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Jim Murray's Classic Bourbon, Tennessee & Rye Whiskey

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Three weeks ago I purchased this small volume of work by Jim Murray. I had only read a few of his magazine articles before, but none of his books. Since I don't care about such things as scotch or canadian blends this book caught my fancy.

Chapter one is "The Spirit of the Frontier". Here Murray misses the mark completely. These are very exciting times. A new Republic born out of the blood of the common man with uncommon courage. A new world with a new nation and a new whiskey. Headstrong men & women armed with freedom, faith and flintlocks. You should be able to feel the Kentucky breeze on your face, taste the sweetwater, smell the smoke from the blackpowder and hear the thunder of the flintlocks. Murray conveys none of this. It is tough to breath life into the past, but these were very exciting times. There is no excuse for dullness here yet Murray is dull as a rubber knife.

There is a section between chapters two and three called "Making Bourbon" and it would seem that this should be chapter two and a half. Murray comes into his own here and acquits himself in good fashion. A lot of very good information on mashbills and the cooking thereof is to be found here. I enjoyed his investigative reporting on this subject.

Chapter three makes up the bulk of the book. Murray goes from distillery to distillery and offers up his tasting notes. This is what you really buy the book for. Having been to Kentucky several times myself and also having visited some of the distilleries it is easy to compare my own experiances to Murray's, and my own tasting notes to his. In this light Murray makes fine reading. For those of you who are familiar with my Blanton's tasting (containing my now famous pants treatise) I stated that "Blanton's PURRRS". On page 68 Murray offers up his take on Blanton's saying "... one to keep the discerning whiskey drinker almost purring with delight." I found this most amusing. I do like his tastings even when I disagree. His distillery descriptions are spot on, and his writing is of a good solid reporters style.

If you've not been to Kentucky nor to any of the distilleries and if you're not very good at whiskey tasting then this is the book for you! This is very good guide to modern American Whiskeys that for the most part is well written. Until someone writes a better book this will just have to do.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

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RyanStotz

Linn:

"Chapter one is "The Spirit of the Frontier". Here Murray misses the mark completely."

Agreed. Murray is a lot of things, but historian ain't one of them. Not only is his historical writing dull (if competent -- quintessentially Brit), it's often inaccurate. I won't hash over the details here as that's been done elsewhere (both here and on alt.drinks.scotch-whisky), but there are some factual errors that even the dullest witted of fact-checking interns ought to have caught. As much as I bash the Regans, at least their historical writings are accurate and detailed, if poorly written. Me, I'll take Waymack & Harris in this department.

"There is a section between chapters two and three called "Making Bourbon" and it would seem that this should be chapter two and a half. Murray comes into his own here and acquits himself in good fashion."

Yep. He generally knows his stuff in this area, however there was a mention of "sugary enzymes" or some such thing that had a couple people scratching their heads as to what he was thinking. Otherwise a solid technical explanation of the distilling process.

"Chapter three makes up the bulk of the book. Murray goes from distillery to distillery and offers up his tasting notes. This is what you really buy the book for."

Murray's tasting notes -- not just on American whiskeys but on Scotch, Irish, Canadian, et. al. -- are as accurate and insightful as tasting notes get. He's very clear, no BS, and seems to know his subject. Precisely the opposite of the Regans, Michael Jackson's Scotch books, and a couple other tasters. Even the writing in his tasting notes, while not displaying quite the, um, enthusiasm some straightbourbarians bring to theirs, is lively and entertaining, and conveys just how much he enjoys his "work."

IMO, Murray's book is the first book on American whiskeys anyone ought to get.

