Whiskey, Served Neat: A Taxonomy of American Whiskeys

WE HAVE Clay Risen’s grandfather to thank for introducing him to bourbon. It so happens my grandfather also introduced me to bourbon. Since he hailed from a teetotaling family and came of age during Prohibition, I am not certain who introduced him to bourbon, but apparently the nation’s ban on alcohol did not prevent him (or many others) from becoming acquainted with it. Peering into his empty glass and considering whether to have a second draught of his favorite libation, my grandfather would silently ponder a youthful excursion and ask himself: “Leo, what ever happened to the windshield of that Model T?” A few years after the mysterious incident, he moved to Louisville with his young bride, just as Prohibition was repealed in December 1933. How they celebrated the event I do not know. But if he did so, he probably celebrated alone, for my grandmother still lived in the shadow of her own abstemious mother, who in a fury fueled by Carrie Nation once wielded a broom to decapitate a batch of bottled root beer she and her father had brewed in the cellar.

Clay Risen is something of a Renaissance man. In addition to being a knowledgeable guide to American whiskey, first on his blog, Mash Notes, and now in this book, he has regularly written about other liquors, beer, and wine for The Atlantic and The New York Times. In fact, I have one of Risen’s articles to thank for introducing me to oyster stouts, at first glance an improbable combination of two of my favorite foods (and stout is definitely a food), sending me on a quest for what I correctly imagined must be a blessed beverage. In addition to sharing his expertise and enthusiasm for these various intoxicating delights, Risen writes about other weighty subjects, like the political firestorm in the wake of the King assassination and the battle for the Civil Rights Act, the latter the subject of a book he has coming out next year. Reading Risen’s guide to American whiskey made me want to be his friend, to sit down and sip a few samples with this Leonardo da Vinci of whiskey. Reading his résumé made me want to sit alone over a glass of bourbon and assess my life choices.

American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit is just what it promises by its title, and more, and should have a proud place on the bookshelf (or by the bar) of anyone who is an enthusiast of bourbon and other American whiskeys.

Whiskey with an “e” is the American spelling for distilled spirits made from grain and aged in charred oak barrels. What kind of whiskey depends principally on the grain used in the distilling process and how long it is aged. Bourbon refers to any liquor distilled from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn, aged in newly charred oak containers, and produced at the level of at least 80 proof. There is no requirement for how long the spirit must be aged, though most bourbons are aged for at least several years, or considerably longer, and proudly proclaim that feat on their labels. Contrary to my grandfather’s declaration, bourbon need not come from Kentucky. Incredibly, and unconscionably, bourbon can come even from Risen’s home state of Tennessee. Proud producers aware of such manifest injustice therefore often label their product as “Kentucky Bourbon,” with poor competitors across state lines, like Jack Daniels, reduced to referring to their product as “Tennessee Whiskey.” In his book, Risen restricts himself to bourbon, rye, and a few other whiskeys made in the United States, eschewing other varieties such as Canadian, Irish, and especially Scotch whiskeys, not because of their inferiority to the American varieties, but for the sake of the depth of coverage they richly deserve.

Which brings us to Scotch whisky: whisky without the “e.” A few years ago Risen’s current employer, The New York Times, acceded to the demands of the zealous fans of the product distilled in Scotland from 100 percent barley, which when called “Scotch” immediately identifies the speaker as a Yank, and dropped the offensive vowel when referring to the Caledonian spirit. Risen begins his guide to American whiskey by relating a story of a friend — undoubtedly a “whisky” lover — who ignorantly mocked his choice of subject. I must admit that I too once looked down from the highlands of Scotland on what I viewed as the low ground of American whiskey. Like Risen’s friend, I was undoubtedly influenced by my own introduction to bourbon during American whiskey’s low point in terms of both sales and quality during the 1970s and 1980s. Like my grandfather before me, I lived in Louisville at the time. However, most of the bourbon available then (at least to me) was a choice rightly relegated to the bottom shelves, fit for those with either undiscriminating palates or light wallets. It was then and there that I also had my first taste of its still less reputable cousin: moonshine. Not available on the shelves of our local (and legal) liquor store, it was supplied by a friend of my father’s, aptly named Woody, a man who once served time in federal prison for his former avocation but who still had business associates in the hills. This was genuine proto-bourbon, distilled from corn but lacking the barrel-aging that would have graduated it to the status of bourbon, and definitely not the “sugar jack” made from sugarcane or fruit that the former moonshiner looked down on as vile mead. My father nonetheless waited until Woody had sampled the batch before venturing a taste. Spurning bourbon, not to mention moonshine, as an upwardly mobile professional I began to sample single malts from Scotland and thereby missed the astonishing revival of bourbon and its kin that is the subject of Risen’s book.

