Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Whiskey 101: Clay Risen's American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye

Clay Risen's new book American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is a refreshing and comprehensive treatment of American Whiskey.  A New York Times editor and author of the Mash Notes blog, Risen's new book joins Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Straight as a must have for anyone developing an interest in American whiskey.

While the bulk of the book contains reviews of over 200 American whiskeys, I most enjoyed the 76 page Introduction, in which Risen manages to cover pretty much every aspect of American whiskey, including its history, production, composition, label terms and tips on organizing tastings.  The breadth of material covered is truly impressive, and Risen includes many recent trends in the industry, including white whiskey, craft distilling, flavored whiskey and non-distiller producers, all of it written in accessible, engaging prose.

The review section spans every type of American whiskey and includes both tasting notes and a paragraph or two about each producer, including many independent bottlers and craft distillers. Recognizing the importance of the craft trend, Risen went out of his way to sample (and in some case, choke down) a huge number of craft products, making this one of the largest compendiums of craft whiskey reviews anywhere.

Nothing in the book is sugar coated, including the ratings.  Risen uses a star rating system ranging from a high of four stars to a low of NR (not recommended), and he's a tough grader, even by my standards. He also makes clear which producers make their own whiskey and which are bottlers or blenders. 

Risen's book fills a real gap on the shelves, both as a broad survey and a buyers' guide.  Even though it's intended more as an introduction, the detail is such that I would recommend it to longtime whiskey enthusiasts as well.  It goes for around $16.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye
by Clay Risen
Sterling Epicure, 2013 (298 pages)

Disclaimer:  I reviewed and gave feedback on a draft version of the book and was sent a complementary copy.


Anonymous said...

The book is pretty good. Lots of incorrect information in the sour mash process. Makes me wonder about how accurate the rest of it is...

Print is very small. Hard to read. Nice for coffee table, not much more.

sku said...

Anon, what specific incorrect info did you find?

I'm not an expert on the sour mash but on the issues I know, I found the book to be very accurate.

Anonymous said...

Ok, since you asked. On page 11, the book says "a portion of the mash batch (usually twenty percent) is set aside before distilling". This is not the way its done. The backset is taken from what is left after distilling.

Also, it says in the following paragraph on page 11 that backset "increasing the pH level", which again is incorrect. Backset lowers pH. Yeast prefers a lower pH. Bacteria likes a higher pH.

Another inaccuracy that I just found is on page 62 where it says Balcones Brimstone is made using "malted barley is smoked over a scrub grass fire". Then on page 83 it says its smoked via a "propriety process". Which is it?

I could go on, but you get the point. Another attempt at a book on whiskey that just misses the mark in my opinion.


Anonymous said...

I picked up a copy, great cover design. A nice one place source for most of the US whiskies that are on the market now. Only issues I have is an omission or two of well know bourbons and the wrong photo for the product described. In the Ancient Age listing the photo at the bottom of page 80 shows AAA 10 Star, which is a 6 year old bourbon and the description is for AAA 10 Year, not the same product. Also seems that some of the best Bottle in Bond products were omitted. I would think that Old Grand Dad BIB is the best selling of their product line and it is not shown. It was also odd to see only one Heaven Hill label listed after noting in the description that HH is "the largest independent spirits producer in the US". HH offers Black 80, Gold 80 & Gold BIB, White BIB and Green "Old Style" 90 proof labels. Only the low proof 80 was reviewed and given a one star mixer rating while overlooking the the more acclaimed BIB's. The other labels were not even mentioned. I think this oversight was compounded by the fact that a few pages later the entire Johnny Drum product line was shown, all 3 labels, and it is a sourced bourbon. A little more time could have been spent on those issues.

Matt said...

So Anonymous, I respect your points and you are obviously well versed in the Whiskey/Bourbon area. What is the book that you recommend that is the best and most comprehensive on the subject? I was interested in the book mostly for the variety that it covers and the tasting notes. The process to which they are made was not all that important as I have a general understanding of the process already. I will not be trying to replicate the whiskeys so a few minor errors in the making process is not all that important to me, but as you said it makes you wonder what other things are wrong.