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Book Review – Russell: Whisky Technology, Production and Marketing

by Oliver Klimek on June 6, 2011

Published in 2003 this book is not exactly new, and some of you will certainly know it. But I bought it only recently, and it is still regarded as a state-of-the-art compendium of whisky knowledge.

If you are at odds with science, be warned. This may not be the right book for you. The fact that it is published by Academic Press already hints to a certain sophistication, but to be honest, this is the very reason why I went for this book.

The book is not written by a single person. It rather is a compilation of essays by high profile academic writers about the entire field of whisky production, from raw materials to marketing:

  1. History of whisky making in the most important whisky nations
  2. Malt whisky: raw materials and processing
  3. Grain whisky: raw materials and processing
  4. Yeast and fermentation
  5. Batch distillation
  6. Grain whisky distillation
  7. Maturation and blending
  8. Co-products
  9. Whisky analysis
  10. Marketing

As the chapters were written by different people I probably should review each one on its own, but this would become a bit too lengthy for a work that is of interest to only a fraction of whisky lovers. The quality of information is almost consistently on a very high level. Especially the chapters about raw materials, processing and fermentation contain a wealth of knowledge that is very hard to find elsewhere. The description of the biochemistry that happens during malting is exemplary, as well as the in-depth information of the metabolism of yeast during fermentation. It becomes very apparent that the whole process is much more complicated than just the simplified starch -> sugar -> ethanol mechanism that is perpetuated in the standard whisky books.

But there are some drops of bitterness in the sweet nectar too. The chapter about maturation is pretty decent regarding the influence of wood. But some passages feel just like a slap into the face of whisky makers like this one about sherry casks:

“The importance of wine contact has not been established. Constituents of sherry have been identified in whisky matured in sherry casks, but the sensory impact of these constituents is unknown.”

This makes you wonder if the scientists have actually tasted the liquids they injected into their gas chromatographers and HPLCs.

But the true disappointment in this book is the chapter about batch (pot still) distillation. This is the very core of all whisky making. Malting and fermentation are largely in common with beer, but it is distillation that turns it into whisky, and it is pot still distillation that is historically the most important method. But compared to the other chapters, this one is shockingly void of detailled information. To a large extent it reads more like a stillman describing his job than a scientific explanation of the distillation process.

Instead of explaining what is going on inside the still, in that complex mixture of alcohol, acid, unfermented sugar, starch, proteins and fats we learn that you should close the discharge valve before filling the still with wash. Duh. And explainig that while cleaning the still from the inside you’d better wear goggles and gauntlets may certainly be helpful for a distillery worker, but this does not deepen the reader’s knowledge of whisky distillation a bit. Basic still shapes are shown, but their influence on the spirit is not mentioned with a single word. At least it is stated that the configuration of the lyne arm affects the spirit, but in which way remains a mystery. Copper wear of the stills by reaction with the spirit is mentioned, but only from the technical point of view and not regarding to what it does to the spirit.

Here we can also see a weakness of the multi-author concept. Spirit/copper interaction is hinted to in other chapters, mainly regarding removal of sulphur and the difference between worm tub and condenser. But the chapter that is supposed to answer these questions in depth fails to address these issues almost completely.

Another flaw of this concept is a certain repetition. Some historical references are cited up to three times, like the 1494 Exchequer Rolls, as all authors – or even collectives of authors for some chapters – feel compelled to put their elaborations into a historical perspective. There clearly should have been some sort of lectorate to assure a red thread for the book instead of just pasting together independent essays.

Neverthetless this book is recommendable, if you are looking for deeper information about whisky making than is provided by standard whisky books or distillery tours.

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