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March 4 2014

The Science and Commerce of Whisky : Book Review

I recently received “The Science and Commerce of Whisky“, the new book from Ian Buxton and
Paul S Hughes, to review.

The Science and Commerce of Whisky

The Science and Commerce of Whisky

Now, I got an A in Chemistry ‘A’ level many, many years ago, so I know my inorganic chemistry from my organic chemistry (there’s carbon in one of them!), but it was a long time ago, and would it stretch to the science of whisky making? Hmm…more on that later.

As the books title states, this book is about the science of whisky so a large section of the book is concerned with the chemistry of whisky distilling down to the molecular level, but it also covers the commerce side, discussing branding and marketing of the finished product.
It doesn’t stop there though, there are other topics covered such as the history of whisky, in particular Scottish whisky.

The book is divided into 8 chapters, each covering a specific area of either historical, scientific or commercial relevance to whisky distilling and is extensively researched with references to books (scientific, culinary, poetic and more) as far back as the 1600s and even earlier.

Chapter 1 is Whisky’s Historical Development which gives a good overview of the history of whisky from alchemy (I told you they went far back in history!) up to modern day, with Chapter 2 giving itself over entirely to the history of whisky in Scotland, going fairly in-depth into the companies, distilleries and industry as a whole there.

Things change pace with Chapters 3 and 4, as this is where the science kicks in…

The book is written with whisky industry practitioners and chemistry undergraduates in mind but is also accessible to whisky enthusiasts and laymen like myself.
However some of the chemistry here was way over my head and I spent a lot of these chapters, thinking…”Ok, I’ll take your word for it.“…or…”What do those words even mean?!“.

Maltase liberates β-D-glucose, either from α-1,4-linked chains or terminal glucose residues linked by α-1,6 linkages.

Does it? Oh, right. Cool.

If you’re an undergraduate or actively involved in the distilling process, this I’m sure is
a) understandable and b) very useful to know.
For the rest of us, just go with it, it’ll be worth it in the end.
So Chapter 3 is about the production of New Make Spirit, and Chapter 4 moves on to the casks and the maturation of whisky, which I found particularly interesting as they go into some detail about how casks are made, the maturation and natural colour process and also how the American standard barrels are adapted to hogsheads (larger casks) for the long maturation process.
The barrelling part of whisky production (and wine for that matter) has always fascinated me.

Chapter 5 discusses blending and bottling with Chapter 6 going into detail on branding and marketing of the finished product.

Throughout the book there are tons of fascinating little facts and tit-bits of information, for example, about 70 odd % of the price of a bottle of Scotch Whisky in the UK is actually tax! Which explains why it’s so much cheaper to buy foreign whisky here in Japan where the tax on alcohol is much lower!

The final two chapters discuss “New Whisky Countries” and “Today’s Global Market” which, as can be expected from these authors, contains very detailed tables and statistics on sales and market share for the different kinds of whiskies (blends, American, etc).
There is also some discussion about the new kids on the block – the artisan and craft distillers and their place in the “modern” history of whisky.

All in all, this book is a fascinating and easily accessible study of what goes on “behind the scenes” at distilleries around the world, from creating the whisky through to maturing it, bottling it and perhaps more important than ever these days, the marketing of the product and brand.

One welcome addition however, would have been a glossary for some of the less well-known scientific terms for the non-chemistry-undergraduate whisky enthusiast like myself, but I guess once you start down that road where do you stop – the glossary could end up being pages and pages long.
People who need to know the technical jargon, will probably know already or can look it up, while the rest of us can just be grateful there are people who know this scientific stuff and can capture it in a bottle for us!

The book is published by The Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK and is available from their website http://www.rsc.org/shop/ priced at £27.99.

Disclaimer : I was sent this book free of charge to review but I have received no payment for the review nor am I an affiliate, so won’t receive any percentage of sales for any purchases made after clicking the above link.

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