Friday, 15 February 2013

Book review; Ian Buxton's 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die

got, got, got, got, NEED! Got, got, NEED! NEED!

Time for something a bit different on Drink It How You Like it this week – it’s my first book review – not ever - you know, I had to do one for my degree once, and I may have wasted some hours at work in the past posting reviews on Amazon, but it’s certainly the first booze related one, and the first on this blog. Mrs Cake actually bought me the book that is the subject of this review over a year ago now, so I’ve had plenty of chance to become acquainted with it, and now here’s the review.

Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die tries to be an unpretentious reference book for the new whisky enthusiast. Why there are 101 instead of 100, I don’t know.

 “What’s so special about 100?” you might ask.

To which I might retort, “Why not stop at 99? Or go up to 114?”

“You’re just being silly”, you would conclude.

Well, we live in a decimal world, and in that world 100 is logical while 101 doesn’t make any more sense than 99 or 114.  Such is the way of things: there are 101 whiskies in this book, and they are filed alphabetically, without prejudice – though The Glenlivet is filed under ‘T’ instead of ‘G’…which is surely wrong. Virgin Megastore used to file its artists in that way, too. Look where they are now. Mind you, HMV have gone same way, and they tended to alphabetise correctly. I think that’s more to do with changes in electronic media than filing systems, though. There’s a Business Studies PhD thesis for you; The effects of alphabetisation on solvency in modern media retail. You can have that one.

What’s the big deal about doing things before you die anyway? Obviously you can’t do much after you die, but the simple fact of death suggests it doesn’t really matter what you do beforehand, while these lists suggest you haven’t lived unless you’ve ticked all the boxes. I suppose that depends on your religious standpoint. Most religions suppose it is important to do good things while you’re alive. That probably doesn’t include making sure you’ve tried 101 interesting whiskies. Should the cliché of rocking up at the Pearly Gates be true, I hardly think St Peter is going to say, “Oh! What did you think of Glenfiddich 30 year old?”

“What? I er… didn’t get to that one”.

“I see. Just how many of the 101 whiskies did you try?”

“Eight. I didn’t realise there was going to be a test…”

On the surface 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die looks like one man’s opportunity to flaunt his familiarity with his subject, and the opportunities he’s had to try far more (and far more great) whiskies than you (or at least I) have. It’s a little sickening when he says things like, “I’ve decided not to include any bottles that cost more than £1000” , simultaneously endearing himself to the part of you that knows you’re never going to try anything that expensive while making sure you know that he has.

However, not all great whisky is a rich man’s game, he points out (especially if you compare it to ‘great’ wine – does such a thing exist?), but some of it is, and some of us are destined to miss out – but only a little. Aware that some people might bristle at being made aware of their shortcomings in life, he points out that two thirds of the whiskies in the book can be bought for £70 or less, and that to buy all 101 would cost around £7100 – less if you got them all at once and negotiated a discount. If you take the three most expensive ones out of the equation, it adds up to an average of £56 per bottle, while some are available for as little as £18.

£7100 doesn’t seem that much does it, for a one time payout? For 101 bottles of whisky? You wouldn’t be able to buy anymore bottles for a good long time though (or indeed, anything else), would you? Your wife would be all, “you’re not buying another bottle are you? There’s still 96 bottles in the kitchen, unopened! And when are we going to be able to go on that holiday? I can’t believe you spent 8 grand on whisky!”

“It was 7 grand!”

“Yeah, well we still haven’t got a dishwasher…”

101 whiskies; it would take me about 8 years to drink all those. That would be quite disappointing. I wonder how much money I’ll spend on whisky over the next 8 years..? I’ll start counting, but I’ll tell you now: it won’t be just under a grand a year.

Buying a new bottle is probably the most exciting part, so buying 101 in one go would be really exciting, but the excitement would all be over really quickly, and I’d probably lose interest before I opened the 20th bottle. I’m just like that. I’d want to keep buying more bottles, and I’d amass more bottles than I could drink in a decade, so I’d start trying to drink them faster, and then I probably just wouldn’t want them anymore.

