When I walk into Paddy's Bar and Grill to put Kate Hopkins' boozy travelogue, 99 Drams of Whiskey, to the test, I'm a bit hungover from my own recent whiskey adventure. The previous night, while enjoying a beach bonfire, some friends and I had managed to put down a bottle of Bushmills; the whiskey blended perfectly with the salt air and the campfire smoke.
Which proves one of 99 Drams' main points: "Whiskey works best when one doesn't take it too seriously." This is not to say that Hopkins hasn't done her research. In fact, as she tours Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the eastern United States to find a perfect shot, she presents more than enough knowledge to keep the book from slipping into self-indulgence.
Still, Hopkins is an entertaining storyteller, which works in a book dedicated to a storied beverage. Moors, alchemists, gangsters, and politicians all show up in whiskey's history, and Hopkins' language lends fullness to the characters responsible for its mystique. At the same time, interactions with those responsible for modern (and future) whiskey suggest more legends to come.
99 Drams will most benefit the novice whiskey drinker, peppered as it is with information about distilling, drinking, and tasting whiskey. The book even provides a novice surrogate in Hopkins' friend Krysta, a whiskey beginner who's come along for the ride. "Luckily for you, you are not a professional whiskey taster," Hopkins reassures Krysta (and the reader). "There are no wrong ways to drink whiskey. Just wrong ways to taste it."
To that end, Hopkins adds in-depth tasting notes of some whiskeys she's experienced on her journey. These notes include origin, distiller, history, as well as discussion of each whiskey's nose, taste, finish, and character.
I'm primarily concerned with those notes as I prop myself up on a barstool at Paddy's. Despite the hangover, I'm determined to test my palate against Hopkins'—once a food columnist at our Seattle sister paper The Stranger, and author of the popular blog the Accidental Hedonist (accidentalhedonist.com).
I first try Bushmills 21-year-old single malt, one of Hopkins' favorites. I admit, I have a hard time recognizing the grapes that Hopkins notes in the nose, but her description of the taste is right on. It's interesting to read "caramel, chocolate, and raisins all play with each other nicely and the balance here is sublime," while tasting exactly that. I even agree with Hopkins' description of the whiskey's character: "This whiskey is Christmas and your birthday on the same day and everyone giving you two gifts in order to celebrate."
As I taste my way through a few more selections—Laphroaig 10-year-old, Oban 14-year-old, Canadian Club six-year-old—it's the character descriptions I find most helpful. Maker's Mark, for instance, is described as a blue-collar genius that can discuss high philosophy but prefers to work on his car; Jameson is described as "table wine for the whiskey set."
I sip, read, and agree. But in the end the most apropos tasting note is the admittedly sappy "Whiskey with a Friend," which Hopkins presents at the end of the book. Taste: "Any way you like it." Finish: "Lasts forever."
I think back to the previous evening's campfire Bushmills. I can't help but agree with Hopkins again.