While the clear intentions of vodka and gin were an easy sell for my cocktail glass, I admit it took me a little longer to dabble in the dark liquors. Mostly because I was confused. Was rye like bourbon? But what the hell was scotch? And apparently they’re all whiskey? If only I’d had this book.
It’s Friday afternoon, you’ve made it through the long week, and it’s time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo’s weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and cask strength.
It sounded gimmicky—a scratch-and-sniff board book that could school me on fancy liquors?—but once I got it in my hands (nostrils?), I realized that there might not be any better way to learn the ways of whiskey. According to author Richard Betts our olfactory senses are far more developed than our tongues. “We actually only taste sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami,” he told me. “Everything else we think we’re ‘tasting’ we’re actually smelling.” Who knew that one of the best ways to find your way around a cocktail menu is through your nose?
The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All: Know Your Booze Before You Choose is a joint project between Betts, art director Crystal English Sacca, and artist Wendy MacNaughton (who wrote and illustrated her own lovely book on San Francisco urbanism; check her out on PBS NewsHour explaining her process). The trio had already worked together on a similar scratch-and-sniff book explaining wine, but whiskey was a bit different. Namely, it was higher proof: The team had to taste over 300 whiskeys featured in the “whiskey wheel” included with the book. FOR RESEARCH.
But as with the wine book, the biggest challenge was making the book’s content instructive yet accessible. “There’s already enough pretense around whiskey, wine, cocktails and so many other things that just ought to be fun,” says Betts. “It’s my most lofty ambition to make people smile and what better way to do it than make them feel like the party is theirs to be had.”
A lot of the fun factor comes from MacNaughton’s delightful illustrations. She was tasked with all sorts of visual gymnastics when it came to the whiskey-making process (How to show the way different countries reuse barrels from other countries? Cover them in luggage tags!), but her loose line drawings with watercolor accents strike the perfect note. “I think the most challenging and the most fun drawing for me in the book is the infinite wall of whiskey,” she told me. “Whiskey bottles are so beautiful and it was fun to play with all the different forms and colors.”
While I used my fingernail to release cinnamon and vanilla vapors that would teach me about the barrel aging process, I wondered: Does this really explain a process that’s sprawled across centuries without oversimplifying it too much? Betts assured me I was getting the full story. “Our methodology of breaking a topic down into its component pieces applies really well to whiskey,” says Betts. “This isn’t true for all topics, of course, but with whiskey you can say that the three essential pieces are Grain, Wood and Place, and with this in mind it is easy to explain and then easy for the reader to use to find the drink they’ll love.”
I found what Betts was saying to be particularly true when investigating one of my long-standing queries about whiskey: Why did my scotch smell and taste like Band-Aids? Taking my nose on a spin through the Place section, I learned how high humidity makes American whiskeys more sweet, and discovered that I might like Irish whiskeys more than the too-sweet Kentucky bourbons. But I also learned how the interaction between Scotland’s saline breezes and smoky peat releases that plastic-iodine flavor I know so well. When I sniffed that page, suddenly, it all made sense. I used the whiskey wheel in the back to locate a few other scotches that steered slightly away from the medicine cabinet.
The book is worth it just for that wheel alone—a way to explore hundreds of new whiskeys you might never have discovered. You might use this book as that kind of secret weapon—one you might not want to reveal when you ask for a more obscure bottle and casually toss off phrases like “sherry finish” to the mixologist. Or you might want to brag, as I do now, that everything you know about whiskey came from enthusiastically coaxing ocean scents out of a colorful Scottish tartan in what feels like the best-ever children’s book for grown-ups.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA