If you’re a devotee of brown spirits, we might just have found your bible: Clay Risen’s recently published Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey, which delivers perhaps the most complete history of the stuff that we’ve ever seen. From interviews and photographs to archival material, Risen lays out in meticulous fashion bourbon’s origins, history and evolution, also providing helpful guidance on building your own collection along with profiles of some of the industry’s key figures. Here, Risen gives us the scoop on this monumental project, plus his own personal favorite tipples.
This book was an epic undertaking. What inspired you to tackle the subject in such a comprehensive way?
My publisher, Ten Speed Press, had done a similar book a few years ago covering the Champagne region. It is a beautiful book, and a very successful one. We wanted to do something similar for Kentucky and bourbon—to explain the history, the key figures, the major producers, everything that makes bourbon bourbon.
To what do you ascribe bourbon’s surge in popularity?
I think it’s a lot of things. Bourbon speaks to people’s desire for authenticity, for history, and above all for flavor, whether it’s in food or drinking. But I also think it’s a return to a norm. Until the late 20th century, bourbon and rye whiskey were the dominant American spirits, and I believe we’ll look back at the brief period when they weren’t as an aberration.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
I developed a much deeper appreciation for all the little things that go into making a particular whiskey taste the way it does, and for the expertise with which distillers and warehouse managers use the particularities of things like yeast, warehouse design, and microclimates to create vastly different flavors, even when using the same mash bill.
What advice do you have for newcomers to bourbon?
Develop a palate. Even if you’re not a supertaster—very few people are—you can still acquire an appreciation for nuance. That means trying lots of different kinds of bourbons: high-rye, low-rye, wheated, and so on. And remember that some of the best bourbons are found on the lower shelves in the liquor stores. Price is just a number.
What’s the most over-the-top or memorable bourbon tasting experience you’ve been a part of?
I once got to go into the whiskey vault at Bottle in Bond, the restaurant at Bardstown Bourbon Co. Just being there, among a veritable Fort Knox of amazing old bourbon, was a bucket-list experience. The fact that I also got to try some of it was just icing on the cake.
What 3 bourbons would be on your dream tasting list?
That’s tough. I’d go with LeNell’s Red Hook Rye; 18-Year-Old Very Very Old Fitzgerald; and some of Marci Palatella’s original Olde St. Nick.
What is your favorite way to drink bourbon?
I almost always drink it neat, unless it’s barrel strength, in which I might add a splash of water, or it’s very hot outside, in which I might add an ice cube.