Bourbon: What The Educated Drinker Should Know by Dr. Tim M. Berra recently arrived at my doorstep, just a few weeks after its publication. As I flipped through the pages I noticed this was no ordinary whiskey book – there are no formidable walls of text detailing the history of whiskey barrels in excruciating detail. While there is certainly a place for that, this is more of a quick reference for all things bourbon. Berra points out this is based on his own PowerPoint presentation on bourbon and whiskey that he has been repeatedly asked to give friends and family, and it reads easily thanks to this format.
Each set of two pages is broken up into a “batch number” with each batch addressing a certain point of the process. There are photos accompanying each batch, most of which were taken by the author during his travels. Each batch goes in order of part of the process, starting with terms and definitions of whiskey, the history of whiskey, the process of making whiskey, and more.
There were some really great pearls of wisdom throughout this book. I absolutely loved the simple and concise descriptions of column and pot stills and how each works and is used. Sometimes this is a topic that gets over-explained and can easily become confusing. Berra lays it out simply and concisely without all the extra detail you don’t really need unless you plan to actually operate a still.
There’s great detail about the construction and charring/toasting of barrels, which is something most people take for granted. I also loved the scientific detail about the differential in proof between the very high levels of a rickhouse and the very low levels of a rickhouse. This is a topic that is difficult to explain without the right knowledge base, and Berra’s background in science makes him the perfect candidate to break it down precisely into simple language from which it’s easy to extrapolate what might happen to aging whiskey in different climates.
Perhaps the greatest pearl of wisdom in these books is this: “Time is an ingredient.” You just can’t stress enough the major differences between the whiskey industry and the vodka industry without talking about time, and most people lack the understanding of just how important that is. When you see a bottle of vodka on the shelf selling for the same amount as an aged whiskey, know that the whiskey producers have a much narrower profit margin than the vodka producers because time is a very expensive ingredient that grows more expensive as time passes thanks to evaporation, storage space, and more.
While there are a lot of great things about this handy little reference book, it is not without its faults. Corn writs are thought to be one of the primary things that got settlers into Kentucky and started producing what would eventually become bourbon. But as Bourbon Historian Michael Veach points out, people were already in Kentucky and there wasn’t really any land to give away, so the joke was that corn writs were really just inherited lawsuits. That said, this is the type of thing you would only know once you got deep into bourbon history – it’s a story that is often repeated by reputable people in the industry.
I do take issue with the reference of the Waterfill & Frazier Distillery reference in this book. During Prohibition, Mary Dowling took her still from Tyrone, Kentucky, hired Joseph L. Beam, and set up shop making Bourbon in Juarez, Mexico. At the time Dowling was one of the most powerful women in the Bourbon industry and her contribution to Bourbon history does not get nearly the attention the Beam dynasty does. Unfortunately, there was no mention of Dowling in this context despite the fact she was the one who had the idea and bankrolled it.
But again, these are details only those deeply entrenched in bourbon history would notice.
This book would be a great thing to have along on a group trip to Kentucky so someone in the car or tour bus could be reading from it during the travel time between distilleries in order to supplement the information you would be getting on tours. The easy reference format makes it a great addition to any Bourbon library.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl