(Housekeeping note: I have a bunch of interesting books that have come my way over the past few months, and I'm hoping to get as many as possible reviewed before the end of the year.)
One of the neat books that's arrived lately is "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit", by Clay Risen (Sterling Epicure, $24.95.) Risen writes the very good "Mash Notes" blog when he's not editing or writing for the New York Times or the Atlantic, among other outlets.
I have a lot of whiskey at home, but there are thousands of expressions I haven't tried. And, while my girlfriend is a very understanding sort, I have neither the physical space nor the funds to acquire every bottle I want. So I, like most everyone, have to restrict myself to getting the stuff that's likely to be good and interesting. Even if you're fairly well up on the offerings, perusing the shelves can be difficult. (Wait, is Old Fitzgerald the wheater, or is that Old Forester? I haven't heard of that small distillery. Do they source their whiskey from elsewhere or make it themselves? Is this bottle overpriced?) Which is where a good guidebook would be mighty useful...and we have an excellent guidebook to American whiskeys here.
The excellence starts with an exhaustive (76-page!) introduction that covers all sorts of bases. There's an introduction to what whiskey is, a discussion of terms including an uncommonly lucid presentation of the federal laws defining various types of whiskey, a look at the distillation, aging, and blending processes, a good history of American whiskey, and a detailed look at the state of the American whiskey business today. This last part encompasses everything from rye's renaissance and non-distiller producers (or "Potemkin distilleries" as Chuck Cowdery calls them) to craft distilling, small-barrel aging, and even the fads for flavored and white whiskeys. Risen includes well-observed guides on how to taste whiskey, some typical flavor and aroma notes you may notice, and a very good section on what information you can glean from a whiskey label. I particularly liked that Risen explicitly lays out what you will -- and won't -- find in his book, making no apologies for the decisions he made to wind up with a manageable book that still covers a lot of ground. (If you're looking for reviews of ultra-rare whiskeys, white dogs, very small producers, or flavored whiskeys, Risen points out that "boundaries have to be drawn somewhere" and that you won't find them in this book.)
The lion's share (not the angel's share) of the book is made up of the "Whiskey Accounts": thumbnail descriptions and reviews of over 200 whiskeys, arranged alphabetically by brand name. There's tons of good information here: each producer/brand gets a solid paragraph or two -- or way more, for the majors -- of brand and distillery history and description of any notable processes or approaches. Each entry also includes a list of the producer's brands, and Risen provides comprehensive contact information for both the brand and the distiller, if known, for non-distilling producers. Then it's on to a picture of the bottle and a thumbnail review of each expression, which covers color, body, proof, age if known, a notation of the bottle or lot number if it's available, price (one to four dollar signs, denoting $20 increments from <$20 to $61+), a rating (from Not Recommended to four stars), straightforward descriptions of the nose and palate, and some general, subjective notes about the whiskey.
The book winds up with a well-chosen list of other books, websites and blogs for further reading, as well as a glossary which recaps material from the introduction, a checklist of the whiskeys listed, and a detailed, useful index. (Can I register a complaint here that too many non-fiction books either don't have indexes or don't have good ones? This is one of the good ones.) A streamlined "quick index" inside the back cover lets you get to the producers even faster, which is another nice touch in what is overall a very well-thought-out book. While I might quibble with some of the design choices, it's clear that they were made for a reason: there's a lot of white space on some pages, but it's also nice to have each whiskey brand start on a fresh page. The margins are huge in the long introductory section, but they do get filled up with informative sidebars and bottle shots here and there -- I just wish there were more of them, as the narrow columns of unbroken san-serif type in a fairly small font can be a little fatiguing. The book's a handsome package of a pleasing size and weight (though probably a little too big to tote along to the liquor store for quick reference while browsing -- it'd be an awesome app if it could be sufficiently monetized), and even the endpapers have a nice overlapping design of bottle outlines.
Risen's writing is conversational and straightforward throughout, candid and informed, like an ideal drinking companion. Descriptions of noses and palates are solid and well-observed, and the more subjective general notes on each whiskey strike me as considered and particularly useful judgments, such as exactly where a spirit falls short of the goal, if it's good value for money, or if it's more of a sipping or mixing whiskey. This guidebook really fills a niche well, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter. I'll keep this as a ready and oft-thumbed reference; it's great to have all this information in one place, and so well-presented to boot. I hope there are successive and regular editions keeping us all informed of the American whiskey landscape.