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Mark Bylok – The Whisky Cabinet

by Oliver Klimek on January 29, 2015

A while ago I was contacted by Canadian author Mark Bylok if I was interested in a review copy of his book “The Whisky Cabinet”. New whisky books are always interesting to look at, so I agreed.

The concept of “The Whisky Cabinet” is what might best be described as a condensed wide-angle look on whisky. On almost 190 pages it covers the basics of whisky production and maturation and gives an overview of whisky distilleries form all over the world. Unfortunately the selection of distilleries described is limited, probably because of space constraints. Only 30 Scottish distilleries are listed, for example.

The layout is clean and modern with many pictures (some of which are a bit too much on the “low key” side for my taste), but you cannot really call it a coffee table book. The text remains in the focus.

Of course there are already plenty of whisky books on the market that cover the same subject. After all, the number of potential buyers for a book about whisky basics is substantially higher than for a book that is only of interest for geeks. 

To give this book an individual twist, Mark Bylok has also devoted some space to describe current trends in the whisky industry like No Age Statement or White Whisky. As the name of the book suggests, there is also a section on how to build one’s whisky cabinet. Spread among all sections of the book there are many other bits of information which makes it a good read overall.

Many of the whisky books I have read contain errors or inaccuracies. Sometimes they are caused by the authors’ lack of in-depth knowledge, sometimes by the need to keep it short and sometimes also by sloppy editing.

Unfortunately this book is not free from such blunders either. For example Compass Box is listed as a distillery, just like Nikka whose Yoichi distillery is listed as a brand only. Another example is the history of Johnnie Walker which the book states was owned by Guinness (correct, indirectly via DCL) and then purchased by Diageo. This is inncorrect. Diageo was created by a merger of Guinness with Grand Metropolitan which included quite a bit of brand reshuffling via UD and UDV, but Johnnie Walker has always remained in the conglomerate.

The section on maturation contains a few factual errors. Maturation is described as a combination of oxidation and evaporation. Oxidation itself is described as interaction of the spirit with the wood: “The oak then oxidizes, leaving vanilla notes behind in the barrel.” No, this is extraction, no oxidation. Oxidation simply is the interaction of the spirit with the surrounding air, most of which happens inside the barrel after some evaporation has taken place.

The vanilla notes come from charring the barrel which is done not to increase the surface area of the wood as stated in the book but because the heat of the fire induces chemical recations which create flavour compounds such as vanillin from the wood.

A final example is the statement that bourbon requires a shorter maturation time than Scotch because it is corn based as opposed to the barley based malt whisky. The correct reason can actually be found in the book, some pages later: “Colder climates need longer aging to extract similar flavours.”

I hope the errors will be addressed in a thorough edit. Then “The Whisky Cabinet” will be an excellent introductory whisky book.

 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Bylok January 29, 2015 at 8:40 pm

Thank you Oliver for the review!

I found many whisky books either over-simplified whisky (how can we appreciate something when it’s dumbed down), or got too technical making whisky less approachable.

I wrote this book to strike a balance and focused on making this an approachable book, that gave a wide span of insight in the whisky industry. There are plenty of books that review thousands of whiskies, but I focused on providing a condensed list of whiskies to offer a starting point when expanding one’s whisky collection.

For the technical sections of the book, I interviewed a Heriot Watt University graduate (the Ph.D in Brewing and Distilling program), along with many whisky makers. A prominent whisky industry person also read through the the section where there are a few points we disagree on. When he came across the “oxidization & evaporation” section, the original feedback was “wrong!” (as you said) and then he responded with “Oh wait, you’re right!” after reading the next sentence after that one: “Oxidization occurs when alcohol liquefies the cell walls of the wood that the barrel is made from. The oak then oxidizes, leaving vanilla notes behind in the barrel.”

We’re all talking about the same thing (liquefies is an extraction). Keeping it to extraction, interaction, and evaporation is also good and frequent way of explaining barrel maturation. I wanted to simplify it to its absolute base reactions based on my interviews, and kept it to that.

Charring definitely cracks the surface of the inside of the barrel enough to increasing the overall surface area that the spirit comes in contact with, and allows for greater flavour extraction (we’re talking mostly microscopic cracks). We’ll have to agree to disagree on this. Charring doesn’t create vanilla, though, as I think you implied. The way I understand it, there are already trace elements of vanilla in the oak. I’m happy with this section of the book as is.