Stotz

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Ryan good to see that you're still manning the outpost on the western theater of Greater Bourbonia! Yeah I've been playing by ear and flying by the seat of my pants for so long I thought I'd break down and buy some books. The best part has been that just by enjoying some thoughtful drinking; reading Chuck Cowdery's "Bourbon Country Reader" for two years, actually going to Kentucky a few times and participating here on the forum has given me a very solid base upon which to build. When I read books on bourbon I can be critical in a much more positive sense. Bourbon drinking is fun. Bourbon reading should be fun also. That's why when the bourbon is good and the muse is with me I like to post rambunctious tastings that are rollicking good fun! If some "oh so serious" stuffed shirt is offended - GOOD! Life's too short for bad bourbon. Bad books are a crime against the soul. I think Waymack & Harris may be next. Stay tuned.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Waymack & Harris is the one you want first. Then Jim Murray's. Mark and Jim (Harris)'s strengths are Murray's weaknesses and vice versa. They approach the subject as though they imagine the reader to be fascinated by who did what, and why did they do that, and how did that change things, and what if? They're not real great on tasting notes (like, I should talk?), but that's where Murray shines. The combination of these two books is dynamite. Unfortunately, Waymack & Harris' book is so out of date that it's almost an historic relic of its own. They REALLY need to publish a new edition. And this time, how about some better production values? Publishers Open Court (Chicago/LaSalle) must not have had much confidence in the book; it appears to have been originally printed only as a paperback and when it went into its second printing they hurriedly brought out a hard-cover edition... which is nothing more than the same paperback (even the same crappy paper) sewn into a hard cover. There's good photography in the book, but you'd never know it from the horrible reproductions on the pages. I spoke to Mark about a new edition some time ago, and he said they'd like to, but the publisher isn't at all interested in another bourbon book and wants them to do another project, I think about tequila.

Both Linn and Ryan seem to wish the historic narratives of Murray's book were more exciting and vivid, and I'd have to add that Mark & Jim are only a relative improvement in that way. But their narrative and descriptive style is at least interesting and (I think) fun to read. If you want to REALLY get the feel of bourbon history (and Kentucky history in general), try and find a copy of an old novel by Irvin S. Cobb, called "Red Likker". It's a saga of the fictitious Bird family, from the early 1790's through today ("today" being 1929 when the novel was published). It tracks the Birds from Isham Bird's life as a pioneer trying to keep his family alive on the Western Border through the social and political world of a distilling empire which survived the War between the States, but not the curse of National Prohibition. It's not an easy book to read, because the style is very simplistic (along the lines of "Black Beauty") and in many ways it seems more like a brief overview for an epic movie than a complete novel. However, buried in there among the stilted conversations and two-dimensional characters, one can learn a great deal about what "family" meant on the frontier, and how that filters through generations of descendants. And along the way comes (at least I, as an outsider, think it does) a very deep understanding of what makes a Kentucky bourbon man tick. Really good book. You can find it in old libraries. I bought my copy from Amazon (they have a service where they locate out-of-print books; mine turned out to be a first edition, although not collectors' quality).

I think that a home library with just these three books would be basically complete. Of course, more (the Regans, for example) couldn't hurt either.

=John=

http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

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cowdery

I agree with the endorsement of Red Likker, and also with the reservations expressed about it. While we're talking out of print, Gerald Carson's The Social History of Bourbon is well researched and a very entertaining read. None of the contemporary work on the subject can touch it.

My problem with Waymack and Harris was that they seemed too solicitous of the distillers, sucking up to them at every opportunity. The Regans suffered from some of that too, while Murray may have gone too far in the other direction.

--Chuck Cowdery

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cowdery

On the subject of bourbon history, I'm pretty partial to my own stuff. I recommend my article All-American Bourbon in particular.

--Chuck Cowdery

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

I'm kinda partial to your stuff, too, as you well know. All-American Bourbon is a really good example. For those unfamiliar with Charles K. Cowdery's work he is a contributing writer to several publications, and he himself has been publishing, since 1993, a self-written quarterly newsletter, the Bourbon Country Reader, a wealth of current information.

Unfortunately, Dr. C, I can't recommend your book, because you haven't published one yet. Are you giving any serious thoughts to that prospect? Because I have no doubt it would start off at the top of my "recommended" list even if I'd never had the chance to converse with you, same as the articles did.

