History With - or Of - A Kick
Whiskey from beginning to bottoms up
by Molly Templeton
99 DRAMS OF WHISKEY: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, nonfiction by Kate Hopkins. St. Martin’s Press, 2009. $24.95.
I woke up dreaming of whiskey. I think Kate Hopkins, whose 99 Drams of Whiskey is the work of an utter enthusiast, would be pleased by this. Whiskey was clearly on my mind when I called it a night 40 pages from the end of her book — and still in my head the next morning despite the fact that, sadly, no whiskey was imbibed during the reading of this book.
Hopkins, the Seattlite behind the blog The Accidental Hedonist, turned her love for whiskey into an ambitious book that’s part buddy travelogue and part history of Irish, Scottish, American and Canadian whisk(e)y (Hopkins acknowledges the whiskey/whisky issue but sticks with whiskey, and I’ve followed her lead here). She’s not writing to prove a point about which whiskeys are best, or to display her own knowledge on the subject; she’s out there as an intrigued fan of whiskey in all its forms, from peaty Scottish single malts to lightweight blends. Her disinterest in whiskey snobbery is fairly refreshing; she has no tolerance for those who turn up their noses at blends or at the notion of adding water to a glass of whiskey. Hopkins is more interested in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each whiskey she meets — and taking a good look at each nation’s whiskey history.
There’s a lot to take in on the historical side, from England’s initial efforts to raise money through liquor taxation to the effects of Prohibition on the American and Canadian booze industries. The British history is dense and sometimes dizzying, but Hopkins tries not to stay too long in the (heavily researched) past; she leaps back and forth between her own travels and the complex history of underground distilleries, taxes and types of stills.
Hopkins is at her best on this side of the Atlantic, discussing the Whiskey Rebellion (something I previously thought was just the name of a delicious Bel Ami cocktail) in Pennsylvania and considering the similarities (and differences) among distilleries in different countries, be they impressively industrial or charmingly quaint. She has a sharp ear for a spiel but also a certain sympathy for distillery spokespeople, who most often seem to push their product with a blend of genuine pride and practiced sales pitch.
99 Drams has a lot to offer, including quirky characterizations of the many whiskeys Hopkins samples along the way (“The Famous Grouse is the high-school cheerleader everyone was friends with but no one can remember what happened to after graduation”). But the book suffers from a too-light hand with the editing — not only in technical terms (misspellings and grammatical errors distractingly dot more than a few pages) but in terms of the travelogue portions, which sometimes lean too heavily on transcriptions of irrelevant conversations. When she’s at her best, Hopkins is a down-to-earth writer with a personal and welcoming take on a dauntingly storied spirit. I can raise a glass to that.