“Bourbon whiskey—made with at least 51 percent corn, and aged in charred new oak barrels—is America’s official spirit,” writes historian and New York Times deputy editor Clay Risen. His latest book, Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey, gorgeously illustrated with photos by Luke Sharrett, is a deep dive into both the contemporary bourbon distilling culture and its history.
The hefty book, sold as a boxed set with a pull-out drawer of reproductions of archival photos, is an entertaining read whether you’re new to the spirit or a longtime aficionado. The author assumes no prior knowledge of the subject, outlining how bourbon fits in with other American whiskey styles (blended whiskey; single malt; Tennessee; moonshine; rye, wheat, and other grains plus whiskey made with a bourbon mash). He explains ebbs and tides of bourbon’s popularity over the past two centuries and marvels at—and celebrates—the current boom. “All the distilleries in this book make superb whiskey, and most of them did not exist until quite recently,” he writes.
The bulk of the book is a series of profiles of individual distilleries with interview spotlights on the people behind them. Risen groups the subjects into four categories. There are ‘Old Guard’ makers like Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam. The ‘New Establishment’ includes Bulleit and Limestone Branch. ‘Craft Whiskey’ distillers are given their due with profiles of brands like Jephtha Creed and Neeley Family. And lastly, the author visits a series of the best of non-distilling producers (NDPs), makers such as Barrell Craft and J.W. Rutledge who don’t actually distill the spirit but age it, or blend spirit they’ve bought or contracted for to particular specifications.
The tasting advice he offers is not only thoughtful and witty (“Tasting a whiskey is the opposite of meeting a new person—first impressions do not count. So don’t think too much about your first sip.”) but deliberately brief to avoid being pedantic and spoiling the fun. So pour yourself a glass and settle in for a good read here.