Review: The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits
Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, Translated by Paul Lehmann, The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits: Small-Scale Production of Brandies, Schnapps & Liquors, (Austin: Spikehorn Press, 2015), 200 pages, $29.95.
The authors of The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits, Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, both have doctorates in technical sciences and chemical engineering. In 1998, they designed their first still and began teaching workshops on distilling in Austria. In 2003, they published a book, based on their experiments in distilling a variety of fruit brandies and infusing liquors, called Schnaps brennen als Hobby. Since then, they have also written two books about making essential oils and vinegar.
The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits is an introductory work on distilling, primarily written for non-professional distillers. In the German-speaking countries of Europe, home distilling is permissible with certain licenses and under certain circumstances. Because of this, Malle and Schmickl’s description of distilling, its history and practice are very basic and not well-suited to professionals or even would-be professionals.
The book does not engage deeply with traditional distillation practices, and in some cases the authors make unorthodox claims regarding production techniques that, despite their technical backgrounds, they do not go on to substantiate with science. For this reason the book largely comes across as a reaction to bad home-distilling practices. If Malle and Schmickl had used their expertise to explain why certain traditional techniques work, or made a better case for why their methods produced superior spirits, perhaps all distillers could have benefited.
Ultimately, The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits does not fully acknowledge that the best distilled spirits are the result of both artistry and chemistry. The goal of the book is to help its readers make better spirits and to understand some of the chemical processes involved, but at 200 pages, the book is too short to be a thorough technical description of how to craft excellent spirits. Because Malle and Schmickl ignore many of the tried-and-true techniques of traditional distillation and seem to believe that making excellent spirits is instead a matter of following a recipe, Crafting Distilled Spirits is not recommended reading for the professional.