With bourbon’s popularity soaring, it was inevitable that more and more books on the subject start popping up on shelves. Ahead of a couple new releases due this Fall, I thought I’d take a quick look at one of my favorite bourbon-based books, Bourbon, Straight, by Charles (Chuck) K. Cowdery. Cowdery has long been one of the foremost writers on the subject of American Whiskey. He’s a prolific, reliable, outspoken, independent reporter on a fairly prosperous industry whose marketing dollars can often cloud the truth about their products. He’s also incredibly well-versed in the rich history and production nuance that goes into each bottle of bourbon, rye, blended, wheated, malted, etc. whiskey that’s made here in the U.S. In 2004, He published this concise, words-only, little tome that covers a large expanse of the Bourbon world without resorting to the somewhat predictable flashy coffee-table book format.
Though the subtitle describes the book as “the uncut and unfiltered story of American whiskey”, it is really more of a collection of essays, history lessons, pointed musings, and pointed essays on historical musings. The chapters range from the expected (“What is Whiskey”, “How to Taste Whiskey”, “The New Oak Barrel”) to more in-depth and nuanced chapters on, for example, the importance of bottles in American whiskey history, the naming of whiskey, and the vital role played by Kentucky still-makers, Vendome. Cowdery provides a fascinating, almost biblical, so-and-so begat so-and-so look at the Beam family, and profiles many of the other key players (E.H Taylor, for example) and brands (Four Roses, among others) in American whiskey history as well. The last 50 pages or so of the book consist of product descriptions and light tasting notes on many of the bourbon expressions that were available at the time of the book’s writing, and while some of the info is now understandably out-of-date, much of it isn’t, and the provenance he provides for these brands is definitely still worth reading.
My copy of Bourbon, Straight is dog-eared and worn, I turn to this book quite often for its historical information. Like the title, Cowdery’s style is straightforward and to the point, but not without the informed perspective and dry sense of humor only a true historian can have. Though it was published nearly ten years ago, I still find it an entertaining and important book in my whisky library and one I’d definitely recommend to anyone interested in American whiskey and its history.