All gripes concerning financial obstacles and whisky snobbery aside, this book is proving useful and interesting. Let’s assume I came into a small sum of money, and thought to myself, “I’m going to buy an expensive bottle of whisky with that”, where would I even start? If you walk into a specialist off licence it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all those attractive bottles – it’s generally much easier to only have the option of the one or two you can afford or the ones with the greatest discount. Well, if you have this book, it will give you a useful starting point that indecisive people like me might need. Buxton makes a number of them sound interesting enough to part with your money for, and he has been thoughtful enough as to include a price guide so that you can see how far your little windfall should get you. The only trouble you’ve got now is making your shortlist – and finding some spare cash. And then making sure you don’t get carried away and spend all your money on whisky.

Naturally, you will find some of the selections controversial – he chooses the Laphroiag Quarter Cask ahead of the 10 year old (and indeed, all of the other ‘expressions’), and doesn’t mention Ledaig at all – but this isn’t, as Buxton is at pains to express, intended to be a definitive list. It is intended to be a list of whiskies that, love them or hate them, will help complete your whisky education – which frankly makes the fact that he excluded the Laphroaig 10 year old even more preposterous. Mind you, if you’re going to go that far, I hardly think you could call your whisky education complete if you hadn’t tried Bell’s or Jack Daniels, but it would be a waste to include them here. I think you have to make the assumption that everyone will have tried those already, before getting to this stage.

He does include some of my favourites (Caol Ila 12 year old - though his attempt at spelling the pronunciation is wrong - and Crown Royal are represented), which is heartening, and the rest are culled from all over the world and come in all styles. Naturally, single malt scotch is here in abundance, but you also have some blends, a good number of bourbons, some Japanese malts, some from India – there’s even a grain whisky… essentially the emphasis is on interesting, and in that regard he delivers. I’m not so interested in their histories, or in visiting their distilleries as Buxton seems to suggest you do for nearly every one – how different can they be? - but I do have a lot of questions about whisky, so maybe I will visit one, one of these days…

 You don’t need to let this book guide you entirely, but this is a lively and interesting reference text that is easy to dip into (repeatedly) and contains enough information and suggestions to pique your curiosity without making you feel like a novice or a simpleton.

The problem is that once you have this book, it is easy to allow yourself to be influenced by it too much. I don’t feel I’m buying a special whisky these days unless it’s in the book, and to be fair, a number of the ones I’ve tried on its recommendation so far haven’t really cut the mustard. Case in point: Black Grouse. Severely disappointed. In fact, it appears that it is only the blends that are affordable, while nothing single malt comes in at any reasonable price – except Tallisker and Caol Ila. Mind you, that’s not Buxton’s fault (if you allow him the Laphroaig oversight).

On top of that, there is a chance that it will encourage you to buy more whisky than you should more frequently than you should for more money than you should, but… so? Are you interested in drinking whisky or aren’t you?

Given that I had come to accept this book as an authority over the last year, and that I haven’t been overly impressed with its recommendations so far, I have been left wondering where to turn the next time I want to buy a special whisky. Will I just keep buying all the different expressions of Caol Ila, or will I go for something completely random? Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now, but one or two avenues are opening up to me, and I’m fairly certain it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

Since writing that review, Mrs Cake has surprised me by planning a trip to Islay for my birthday, so it looks like I will be visiting a couple of distilleries after all. Keep coming back to find out just how different they are – I’m sure I’ll be telling you all about it at some point.

Now, it occurred to me, after writing the bulk of that review that some consideration ought to be given to the overall purpose of 101 lists. In regard to the whiskies, these aren’t supposed to be the best, as stated earlier, but they are supposed to be somewhat special. Nevertheless, any list of 101 of anything is merely one person’s opinion, and the intention will depend on who that person is – and perhaps who he thinks he is.

So I did a brief search of the internet for a couple of other 101 lists that I might have an opinion of. First, I found this 101 movies to watch before you die list from IMDB. It’s a pretty diverse list, but clearly there are some contentious films on there – Rain Man at number 5 and only three films from before 1970?!? [the 70s were probably the best decade for films, mind].

