I’ve sung the praises of my fellow spirits writer and friend Fred Minnick before, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to too many that I’ve come to do that again.
What did surprise even me is how much I enjoyed tearing through Bourbon Curious. Released just in time for National Bourbon Heritage Month—and at a moment when the spirit category is more popular than ever--Bourbon Curious is probably Minnick’s best work, and almost inarguably an instant essential for a serious spirits library. That isn’t to say the topic of whiskey in general or bourbon specifically hasn’t been approached with as much authority before. But Fred’s writing style consistently shows a deft balance between conversational familiarity, personal style, and comfortable authority that basically, is the model to which all of us should aspire.
That said, the subtitle of Bourbon Curious, “A Simple Tasting Guide For the Savvy Drinker,” is a bit misleading. It is more than a tasting guide, and while it will appeal to savvy bourbon fans, it’s also relatable for nearly anyone interested in the topic. In other words, it’s nerdy but not elitist.
The richly illustrated 230 page book is split into three major sections, followed by an “appendix” that should be considered a nearly equal fourth.
Part one, “History, Legends, and Contemporary Truths” debunks a lot of the lore of bourbon’s origins (spoiler: Evan Williams and Elijah Craig deserve less credit than they receive), covers a lot of its morally dubious growth, and discusses post-Prohibition realities without killing any enthusiasm for the product itself.
Part two, “Sources of Flavor” covers all elements of Bourbon’s curious creation, from grain sourcing (do GMOs matter?) to distillation equipment and process, yeast strains, barrel sourcing and rickhouse techniques. Need to sound like a five minute expert? You will after this section.
Part three, simply titled “Tasting” covers the process of tasting that Minnick teaches in seminars and uses as a judge of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including a huge list of descriptors he uses, his medaling standards, and a series of worksheets to put the reader into the tasting mindset. This is followed by an extended section that breaks several of his favorite bourbons into different dominant characteristics: Grain-Forward, Nutmeg-Forward, Caramel-Forward, Cinnamon-Forward and then Select Limited Editions and Special Releases (i.e. rare bottlings that distillers sent to Fred but probably you or I will never see). This is the part that will likely appeal most to “savvy drinkers,” as Minnick details not only his tasting notes but as much as he—or probably any lay person—knows about the “mashbills” recipes) of popular bourbons, and their distillation and barreling techiniques. Think of this like a deck of bourbon baseball cards.
The last section, framed as an appendix, is a list of popular Brand Histories that might be considered the most controversial, as Minnick reveals in one place how few of these ‘storied’ bourbon brands have actually been produced in a consistent way or by a consistent manufacturer even since Repeal (very, very few). But again, that doesn’t dull Minnick’s appreciation for the uniquely American spirit, and after you read his book, it shoudn’t dull yours either.