The third example, I can’t find reference to it in the book, but I do recall writing something that could have been interpreted that way but that wasn’t my intention (as you note, I do make the affects of climate clear later in the book).

When writing the book, I realized there was a lot of conflicting information in the whisky community, but most often we are saying the same thing. I interviewed whisky makers, industry leaders, copper smiths, and coopers. This book was not without research.

Good finds with the distillery section. Great point on Diageo history, Yoichi (I do know that, so argh on that one!), Compass Box (I did describe CB correctly, but the heading was wrong). I’m a first-time author, so you know those will haunt me forever. I don’t think they take-away from the overall knowledge contained in the book.

Thank you for reading my book Oliver, and the (99% mostly!) positive review! I’m a long-time fan! I’m thrilled that read my book!

Reply

Oliver Klimek January 29, 2015 at 10:41 pm

Hi Mark, thank you for taking the time to resopnd here. I will try to address my points about the maturation tomorrow when I will have some more time.

Reply

Alex January 30, 2015 at 6:27 am

My understanding:

Charring oak causes lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose to break down into hundreds of complex compounds. I believe there is vanillin in wood before charring, but the charring releases at least the additional toasted, caramel flavors and color, and I think additional vanillin too. It is similar to the additional flavors caused by caramelizing simple sugar or grilling a steak instead of boiling beef (Maillard reactions). If it was just a question of surface area, you could add raw oak chips and sawdust to get the same flavors (not withstanding laws preventing that), but it wouldn’t work. The charring also reduces the unwanted flavors that would leech from the wood in higher concentrations.

“Oxidization occurs when alcohol liquefies the cell walls of the wood that the barrel is made from. The oak then oxidizes, leaving vanilla notes behind in the barrel.” I don’t know what this could possibly mean–the cell walls you claim are liquefied are also oak, so which oak is oxidized after being liquefied? Alcohol doesn’t liquefy cell walls, i.e. cellulose. For example, paper and cotton do not dissolve in alcohol, regardless of how long you wait. You say the oak oxidizes to leave vanilla behind–burning wood is a severe and rapid oxidation process! So perhaps we are on the same page. You start by saying the vanillin is in the oak, but then you say oxidization creates it–which is it?

I’m sure Oliver or someone else knows more. Bill Lumsden certainly does, and there are great academic papers that explain the oxidization and recombination of ethanol, other alcohols, and other compounds within the barre during maturation, and how long each process takes.

Reply

Oliver Klimek January 30, 2015 at 6:42 am

That’s a good summary and essentially what I would have written myself. Of course charring increases the surface, but this is not why it is done.

“Oak” can not oxidise, only chemical compounds (molecules) can. And there are countless different substances in “oak”. There is an excellent article on the Whisky Science blog that goes into much detail to describe the processes that go on here:

http://whiskyscience.blogspot.de/2011/02/oaky-flavours.html

That’s the theory. Here is a scientific paper about the chemical and sensorial analysis of young whisky both from charred and uncharred barrels:

http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/home/jhb/whisky/papers/charring.htm

I just quote the conclusion section here:

“Cask charring caused a significant increase in sensory ratings of descriptive terms characteristic of mature distillate, such as smooth, vanilla and sweet, and a significant decrease in ratings for descriptive terms characteristic of immature distillate, such as pungent, sour, oily and sulphury. These differences were apparent after 3 months and continued throughout the maturation period. Cask charring enhanced levels of syringaldehyde, total phenols and absorbance and decreased levels of coniferaldehyde, sinapaldehyde and vanillic acid. These differences could be related to changes in the sensory characteristics of the distillate. “

Reply

Mark Bylok January 30, 2015 at 10:41 pm

Even in the link you sent (the second one), Oliver, it makes the point of surface expansion and flavour enhancements and directly contradicts your statement:

“Thus, the effect of charring can be described in terms of … 3) the total polyphenolic content of the extract is increased due to disruption of the wood surface and an increase in effective surface area with the potential production of flavour congeners by the oxidation of the vicinal polyhydric phenols (Philp, 1989)”

This would be a far more interesting debate if any of us produced scientific papers on barrel maturation. Instead, we’re really just debating how to best summarize a complex process into two concise paragraphs. You both would have stressed different aspects of maturation, and that’s okay!

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