No intent is specified, but you would think that with something like films, and the fact that you need to see these before you die, it implies that they are particularly important films – for whatever reason. ‘Ang on; Chocolat at number 8?!? Oh wait, the list was made by a girl, so I’m impressed that A Clockwork Orange scored so highly, but not so much that there are three Brad Pitt films (and one with him in), three Johnny Depp films and eight Leonardo DiCaprio films. Eight?!? That means Leonardo DiCaprio is in nearly 1 in 10 of the greatest ever 101 films ever made, if this list is to be believed! I’d like to see if that is a greater proportion than any other actor, but sadly I don’t have time.

This is actually a pretty good list; it has recognised that there are some films that are just givens, like The Godfather, Gone With the Wind etc, that whether or not you personally like them, if you don’t include them you are just proving that you don’t really know anything about films (though ironically, neither of those would appear on my list). Once you’ve included those, that leaves a few spaces that you can fill with your personal favourites – in this case, films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Ghost.

In case you’re interested, my list would definitely include Anchorman, Zoolander, This is Spinal Tap, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dazed and Confused. None of those are from before 1970, but that’s only 5 out of a possible 101.

Another list I found lies at the other end of the spectrum; 101 places to have sex before you die. Presumably this list has more flippant intentions, because there’s a very real possibility that anyone who is really interested in films could watch 101 of them, or that someone with a bit of money and an interest in whisky could try 101 of those. When it comes to having sex in places though, what’s the likelihood of you (yes, you) having sex in any of these places: confessional booth, zoo, marriage counsellor’s office, ski lift, house under construction, house of mirrors, safari, the grotto at the Playboy mansion, pilates studio, museum, motorcycle, hot air balloon, rollercoaster, horse drawn carriage in Central Park, box at the opera and carousel? “On camera” isn’t even a place, and ‘in a car‘ isnt’ on the list – presumably that one’s too obvious… which only makes it’s absence more conspicuous – especially when the kitchen floor and washing machine are included.

I bet the author of the list hasn’t done all of these, and that I think should be a prerequisite. How can you provide a definitive list of anything without personal experience? Sure, most are possible, but to achieve a good number of them requires a willing partner who either wants to complete the list with you, or is ready to go at the drop of a hat.

For the record, I think I’ve managed 14 [wait, treehouse – 15], but frankly, some of these I don’t even want to cross off – a greenhouse? I mean, I would, but I wouldn’t be going out of my way. What’s interesting about that anyway? Unless you start using vegetables…

I am assuming that in this instance ‘sex’ means with another person, because it’s much easier and less impressive if you can do it on your own. I mean, I’d still be impressed, but less… envious if you managed a good number of these. There’s nothing particularly cool about having a wank in a playground, is there? You’ll probably end up in jail and on a register. Wanking anywhere is frowned upon, really. Sure, it’s completely natural and everyone does it (except me), but imagine doing it in all the places on the list, and then wanting to tell everyone about it, because frankly, if you did have a wank in most of those places, there would be something wrong with you – at the office Christmas party? Perverted. In front of a fire? Weirdo.  Look, you’re just a sex fiend ok, and you should be locked away. You probably will be, and even if you’re not there’s probably a video of you wanking on Youtube (maybe that should be Youporn).

So what have we learned from all this? I suppose in the main, 101 lists are either a flippant waste of time or a badge for demonstrating expertise. I think the items they contain should represent important things really, since selecting 101 out of a whole category of thing suggests anything in it has achieved greatness or essentiality. I suppose it also helps if you explain what your intention is in making such a list, but your duty nonetheless should be to give a nod to general consensus, then try and add your own stamp.

To get back to Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, he provides his intention, and then he sticks to his brief and delivers – interesting and diverse whiskies. I don’t think I’m quite experienced enough in whisky just yet to determine just how much he has stuck with consensus and how much he has veered towards his own preferences, but that seems unimportant when there’s a list of 101 places to have sex. I’m just finding it endlessly amusing to imagine someone ticking all those places off on their own… hehe, on your boss’s desk… you reprobate.

Well, that’s it from me for another week. Mrs Cake has gone to see friends in Brighton this weekend, so I’m fending off loneliness with another poker night, where I’m sure a shit-ton of hardcore booze will be consumed. This time I’ll be trying to remember to re-hydrate though – I don’t want a repeat of last Sunday’s hangover…

All that remains then, is to wish you a fun-filled weekend. I’ll hope to see you back here next week, when I’ll be banging on about something else. Cheers!

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