Clay Risen is an editor at the New York Times and a very talented drinks writer. I have known Clay for some time. We have served on a few panels together at whiskey events and have had several email correspondence over the years. I consider him a very talented writer and a knowledgeable whiskey authority.
This book came out at about the same time as my book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Whereas my book focused on history, this book is primarily a tasting book with 200 different whiskeys being reviewed and rated. I don’t particularly like ratings myself, but I will say I like the way Risen handled it. He uses a star system with 4 stars being Phenomenal, 3 stars being excellent, 2 stars being good, 1 star being decent but with some flaws and NR being not recommended. This system simply gives the reader a reflection of his opinion, which can be helpful if the reader finds that their taste is similar to Risen’s taste. He also rates the price and in my opinion that is the one flaw to the book because it was outdated within a year of it being published. His system is $ – $20 or less, $$ – $21-40, $$$ – $41-60, $$$$ – $61 or more. When you look at some of the brands, you can see what I mean. For example, Weller Special Reserve is rated $. I guess this does have a historical value in knowing what prices were in effect in 2013 when the book came out. It is an excellent book and should be part of any good whiskey library.
American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye. Clay Risen, New York, NY: Sterling Epicure, 2013, Contents Introduction, Bibliography, Index, Illustrations, 297pp.
American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye is primarily a tasting book. There is a brief history of American distilling that is well written even if brief. There are a few points that Risen makes that had me wishing I had thought to say that in my book. In particular, this includes his pointing out that during the whiskey shortage of World War II there were people hoarding whiskey and purchasing bottles as an investment as they knew the price would be going up. The parallels to the whiskey shortage of the 21st century are interesting. Risen also borrows a page from Bernie Lubber’s book Bourbon Whiskey: Our Native Spirit, and has a section on how to read a whiskey label. There is a section on how to taste whiskey where he discusses the types of flavors found in whiskey and methods for tasting. This is all discussed in the first 78 pages. The next 200 or so pages are tasting notes, ratings and illustrations of the bottles. His tasting notes are brief but informative.
The book is well designed. The illustrations of the bottles are done as color photographs. The whiskeys are arranged in alphabetical order by brand. There is an index that will also aid in finding a particular whiskey. There are 200 different whiskeys from a plethora of distilleries. There are Bourbons and Rye Whiskey, but there are also some corn whiskeys, wheat whiskeys and whiskeys made from other grains. The whiskeys of all of the major distilleries are reviewed, but there are many of the newer generation of distilleries included as well, such as, Leopold Bros., Finger Lakes and Koval. Each brand has a brief write up discussing the whiskey and the distiller who made it.
This book is a must-have for any whiskey library. The book is well written and very informative. The price rating system is well out of date and there may be a few brands that are no longer available, but the tasting notes are still good to have and the information on the brand and distillery is still relevant.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller