Dueling Bourbon Books

Classic Bourbon, Tennessee and Rye Whiskey, Jim Murray
Prion Books Ltd., London, 1998, ISBN 1-85375-218-5
272 pp.
The Bourbon Companion: a Connoisseur’s Guide
Gary Regan & Mardee Haidin Regan
Running Press, Philadelphia, 1998, ISBN 0-7624-0013-7
191 pp.

Bourbon is hot. This American spirit’s sales have stopped their long decline, some brands are seeing strong growth, and there is a new respect for bourbon’s unique character. There is even renewed interest in its ebullient cousin, rye whiskey, after years of having its identity stolen by Canadian whiskey. If you need more signs and portents to prove this, take a look at these two excellent books published within months of each other.

Even for books published in the same year on the same subject, these two books look remarkably similar. Both have light amber covers featuring glasses of whiskey in artful shadings of light. Both titles are in black. They both had me searching the photos carefully for nudes, skulls, and all the other air-brushed subliminality advertisers supposedly add to liquor photos. So far I’ve found a rattlesnake and a locomotive, and I’m still looking.

Books so similar benefit from a side-by-side review, much like whiskeys. The nose and palate seem to instinctively seek more subtle nuances as the spirits are presented in inescapable competition. You may put two whiskeys you like side-by-side and suddenly find one lacking, or you may come away knowing more about why you like both of them.

So it is with the books. Strengths and weaknesses complement each other here in a way that makes me sure I’ll keep both of these on my ready reference shelf close by my computer. The Regans take you through the distilling process in an easily followed progression, point by point; Jim rambles a bit—quite a bit at times, albeit in an entertaining fashion—but leaves you with more detail at the end.

That actually develops into a kind of "house character" for these books. The Regans lay out bourbon-making, bourbon history, bourbon definitions in informative, easy-to-follow sections, sometimes bulleted lists. This makes for a great reference for memory-jogging and a useful introduction to these spirits. Murray will stop and start, double back, expand greatly, throw in an anecdote (the one about Jimmy Russell timing fermentation by the size of the bubbles is a classic), and blithely pass over things he considers uninteresting or unimportant. While he misses some things (sometimes things he covers in his earlier books, notably the role of German distillers in the development of rye whiskey) he widely develops others.

Of course, the heart of each book is the whiskey reviews. Again, things are done differently—the Regans choose to pull the distilleries apart into a separate section, Murray puts distillery descriptions and whiskey reviews all together. Each has its merits. The Regan’s arrangement makes it easier to find a whiskey by name, Murray’s scheme quickly shows you all of a distillery’s products. The reviews themselves are excellent in both books, and if they seem to suffer somewhat from a lack of negativity, Murray reminds us that the competitive market for bourbon squeezed out the inferior makes years ago.

Never doubt that either book lacks for passion. The Regans have obviously built their home and lives around this subject, and Murray has said on Scottish radio that Kentucky makes the best whiskey in the world: there's courage. One of my favorite lines in Murray’s book comes in his introduction: "Rye, though, has to be my favourite whiskey style in the world…Part of this book’s purpose is to alert whisk(e)y lovers to what they are missing: in Britain, Europe and Africa rye is not available at all." That’s the kind of spirit I love to hear.

Bourbon is hot, so are Tennessee whiskey and rye—a long-overdue comeback for these bold and vigorous spirits. These books cover them all, and well. Faced with a choice, I would fall back on my solution to ending long minutes of agonizing decision-making at the liquor store—get both and exit smiling.

Copyright © 2003 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 04, 2003