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Book Review – Darek Bell: Alt Whiskeys

by Oliver Klimek on February 23, 2012

A few weeks ago I received an email from Darek Bell, the owner of Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, asking if I was interested to have a look at the book about craft whisky he recently wrote. Of course I was, so he sent me a copy.

About The Book

Alt Whiskeys is basically a cookbook “for the adventurous distiller” as the subtitle puts it. There is a small section about setting up a basic small scale brewery/distillery, but the bulk of the book is devoted to recipes for whisky. The philosophy of the book is to approach distilling from the perspective of a craft brewer. As whisky is essentially distilled beer, Darek Bell advocates the expansion of the ‘creative brewing’ concept of craft brewers into the whisky world. So most recipes are based on actual beer recipes with modifications to account for the differences of production processes of the two drinks. But also the use of exotic grains like millet, quinoa or sorghum is encouraged.

Czech Pilsner Whisky, Warriror IPA Whiskey or Hopmunculus Hopburst Whiskey are just a few examples of the author’s seemingly limitless creativity for developing distillable concoctions. and these names also hint on a very striking feature of many recipes: the use of hops even for whisky distillation. Here the craft brewing influence becomes more than evident. But it’s not only hops, other botanicals like heather blossoms and mint leaves are used as well, the borders beween whisky and gin become diffuse here.

There is also a very interesting section about using smoked cereals for whisky which even includes advice on DIY smoking, and a final chapter feautures cocktails made with some of the whiskies presented in the book. The book is very professionally made and includes lots of high quality photographs. I am just not really happy about the fact that this book is designed to be a kind of reference work but contains a lot of subtle Corsair Distillery advertisment, notably in the pictures.

About The Concept

If you are interested in experimental whiskies, especially if you actually plan to distill, this book is highly recommendable. But there are a few caveats that need to be mentioned.

Even the best cookbook won’t automatically turn you into a good cook. Brewing and distilling are tricky jobs, and a lot can be done wrong, if you don’t know the basics of your craft. In this respect I consider Alt Whiskeys to be an advanced book for those who can already make basic spirit of decent quality. I would not recommend trying out one of the many fancy recipes for your first distillation run.

And even the best cook will get problems showing off his art, if he has to cook on a crappy stove. Quality of equipment is essential, especially the still is crucial as it has a huge influence on the spirit. The DIY still mentioned in the book will certainly do its job…somehow. But there is a reason professional distillers use expensive equipment. It’s not because they have too much money, it’s because the spirit simply becomes better. Another important issue not mentioned in the book is maturation. If you want to go beyond ‘white dog’ and turn your spirit into proper whisky you need both good casks and time.

So, are these whiskies any good? I don’t know, I haven’t had a chance to try any of them. Expanding the scope of ingredients for whisky definitely is intriguing, especially from the cereals side. But I would not want other flavours to dominate the whisky-ness, potentially turning it into some kind of brown gin or flavoured vodka.

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