=John=

http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

By the way, you had commented that Waymack & Harris "sucked up" to the distillers, which you seem to feel diluted the accuracy of their descriptions. I did want to point out that my comments about BCR and your writing in general could be interpreted as "sucking up", but it certainly isn't. For one thing, what would I want from you, a free subscription? No, the fact is that I have a high degree of respect for you; if I thought you were a hack writer I simply wouldn't say anything at all. I think Mark and Jim feel that way about the distillers. They certainly aren't looking for free booze (well, maybe, but that's likely not the point). And with only a handful of distillers in existence, there really aren't any "hack distillers" -- at least not in their book.

=John=

http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

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cowdery

Your point about Waymack and Harris is well taken. It was just an impression that I had at the time. I can't cite any specific examples.

As for my own book, maybe one of these days. Part of the idea behind The Reader was to write it over time in bite size chunks that could be assembled into a book at some future date. I'm not sure exactly what my angle would be. I'm not the serious, professional historian that Mike Veach is and I'm not the serious, professional taster that Jim Murray is. Also, in a way my video, Made and Bottled in Kentucky, is my "book."

But since you have given me this open opportunity to plug, I do have a book in print. It's not about bourbon, but another "b," blues. It is called Blues Legends. (Click on the link for more information or to order. Makes a great gift!)

Thanks for your kind words, John. It's the feedback from people like you that keeps me going. It certainly isn't the money.

--Chuck Cowdery

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

What's wrong with the Regans?

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Chuck,

I just hope my book is as good as your video.

Mike Veach

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

John,

Your point is a very good one. All of the writers worked very hard to write an unbiased book. The problem may be that when you consider how great the people are who make the bourbon and how hard they work to maintain what they consider a fine product, then it becomes hard to say anything bad about the product. Another point is who is to say what a "bad" bourbon is? All of these companies are making money with their products which means somebody out there likes and buys their products. One man's meat is another man's poison. Linn is the perfect example of this with his extreme dislike of wheated bourbons whereas I love a good wheated bourbon. This is why I am sticking to the history of the companies and do not plan to publish any type of tasting notes.

Now let's talk about some real bad books. There is a book titled "Belles, Bluegrass and Bourbon" by Kroll which has lots of nice pictures but is horrible history. I have also seen several people refer to Carson's "Social History of Bourbon". This is an interesting read but filled with bad history due to poor research. The biggest problem with these books are their lack of research. The information was out there but the writers did not try to find it.

Mike Veach

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Mike said, "Another point is who is to say what a "bad" bourbon is? All of these companies are making money with their products which means somebody out there likes and buys their products. "

Hello? HEL-LOWWWW? It sure is good to read that. I've taken a lot of (good natured) flack for that very attitude from youse guys. Tickets to my vindication party will go on sale shortly. No bad bourbon will be served :-))

Seriously, though... How can anyone say "[such-and-such] is as a bad bourbon" today? There are only eight bourbon distillers left (nine if you count L&G as separate from Brown-Forman, seven if you consider that Four Roses is a goner). And they're all successfully making more money than you or I ever will.

"One man's meat is another man's poison. Linn is the perfect example..."

Another example is Jim Murray. Jim is widely respected for the accuracy of his tastings, but he'd be the first to tell you (which he does, often) that your experience may vary widely. Jim absolutely hates Barton's Colonel Lee. He calls it the worst bourbon whiskey made. It's the only bourbon in his book for which he has nothing but distain. It's not snobbism; Jim calls Rittenhouse Rye "supurb" and "a classic". I think Rittenhouse Rye is the least interesting rye whiskey I've ever tasted (and I'm using that word loosely). On the other hand, I think Colonel Lee is the best "cheap" 100-proof bourbon out there, and the second best bourbon Barton makes (after Kentucky Gentleman). I can already hear the moans of dissent, but the point is that none of these are bad bourbons. In fact, we all pretty much agree on stuff like Rare Breed and Knob Creek, so the only really interesting things to discuss on a forum like this ought to be cheaper brands that folks either love or hate :-))

