The Curious Bartender - An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies: A Brief Review

Photo courtesy: The Graham Hotel

Photo courtesy: The Graham Hotel

PROLOGUE

It's nearing dusk on a Friday evening in Georgetown. It's humid and traffic is terrible. I know if I sit in my Uber any longer in standstill traffic, I'll be late for "date night." The Uber driver was chummy for the 10-minute ride over to the part of DC I needed to be in, so I didn't mind asking  if I could pop out while it seemed advantageous to walk the rest of the way to my final destination.

"Five stars," I proclaim as I exit his Toyota Camry! He nodded, smiled and wished me a happy evening.

I'm meeting my girlfriend for dinner at a (self-proclaimed) whiskey bar called The Alex. It's our first time trying this place and, full disclosure, she booked it using a Groupon-style deal. I'm usually weary of places that need to lure patrons with coupons, because if you're that good, then coupons aren't necessary. Right? However, Georgetown does offer upscale shopping and some offbeat nightlife in the District, and most of the dining options are above par. Also, this place is a restaurant in the Graham Hotel, a boutique accommodation that's a tribute to Alexander Graham Bell (notice the names?). I've probably passed it 100 times and never noticed a hotel existed there. 

Alas, I finally found myself standing in the hotel lobby. And after a slight squabble with the concierge about having outside beverages in the restaurant (I had a practically empty Sprite bottle in tow), I weaved my way down and through the old establishment and found myself where I needed to be, clocking in at a customary five minutes fashionably late. Understandably so.

From left: Bulleit Rye, Hudson Manhattan, Whistle Pig 10 Year Rye

From left: Bulleit Rye, Hudson Manhattan, Whistle Pig 10 Year Rye

I did fail to mention that the "coupon" deal that I was being treated to included a flight of whiskies. And, well, whiskey and flights (of any kind) are usually a decent combination. I'll oblige.

For being a "whiskey bar," The Alex's selection was quite limited, and the prix fixe flight options were even more restrictive. There were three themed flights to choose from: Bourbon (basic), Rye (moderate) and some Willett Distillery offerings (Noah's Mill, Pot Still Reserve and the Family Estate Bottled Two-Year Rye).

Admittedly, I jump at any sight of Willett distillery brown water, with the exception of the Two-Year rye. Because, let's face it. It's a two-year-old whiskey! As a standalone rye, it does absolutely nothing for me. However, it does happen to make the tastiest old-fashioned cocktail known to man! So, I started with that. I later opted for the rye-themed flight. It seemed like the most solid trio I could have chosen.

THE REVIEW

As a surprise, my girlfriend stuck with the whiskey themed night and presented me with some new reading material, The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies by Tristan Stephenson. Needless to say, I was elated. What better way to toast this occasional whiskey adventure than with a complimentary piece of whiskey propaganda? There is none.

Synopsis, via Amazon:

"An innovative, captivating tour of the finest whiskies the world has to offer, brought to you by bestselling author and whisky connoisseur Tristan Stephenson. Tristan explores the origins of whisky, from the extraordinary Chinese distillation pioneers well over 2,000 years ago to the discovery of the medicinal 'aqua vitae' (water of life), through to the emergence of what we know as whisky. Explore the magic of malting, the development of flavour and the astonishing barrel-ageing process as you learn about how whisky is made. In the main chapter, Tristan takes us on a journey through 60 distilleries around the world, exploring their remarkable quirks, unique techniques and flavours, featuring all new location photography from the Scottish Highlands to Tennessee. After that, you might choose to make the most of Tristan's bar skills with some inspirational whisky-based cocktails. This fascinating, comprehensive book is sure to appeal to whisky aficionados and novices alike."

One thing you'll probably notice is the juxtaposed spelling in the Amazon review and subsequently throughout the book itself (the author is British, after all) of Whisky and the American (the best) way of spelling Whiskey.

For all intents and purposes, it seems that Whisky is the "old world" spelling, used as a common explainer in whiskies such as Scotch and Irish variants. Whiskey is the "new world" usage in American and some other whiskey labelings. Both are acceptable.

I don't think the book actually covers the variable spellings, or perhaps I missed it? In any case, I use the "(e)" so not to offend. Although, all things being equal, Bourbonatic is "a blog dedicated to the exploration of American whisk(e)y!" :)

To preface my review, I did not read this book "cover to cover." Honestly, for informational reads like this, I rarely do. There is a lot of quality information in this book, but it's very much piecemeal. Aside from the history section, the different sections of the book are tailored for enthusiasts from a wide spectrum of the whiskey world, as you can imagine. So, I payed extra attention to the chapters cataloging the history of American whiskey, explanation and reviews of American whiskey products, and the expansive and fascinating cocktails section near the end.

DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER (EXCEPT FOR THIS ONE)

The book itself is absolutely beautiful. The weathered, rustic cover stock and weighted feel makes this the manliest of manly books, if there ever was such as thing? Open it up and there are gorgeous photographs on almost every page, breaking up the monotony of long blocks of text, which is nice. This really is one of the more handsome books in my bookcase. Admittedly, I do think it was designed as more of an accessory, so-to-speak. Meaning, it would probably look better sitting beside my favorite bottle of bourbon, or on a bar cart next to a full decanter, rather than being buried on a shelf with other, less attractive bindings. This is almost certainly a good thing!

FOCUS ON THE DETAILS, BUT LIMIT THE NUMBER OF DETAILS

This is pretty great read, indeed. Not just for whiskey lovers, but also for newbies who are just getting into the scene and want to learn more about whiskey, its history and subsequent revival. It is not a “how to” book on sniffing and sipping (although it does touch on this a bit); There are some better options for whiskey beginners. However, you will enjoy learning about the “rules,” guidelines and of crafting different whiskies of the world, why they’re significant to preserving the nuance of the namesakes, and studying the identity and character of the different regions of whiskey production.

The author also doesn’t try to take on too much with identifying, explaining and/or reviewing as many whiskies as he can. Stephenson even notes multiple times that it is “impossible” to do so. I applaud that he stuck to the basics and the true nature of his writing by not being overly ambitious with this effort.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone hoping to dive a little deeper into whiskey lore, and they should find some interesting notes about whiskey that may otherwise go unmentioned by other "experts." It truly is fascinating to get a glimpse into the perspective of fellow enthusiasts. And this is no exception.

THERE'S COCKTAILS, TOO

The last section of the book dives into a spectrum of bourbon-inspired cocktails, and man they are aplenty. As is proper; The author is a "curious bartender" and bar owner. The cocktail recipes are accompanied by exquisitely shot photographs of the end results. Whoa! I'm confident my iPhone camera cannot take pictures like that, let alone do I have the ability to replicate such meticulously well-crafted pieces of art. Seriously! As some food is art, so too are these concoctions! But hey, it should be fun to try! Cheers!

Coming Soon: The completely botched Bourbonatic versions of The Curious Bartender's bourbon cocktails.