In a time when there seem to be more bloggers and self-proclaimed experts than there are computers, it is refreshing to encounter Kate Hopkins who is not only both of the above, but a very capable writer. As the founder of The Accidental Hedonist, a food and drink blog, Kate possesses an approachable and down-to-earth writing style that brings you into her story as if you were a close friend. “99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink” is more than just a mouthful of a title; it’s also an excellent book for the casual whiskey drinker or, if you don’t have a taste for Aqua Vitae, simply the story of a series of roadtrips with an interesting friend.
And therein lies the challenge of “99 Drams”. Hopkins cautions you to treat “this book as entertainment, rather than as a serious academic work.” While it is written with a casual hand, “99 Drams” contains quite a bit of academic level research and history. At times turgid with detail, Hopkins explores the history of whiskey in Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the U.S. with all the enthusiasm of a scholar and the tongue of a scientist, as in this description of the processing of malted barley:
As the peat is burned and the malted barley dries, phenolic compounds, in the form of phenols, cresols, xylenols, ethylphenols, and quaiacols…” (Page 150)
This is not a criticism of Hopkins’ writing. Far from it. Most readers will enjoy the technical and historical aspects of this volume and gain a significant understanding of the history and the production of whiskey. However, Hopkins’ casual and frequent transition from academic-level research to conversational dialogue will challenge some readers.
The dueling mission of the book and of Hopkins’ writing style does not detract from this excellent book. Some of the most interesting passages of this book are the ones that dispel the nasty rumors and inaccuracies that surround the pastime of whiskey drinking. Hopkins is quick to knock down whiskey snobs, those who claim that their way of drinking whiskey is the only ‘proper’ way and to embrace whiskey professionals who encourage casual drinkers to enjoy the drink as they like it. Hopkins takes particular exception to ‘knuckleheads’ who abhor adding water to whiskey, particularly cask strength. (Page 239) With the quality of her research beyond reproach, the casual drinker can take comfort in the accuracy of her claims and the inaccuracy of the whiskey snobs.
If you are new to whiskey, this book can provide an excellent introduction to the history and historical importance of the drink. For the more experienced drinker, Hopkins’ writing will serve to either refresh your memory or increase your understanding of this tradition rich drink, though you may find the historical portions too introductory. Even though, Hopkins has attacked a particularly broad subject with an equally ambitious title. To be able to produce a relevant book that is a pleasant read is a admirable accomplishment.