=John=

http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

As Jerry Dalton said at the Heritage Panel " There isn't any bad bourbon anymore." Which is to say that any bourbon legally distilled and sold is no longer any medical threat in the lethal sense. However there are bourbons that do taste BAD! Bad bourbon is any bourbon that tastes bad to you. To me some very bad bourbons are: Maker's Mark, Rebel Yell, Fighting Cock, Mc Cormicks, Old Crow, Weller, Benchmark, I.W.Harper, Henry McKenna, Even Williams, Beams Choice, Jack Daniels. These are all whiskeys that I do not like at all. I do not buy them. They are "Bad Bourbon" to me. There are others that I do not care for but I don't consider them to really bad just poor.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Please allow me to offer my enthusiastic endorsement of Chuck Cowdery's "Blues Legends". Great photos and layout whith Chucks characteristic prescise & compact prose. In his bourbonic writings Chuck is detached, dispassionate and objective. Blues is another matter altogether, here the love shines through. His use of quotations is masterful. "Oh. I had religion, Lord, to this very day, but the women and whiskey, well, they would not let me pray." - Son House

Amen!

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

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bourbonmed

John,

Four Roses is a goner? I wasn't aware the company was doomed or in any trouble. In the past I have chatted with Jim Rutledge and consider him a class act, always helpful and informative. I've tasted his amazing single barrel (export), Jim Murray feels the same way (gave it a 9 on his taste notes).

What's the story?

Omar

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cowdery

I agree with you on Kroll. Oscar Getz's book is pretty bad too. But give me some examples of Carson's failings? For a "popular" history, he provides an unusual depth of footnotes and sources. Even Downard, who is probably the most serious historian to tackle the subject, fell prey to some of the marketing hype passed off through the years as history. Everyone's primary source seems to be trade journal articles, which are notoriously unreliable due to their dependence on materials supplied by the subject companies.

Then there is Sam Cecil's book, which contains some great information but is so disorganized and undocumented that it is very difficult to use.

--Chuck Cowdery

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cowdery

Thanks Mike and Linn. I blush. Thanks Linn for reminding me of that great Son House lyric. I want that on my tombstone.

--Chuck Cowdery

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Omar asked, "Four Roses is a goner? I wasn't aware the company was doomed or in any trouble"

Nothing's wrong with the whiskey. Far from it. And the only thing "wrong" with the company is that it's become quite successful in another field (entertainment) and has attracted buyout attention. But the distillery is likely headed the same direction as Stitzel-Weller or Old Crow, or even Seagram's Louisville plant where Four Roses used to be made. Seagram's immenent purchase (it may already have BEEN purchased; I'm notoriously behind in these things) is pretty much only for its entertainment industry business. None of the potential buyers intend to keep its beverage alcohol holdings, so they will in turn go up for sale. Seagram's is mainly known for Canadian whiskey; Bourbon is a very very small part of their repertoire. I'd like to think someone would be interested in it, but didn't see a whole lot of them lining up to buy any of the other dozens of distilleries that aren't anymore.

Then again, it's a really beautiful building; and for probably less than what you've already committed yourself to for your Japanese shopping trip..........

=John=

http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Chuck,

I don't own a copy of Carson and it has been a while since I read it. The U.D. archive had a copy and I remember reading it and finding many mistakes and I did not have much confidence in his footnotes. Those I checked into were not the best. Even so I should probably get a copy of the book because it does have some merit.

My biggest complaint about Sam's book is that he relies heavily upon a collection in the University of Louisville Archives that is not, how should a put this, reliable. The collection is from a man who was writing a book very similar to Sam's book but he died before he got very far into his research. He did not double check all of his sources and there are some mistakes in the collection. Sam should have been taking these facts with a bigger grain of salt if you know what I mean. Other than that Sam's book is very interesting even if it is not laid out well and needs an index.

Mike Veach

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jbare

I thought I oughta jump in here with my 2 cents re Carson's book. I am not a historian or an industry guy so I can't speak to the accurary of the history or lack thereof. However, as literature, Carson's Social History of Bourbon is my favorite bourbon book. His style is laid back and familiar. No quasi scholastic posturing. Reading it is like sitting on a porch shooting the bull with an unusually informed favorite uncle. I bought my copy by the wasy from http://www.alibris.com, a clearinghouse for antique and rare booksellers.

