keep up. So if it is difficult for the mavens and connoisseurs to keep pace, what is a beginner to do?
Fortunately, Richard Betts has the answer. He, along with Crystal English Sacca (designer) and Wendy McNaughton (illustrator), have created a book that is perfect for beginners. The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know -It-All ($22.00, 2015, Houghlin Mifflin Hartcourt Publishing) offers not only basic information that someone who is unfamiliar with whiskey can appreciate, it offers a guide to the aromas you will encounter when trying the wide variety of whiskies out there. Mr. Betts is a Master Sommelier, writing his first book with Ms Sacca and Ms McNaughton about wine. He knows the value of honing your sense of smell, and how it can influence what you taste. As he states on the second page, “When we think we taste vanilla, we aren’t so much tasting it in our mouths as we are picking up the sensations with our olfactory senses and smelling it.” The book is educational on two fronts; the basics of what whiskey is and the general varieties you find on the shelf, and little bursts of scent in places so we can experience what the author is talking about.
The book was designed for someone who does not know much about whiskey and is looking for a general introduction. If you are a whiskey expert, this appeals more as a novelty. The writing explains the process and differences in whiskey in the simplest of terms. It touches on the process, ingredients, varieties, and a little lesson on how to read the label. There is a poster inside that offers a “whiskey wheel” to help you find the right style for you, whether you are looking for something malty with hints of smoke (Scotch) to spicy with caramel and vanilla notes (Rye Whiskey). The illustration style matches well with the writing style; it is loose, fun, and informative without being intimidating.
This relaxed style may not be for everyone. It looks like a children’s book in many ways, which may be a turn off to someone who takes whiskey very seriously. Even the juxtaposition of children’s book/spirits education could be off putting. The scents are not all incredibly strong; for some, you may be getting a better whiff of cardboard page as opposed to vanilla, corn, or maple syrup. I would guess this is a book-by-book issue, since chemicals are a finicky bunch. There is a warning up front that “Instead of a long history about how whiskey is made (there are lots of those anyway), this is a book about how it all tastes (and smells).” Don’t expect a deep dive into any of the topics this book covers.
I enjoyed it for the fun, informal, educational journey that it was. I was a fan of scratch and sniff stickers when they were popular (why is no one bringing those back?!), and this book offers that same entertainment. The heaviest part of this book are the pages, which are durable for repeated scratching, maybe an occasional spill. This is an entertaining and educational gift for someone with a playful sense of humor and looking to get down the basics of whiskey, or to have on a table for a conversation starter.
Professor Petro’s grade: B+ Great for building up knowledge for a beginner. The hit or miss nature of the scratch and sniff sections, and their general importance to the book, is the only thing that brings the grade down.