Review: American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye
Clay Risen, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit, (New York: Sterling Epicure, 2013), 304 pages, $24.95.
Clay Risen is the editor for the Op-Ed section of the New York Times, and he has written for a number of publications including The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazines, and authored A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He is also the author of the blog Mash Notes where he writes about his passion for whiskey. Out of his love for whiskey and a desire to inform those interested in learning more about the growing panoply of whiskey options in the US, he wrote American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit.
All together the book is very well executed. As a physical object, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye is beautifully constructed with counter-relief gold type and color photographs of about 200 whiskey bottles on high-gloss paper. While Risen suggests the reader stick the book in their back pocket as they head out to the bar, the book seems a bit big for that. Though, maybe the paperback version will be more compact. The text of the book is organized into two major components: an introduction, and tasting notes. The introduction covers the history and methods of whiskey production in the United States from its first appearance in the colonies to the current whiskey renaissance. While it is very well researched and written it also seemed an odd choice to have a 70+ page introduction rather than split the already segmented material into separate chapters. Before the section on tasting notes, Risen included a short tutorial on how to read a whiskey label. This is an important addition considering that he wrote the book for the un/under-trained whiskey drinker. However, this section could have been stronger if Risen had also explained how to read the back label and used more than one example.
The majority of the book is comprised of tasting notes for 206 American whiskeys, bourbons and ryes. The reviews are organized by brand name and each includes a short description of brand including if they are from a distillery or merchant bottler. The reviews are brief and boxed into separate sections that allow the reader to get a good deal of information at a glance. Each whiskey is rated from NR (not recommended) to Four Stars (excellent) and given an approximate price range with one to four dollar signs. Some of the reviews were a bit puzzling considering that a whiskey described as tasting of asphalt and burnt tire got over three stars. Risen acknowledges that each person's palate is different and creates a subjective frame of reference when drinking. So to combat this he often tasted the whiskeys with other people to approach a more objective analysis.
With any new book of reviews it's a good idea to sit down with the book, crack it open and drink sample of what you have at home and compare your experience with the notes. In this way the reader can get an idea if the author's palate and vocabulary for describing spirits is similar to the reader's. If it is, then the reader can be reasonably sure that the tasting notes and ratings will match their own. I, for one, am looking forward to tackling this fun and arduous task with American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye at my side.