I suppose to get the scoop on the ins and outs of the bourbon industry, Sam Cecil's book is the authority supplemented by this board of course.

Another favorite is Mountain Spirits by a guy named Dabney. It's a fun little romp about the illicit moonshine trade in the deep southeast. A big plus is the extensive interviews with the distillers and bootleggers.

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cowdery

Sam Cecil's source was Whit Coyte, who started collecting information about distilleries after he retired from AT&T. He had no background in the distilling business. Coyte's collection was donated to the University of Louisville, but I think Sam may have his own copy. When I visited him at his home in 1991-92 he had an entire bedroom dedicated to his whiskey materials.

Sam credits Coyte in his introduction, but another person familiar with Coyte's materials told me that Sam added little to Coyte's work, that Sam's book is essentially Coyte's notes, verbatim. Unfortunately, it seems that both men took everything that came into their hands at face value and were less than rigorous about verification. Sam has the advantage of personal knowledge for much of it, but that probably is the only check on Coyte's less than reliable information. Cecil/Coyte reports, for example, that John Fitzgerald built the Old Judge/Old Fitzgerald Distillery while the (I think) more reliable Claude Bixler letter tells a very different story.

--Chuck Cowdery

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RyanStotz

"What's wrong with the Regans?"

Best not to get me started on this topic, but I'll try to be brief.

First, they haven't a clue as to what they're tasting, claiming to detect common tastes (say, mint or tobacco or "flowery" or "herbal") where they just plain don't exist. If this were limited to a few cases I could just chalk it up to palate differences, but they're consistently bizarre. Take this, for example:

"On the other hand, Blanton’s, a single-barrel Bourbon made with rye, shows the softer side of this style: Although there’s a touch of tongue-tingling spice present on the palate, there’s far more honey and vanilla there, and it could easily be mistaken for a wheated Bourbon."

Blanton's mistaken for a wheated bourbon? Not bloody likely. The "honey" descriptor is left as an exercise for the student.

Second, their grasp of the technical side of the industry is, to be kind, lacking. I don't have either book in front of me right now, but I remember thinking upon first reading their _Book Of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys_ that it was rife with factual errors that would be fixed in the next edition. Instead, when their _Bourbon Companion_ or whatever the hell it's called, came out, it was even worse.

Finally -- and purely in the interest of time, as I could come up with many more reasons -- they fall into the same trap so many other food/drink writers (beerdom's Stephen Beaumont is the worst offender) do by writing with this air of pseudo-sophistication and elitism that is incredibly off-putting to a number of people. They take something as convivial and proletarian as bourbon and try and turn it into a seven course dinner at Ducasse, and it ain't. Not that bourbon or any number of other beverages can't achieve this level of greatness, but when you take the drink out of its proper context, it loses some of what makes it special.

The following article on rye, from the September issue of Wine Enthusiast, illustrates my above points all too well.http://www.winemag.com/issues/sept00/sep_proof.cfm. I'm sure they're very nice people who genuinely enjoy imbibing bourbon and other spirits, but there's no shortage of people like that in the world and none of them feel compelled to write about a subject about which they know precisely squat.

Stotz

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Ken Weber

I have enjoyed the running discourse, along with the side trips, associated with this topic. It is interesting to note that some of the bourbons you mention hating have received scores in the high nineties from various publications. Some of them have even won bourbon of the year awards, while others have won international best of show awards. The truth simply boils down to what the individual thinks. Just because marketers say something doesn't make it so; you guys maintain your own integrity and I find that refreshing. Keep up the faith! Now about your misguided thoughts pertaining to Weller and Benchmark......

Ken

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Guest **DONOTDELETE**

Ken I could care less about ratings, awards, or medals. I tried Benchmark some years ago. It was cheap; on the bottom shelf in the corner (where it remains to this very day) so I didn't expect it to be great, but I wasn't ready for it to be *so* bad! As for Weller it's not the whiskey's fault, it's me, I just don't like wheaters with one curoius exception - Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old. For some strange reason I do like that one and keep a bottle in my cabinet.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

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