I read a lot of whisk(e)y books each year. From historical guides to technical production to guides on every whiskey style imaginable, there’s plenty of reading material for the budding enthusiast these days. Within the context of whisky-related literature, an easy-to-digest numbered list-style book Like 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die seemed trivial to me at first. I thought to myself, “I’m not sure what I’ll get out of this book. I’ve probably tried most of these already.” Once I read through the introduction of the book, however, I realized that author and long-time whisky veteran Ian Buxton took an approach to recommending whiskies that parallels my own philosophy.
The 101 Whiskies list isn’t the “best” whiskies Buxton has ever tried nor is it a list of his 101 favorite expressions. The bottles in this list are whiskies that he recommends the reader tries because they are well made, relatively available to a global audience, and are bottles that represent good value. This list excludes limited editions, expressions designed for collectors, and single casks and is extremely mindful of pricing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I were to create a list of my own, it would use very similar criteria.
I was fortunate to speak with Ian on a video chat in late 2022. I picked his brain about the new edition of the book and the state of whisky in general these days. As is often the case with me, what should have been a short interview turned into a wonderful, hour-long conversation about whisky. In the interest of brevity, I’ll spare the transcript of the full interview and summarize the conversation instead.
Ian’s 35+ year career has always been in the drinks industry (with a brief stint in beer early on) and quickly became focused on whisky after his family moved back to Scotland from London in the 1980s. Soon after, he became the Marketing Manager at Glenmorangie and later started his own consulting company. In addition to 101 Whiskies, he is also the author of several whisky-related books and regularly contributes to the whisky industry in a variety of capacities.
As Ian recalls, the original hope for the book was that it would be a popular gift idea for the next Christmas season (maybe two Christmases if he was lucky). That was five editions and twelve Christmases ago. The list has evolved over time with new, worthy entries making the cut alongside staples that have been a part of the list since the very first edition.
The list skews heavily toward whisky made in Scotland but is still diverse enough to include whiskies from a variety of locations. Some of the countries are to be expected (Ireland, US, Japan) while others are more surprising (Israel, Finland). The whiskies on the list are also quite diverse when it comes to both age (up to 25 years old) and style with a surprising number of blended Scotch whiskies featured.
As an enthusiast, I found myself taking another look at expressions—and in some cases, entire brands—that I hadn’t given much consideration to in a long time. This was especially true in the case of blended Scotch whisky brands that have seemingly put some effort into expanding their product lines since they were last on my radar.
101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is a quick, fun read no matter your level of experience with whisky. You can easily work your way through the list in order or jump around at your leisure and it’s obvious from Ian’s notes that he has tasted enough whisky during his career to recognize when an expression belongs on the list. Many of the new entries in the 5th edition are also relatively new products, demonstrating a need to constantly re-evaluated the list. Who knows what new whiskies will be a part of the sixth edition in a few year but I saw one whisky on the list that has already been discontinued. This book is a fun gift idea as well is a nice table book for your home bar/whisky room and worth checking out.
For the record, I only tried 53 of the 101 whiskies in this list. Looks like I’ve got some work to do!