Those who know me well, or who have at least read a few posts on this blog, know I love travel, a good dram of whisky, and a great read. So when I first read about Kate Hopkins’ 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, a book ostensibly at the intersection of these three passions, I vowed to get my hands on it. My patience was at last rewarded over Christmas, when a copy with my name on it appeared under the tree. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
You glean as much about a book from its jacket as you do about a whisky from its distillery tasting notes. Expectations are set, but in both instances, you really have to dive in yourself to get a true sense of their characters.
First published by St. Martin’s Griffin in 2009, 99 Drams invites us to join Hopkins — an ex-comedian and current whisky lover — and her friend Krysta on a Grand Tour of the distilleries of Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the United States, with side trips through the history of distillation and whisky along the way. Promising, yes?
There’s a pleasant warmth initially. Hopkins is disarmingly self-deprecating, and her enthusiasm for and curiosity about whisky are genuine and relatable. This no-BS approachability carries over to the tasting notes that pepper the prose. References to honey, smoke, and fruit, caramel, vanilla, and grain abound. No “sticking plaster” here, these are scents and flavours that are easy for even a whisky neophyte to identify and enjoy. The mouth waters vicariously, and whisky is rendered appealing and accessible.
But the initial warmth gives way to something vaguely off-putting. Hopkins’ tone can be condescending, especially during the late stages of her journey. It’s almost as though she loses sight of her audience — whisky newcomers — as her narrative stand-in gains experience. Her knack for storytelling and command of her subject are constant, but this is Hopkins’ first book. There’s a roughness to the prose (and copy editing) in places, which makes me wonder whether there was a rush to market at the publisher’s end. Barrel aging improves a whisky; so, too, editing, a book.
Quick. The whisky travel and whisky history elements aren’t as well balanced as I’d have liked, but despite its flaws, this is an entertaining read.