'Whiskey' book offers quick lessons

A fine blended Scotch is perfect for mixing a Rob Roy. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 12:28 PM

Think back, all the way back . . . to 1998. What were you drinking?

Perhaps a Cosmo, because you saw Carrie Bradshaw sip one during the first season of "Sex and the City?" Or maybe you were feeling pretty cool because you told the bartender to make yours a Grey Goose in your vodka "martini"? Or maybe you were loving some other fluorescent concoction with the suffix "-tini": appletini, chocolatini, cheesecaketini.

That particular year doesn't seem all that long ago, at least to some of us. But it might as well have been the Dark Ages when it comes to spirits.

Kids, it may seem strange to you now - with dozens upon dozens of bartender manques mixing and blogging - but there was a day when no one had ever heard of a cocktail blog, or even imagined such a thing. Before faux speak-easies and legal absinthe, we had only a few places to go online for good, reliable information about booze.

One of those was AlcoholReviews.com, still written today by Washington resident Kevin Kosar, along with his fictional reviewing persona F. Sot Fitzgerald.

"In 1998, there simply wasn't a popular conversation about spirits," Kosar says. What a difference a dozen years makes.

Although he covers the entire bar at AlcoholReviews, when it comes to spirits, whiskey is where Kosar's heart is. "Whiskey is so interesting because there is so much diversity," he says. "There's no way a vodka can be as interesting as whiskey. It offers such a great experience. It's the spirit that's most similar to wine. You could never hope to taste all the whiskeys out there."

So it's no surprise that Kosar's new book is called "Whiskey: A Global History," part of Reaktion Books' popular Edible series and the first drinks title to take its place next to other culinary histories such as "Pizza," "Pie" and "Cake." For Kosar, who holds a PhD in political science and whose day job is researching for the Library of Congress, whiskey must have seemed a welcome departure from the trade agreements and political history that are part of his usual scholarship.

"Whiskey," at 144 pages, is the perfect primer for the person who wants to quickly learn the basics. "This is not for whiskey snobs who want to sit and read 1,000 pages on the spirit," Kosar told me in a phone interview. "They know everything anyway." Instead, his book is for more-typical folks, many of whom have difficulty sorting out their single-malt Scotches from their bourbons from their Irish whiskeys.

"I just had someone the other day ask me how brandy is different than whiskey," Kosar told me, adding that that sort of thing happens all the time. (For the record, brandy is distilled from fermented grapes or other fruit; whiskey uses fermented grain mash). I find a similar amount of confusion among consumers. Even those who are committed to one type of whiskey are often unclear on what, exactly, they are drinking.

One specific type of confusion I see is between single-malt Scotch (distilled at a single distillery in a pot still) and the more popular blended Scotch (a blend of one or more single-malts). I especially see this during the holidays, when people are looking to buy a special bottle for their whiskey-loving significant other. For instance, they'll ask for my advice on an expensive single malt, when the object of their affection would truly prefer a blend such as Johnny Walker.

In fact, Kosar says, blended Scotch is often a good starting place for newbies entering the world of whiskey, and it's a lot more affordable than, say, a single-malt. A perfectly good blended Scotch such as White Horse (at around $17) or the Famous Grouse (at around $22) looks like a steal next to the $40 to $50 you'd pay for a good-quality single-malt. Plus, a fine blended Scotch, such as Dewar's or Chivas Regal or the less-expensive Johnnie Walkers, is perfect for mixing a Rob Roy, which is essentially a Scotch Manhattan.

"I still don't know how mainstream spirits have become in the popular consciousness," Kosar says, citing industry statistics that say less than a quarter of the population drinks spirits with any regularity - far behind beer and wine.

There is clearly still a great deal of education to do. Which is why Kosar will continue to moonlight writing AlcoholReviews, the granddaddy of drinks blogs.


Perfect Rob Roy

Wilson can be reach through jasonwilson.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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