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Book Review: Alt Whiskeys

Posted on by Eric Burke

It's been a fun summer for me so far. I've made it my personal goal to try 100 new beers this summer. I think I'm going to make it, between mixed-sixes and brewery sampler flights, I've already tasted 50. (Follow me on Untappd if you are interested in my progress.)

So what does this have to do with a bourbon blog? Well, this increased interest in beer got me to thinking about a book I bought a year or so ago. It's called Alt Whiskeys and is written by Darek Bell, owner of Corsair Artisan distillery in Bowling Green, KY. At the time, I'd never had anything produced by Corsair. But after reading the book, I wanted to. (I got my chance at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival last September.) I was also interested to learn that the author came to the idea of distilling with a background in home brewing beer. 

For some reason the idea of making whiskey and the idea of making beer hadn't clicked as things that the same person would be interested in. I knew that the processes were similar up to a point and that both were creative processes that hopefully ended up with something fun and tasty at the end of it. I will admit now, a year later, that I was pretty self-centered in that outlook. I have an intense fascination with the distilling process, but I have no desire to ever make my own home-brewed beer. And I'd projected that upon others. 

So after all this thinking about beer, I picked up the book and started to reread it. The first thing I have to say is: I loved this book. It's a technical book, but is written in a conversational style. And I'll admit, having never home-brewed, I didn't understand some of it at first. With a little research though, I was able to muddle my way through until I got up to speed. 

The book covers topics such as what brewing and distilling equipment you'll need and how to build your own (and warnings about doing it without the proper licenses), alternative grains you might use (millet, oats, sorghum, etc), inspirations from outside the world of whiskey (beer inspired, hopped and smoked whiskeys) and alternatives to malt, yeast and hops that you might use. It also includes recipes including both ingredients and instructions for brewing, distilling, barreling and bottling. 

All in all, the content in this book will be really interesting to anyone who has an interest in how whiskey is made and what else you might do beyond a traditional version. 

And if all you are interested in is the content, you can stop here. The photos are beautiful, the type choices are interesting, in a good way, and the information provided is top-notch. But I am a designer. And for me how information is presented is almost as big of a deal as the information itself. I've mentored young, inexperienced designers for almost ten years (and was a young, inexperienced designer for years before that). I have some serious issues with the design of this book. I'll just go over a couple of them. 

First, it has practically no margins. The margins of this book are a quarter inch (6.3 mm). That is barely in the safe zone that most printers ask for. They ask for this so they don't accidentally cut off your content (page 14 in my copy is a good example, margin size has slid down to an eighth of an inch while being trimmed). From a reader's standpoint, a lack of adequate margins does two things. First the book feels overfull. This can be used to good effect, but isn't in this case. Second and more important to a book of this physical size, the reader has no room to put their thumbs. This is not a one-handed book that you can hold in the middle. Even with my big hands, it needs to be held at the edge and if you have no place to put your thumbs, you cover the content. This is one of the first things I point out to young designers. Think about how the piece will be used and remove all the things that get in the way of legibility. Like thumbs.

Secondly, the body copy type size is widely inconsistent from page to page, and sometimes from the top to the bottom of a single page. It looks like it ranges from 14 point to 10 point and then to 9 point. 14 point is huge, it's the size I use for pull quotes or sub heads. 10 point is what you'd choose if you have a audience over 40 years old as they will statistically have poorer eyesight. So what if the type is huge and inconsistent? Well, if it had been brought down some, there might have been room for bigger margins for a more functional book and more elegant feel or possibly a smaller page count for a cheaper production.

I like this book a lot. Fix just these two functional design issues and this becomes a book worthy of the coffee table. As it stands this is a book I'm glad to have read. Twice. It's a book I keep on my shelf with my other whisky books. And it is a book I will read again if I ever am in a position to use the information contained within. It's also a book I would love a chance to re-layout. So uh, Mr. Bell, if you're ever going to reprint it look me up, ok?