Book Review: Clay Risen’s “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit”

Clay Risen’s new book, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, calls bourbon “the nation’s favorite spirit.” And although it may not be the most popular — based on sales, vodka is by far the champion — a fair case can be made that he is correct and it is indeed the “favorite.” Given the recent boom in whiskey production, consumption, attention, and obsession, no spirit is hotter in the United States today.

American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye provides a useful and interesting primer on what whiskey is and how it’s made. (For Professor Cocktail’s short-hand version, check out Bourbon 101.) It also recounts the history of whiskey in the United States in fairly comprehensive details, along with discussion on the contemporary state of bourbon and rye.

In short, it conveys everything that the beginning or intermediate level tippler would likely need to know about American whiskey. (For those looking for advanced level knowledge, Charles Cowdery’s Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey remains the gold standard.)

The above content consumes only about the first quarter of the book. But the rest of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye is where things really get interesting. Risen catalogs the various producers of bourbon and rye, both major and minor, and provides tasting notes and ratings for their products.

More than 200 whiskeys are described and rated in this way, a Herculean effort that makes this guide invaluable.

Here is a sample listing, of one of my favorite whiskeys.

Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 18 Years Old
Age: 18 years old
Proof: 90

Nose: Corn, oak, butter, sourdough, leather, and red wine
Color: Russet
Body: Medium to full
Palate: Corn, oak, fresh bread, and dried fruit, lingering spice on finish

General: An excellent whiskey by all measures: smooth and richly flavorful it lives gloriously in the place where the perfect bourbon nose and taste converge. Though it’s out of production for the moment, chances are that demand will make Heaven Hill bring it back. Hurry up, please.

Price: $$$
Rating: ****

Risen has similar write-ups for all the whiskeys he discusses, providing comprehensive and opinionated notes for each. He doesn’t hesitate to say when he finds a whiskey to be sub-par — there are several that receive the score of “NR” for “no rating.” (Most of these are the so-called craft whiskeys, few of which impress Risen.)

Spirits guidebooks aren’t intended to be the final word on any particular brand or product. If you don’t disagree with at least some of an expert’s opinions, you might need to broaden your thinking a little. Instead, these books are road maps that help introduce readers to the breadth and depth of a spirit, giving suggestions for what you might drink and what you might avoid. They also provide guidance on what kinds of flavors to look for, and point the way towards a particular style of spirit you might enjoy best. On that score, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye succeeds admirably.

Note: The content of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye is five-star, but I’m taking one star off its rating for the very small font the book was printed in. Books like this that are intended to be reference guides need print that is easy to read, for quick flipping through and scanning the text. Unfortunately, this volume lacks that and is consequently a challenge at times to read.