Looking for a last minute gift for the whiskey lover in your life? Look no further.
| You can never have too much whiskey – or too many books.
Two new books on spirits arrived at my house the same week. You’d think it’d be easy to decide which I prefer: the photoless humorless guilt trip about sustainability in the spirits industry, or the heavy coffee table book, which is mostly huge pornographic photos expensive bottles.
They are so different, but like in a good marriage, they need each other to be complete. So I decided to review them together: “A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits” by Shanna Farrell and “Rare Whisky: Explore the World’s Most Exquisite Spirits” by Patrick Mahé.
Farrell is a former bartender from Brooklyn who, after earning a master’s degree from Columbia University and NYU, got a job at UC Berkeley as an interviewer at the Oral History Center. Mahé is a longtime French journalist with an impressive CV; he was editor of Paris Match magazine, and among his many books there are five on Elvis Presley.
Both books deal with a relatively small amount of text in different ways. Farrell’s book is quite small and thin. Mahé’s book is huge enough to use for home weightlifting, but many of the pages contain just one big shot of whiskey-porn. You can also call it a money shot, because Mahé lists the prices for everything (thanks!) while Farrell can’t be bothered with the trade.
Let’s try to open them to random pages and compare them.
176: For Farrell, this is the bibliography, one of the 15% of the total pages of the 187-page book that are not part of the narrative. (Mahé’s bibliography is half a page.) On this page she cites a book, a blog post titled “Drink Like You Give a Fuck”, two magazine articles, two blog posts with less interesting titles, two company websites and, for some reason, three of his own interviews.
Mahé shows us Karuizawa 1960 The Dragon, of which only 41 bottles were made. The price: US$331,765. Mmm.
38: Farrell is in Mexico with the owner of Mezonte, a Mezcal store in Guadalajara. She learns that he is paying growers more in an attempt to get them to harvest agaves less frequently, so they don’t grow more agaves than the land can support.
Mahé has a picture of 63 year old Ben Nevis 1926 Scotch. “This old-school Ben Nevis is extremely balanced, tasty and fruity”; 98 bottles were made and one sold at auction in Hong Kong in 2020 for US$27,190. Oh baby.
141: Farrell talks to the owners of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, about how they were able to expand their operation.
This is an unusual page for Mahé, without a picture – one of 23 pictureless pages in the 240-page book. The text talks about the fall of the Irish whiskey industry in the 20th century, as well as a recipe for Irish coffee.
116: Farrell visits the co-owner of the now-closed Bar Agricole in San Francisco, but it’s not Thad Vogler, who has written a superior book with some of these same themes, “By the Smoke and the Smell.” (For me, it was a paradigm-shifting spirits book.) She gives the ingredients for the Sleepy Head cocktail, and Vogler’s partner compares Gray Goose Vodka to the Dave Matthews Band.
Mahé shows off The Glenrothes Scotch 40 Year Old ($3797), her seductive curves blending into a licentious silhouette. Court!
19: Farrell begins to tell the story of how two South Carolina distillers helped revive a bright red variety of corn called Jimmy Red by making whiskey from it.
Mahé’s photo of The Macallan Lalique VI 65 Year Old ($118,000) glows as if lit from within; it’s a large round bottle with a sensual abstract design in the center that resembles the symbol my long time yoga teacher used to put in front of her chest to symbolize “feminine power”.
121: Farrell talks about the amount of trash in bars across the country: unused lime pods, sprigs of mint, and eggshells. “There’s also the energy that’s used to grow the food and make the straws, the napkins and the bottles.”
Mahé offers us a shot of 31-year-old Craigellachie ($3,371), which “won ‘World’s Best Malt’ at the 2017 World Whiskeys Awards.” After spending some time with this book and noticing the suggestive female form in the center of the Macallan Lalique bottle, I now realize that all standard whiskey bottles look a bit like a male sex organ. So I can’t say that I didn’t learn anything from this book. (How long will it take me to unlearn it?)
You get the image (and the text). It will probably be clear to each of you which of these books is the most appealing. Me, I need a whisky. Should I go for the durable or for an obscene price? Ah, making decisions.
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