Risen covers the essentials of American whiskey for the novice or intermediate enthusiast for whom the book is written. He begins with the surprisingly vexed question of what, exactly, is whiskey. Befitting its status, bourbon is the only legally specified species in the genus of whiskey, being the subject of a 1964 act of Congress recognizing it as “a distinctive spirit” of the United States (alas, not only Kentucky, but take that Canada!). “Whiskey” is a generic term for distilled spirits aged in the charred barrels that give it a distinctive brown color and woody flavors. Whiskey essentially begins its life as beer, which also comes from a mash of fermented grains, but without the admixture of hops. Like vodka, gin, rum, brandy, and other liquors, whiskey is the product of distilling the mash.

What largely separates whiskey from the others is that it is the product exclusively of grains and is aged in charred barrels. The difference between vodka and whiskey is instructive. The goal in making vodka is to filter it to the point where it is clear, pure ethanol, and thus without any distinctive flavor beyond what is the result of either impurities remaining after filtration or flavors added afterward. Risen seems to be as baffled as I am by the vogue in lemon, raspberry, coffee, and other flavored vodkas. By contrast, whiskey welcomes impurities: in fact, the “impurities” imparted by the charred oak barrels is what makes whiskey what it is. Hence the recent proliferation of “single barrel” and small batch bourbons and other whiskeys. Each barrel of whiskey has a distinctive taste based on a series of factors, including where it is stored. Barrels higher up in the warehouse endure larger temperature fluctuations through the seasons and over the years, with the staves expanding and contracting more than their brethren downstairs, thereby allegedly infusing their contents with more of their flavors. When making large batches of whiskey, distillers mix the product of these barrels, or even create contraptions to rotate the barrels through the warehouse, to attain the consistent product that is, say, Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam. Other distillers take advantage of the variation to produce distinctive batches, such as the Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon (vintage 2003, barrel number 870) I enjoyed while reading Risen’s book.

After he settles these questions of taxonomy as best he can, we come to perhaps the most interesting part of Risen’s book: an informative history of America as seen through the eyes of whiskey. Were it not for the legal drinking age, and the danger of imparting questionable moral lessons, I might recommend this part of Risen’s work as a high school history textbook far more enlightening than those currently in use.

We learn that George Washington was one of the most prodigious producers of his time of rye whiskey, which has recently gained in popularity again. As president, Washington ordered the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, forcing rebels in whiskey-making western Pennsylvania to pay excise taxes on their product. I suppose he paid his taxes, but at any rate, he definitely knew his market. By 1820, per capita consumption of whiskey per year was about five gallons, but since the consumers were almost entirely grown men, actual consumption was dizzily higher. Among the Civil War’s estimated 620,000 casualties was whiskey. Prior to the War Between the States (as we were taught to call it in Kentucky), whiskey cost 25 cents per gallon, yet with the disruptions in production in 1863 a gallon fetched a full $35. After the war, liquor provided as much as a quarter of the federal government’s tax revenue, with whiskey itself being nearly 70 percent of that portion.

But politics and morals soon collided, though not in the way Machiavelli would have imagined, with the growth of the Temperance Movement. I was of course aware of the detested 18th Amendment, which banned the sale of alcohol nationwide beginning January 17, 1920, although it was already illegal in many places before the amendment (and continues to be in some places, including the county in which Jack Daniels is produced). But I did not know that a drinking ban was instituted in 1885 on members of Congress when in chamber, a rule that undoubtedly contributed to the high quality of debate and deliberation to which we are now accustomed from our representatives. I also did not know that the amount of alcoholic consumption actually increased during Prohibition. But not taxes. The effect of Prohibition was fiscally catastrophic, and the estimated revenues for illegal bootlegging in 1926 were $3.6 billion, or equal to the entire federal budget that year. Celebrations of the repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 nonetheless involved little whiskey. Given the time needed to properly age it, and thus the capital expense, available stores of the stuff were depleted and gin and other white liquors, quickly produced, gained the upper hand.

Just as the industry was getting back on its feet, along came World War II and the diversion of alcohol production for military uses. By the time that the devastation wreaked by the three waves of Prohibition, Depression, and War was over, what was once a thriving industry had been reduced to just five major distillers, generally making a poor quality product. From 1960 to 1980, whiskey sales declined from about three-quarters of the liquor market to about half. Over the past couple decades, though, more and different labels have been produced or revived. In fact, the sales of bourbon have doubled since 1999.

The flourishing state of American whiskey we are now enjoying is documented by Risen in the last half of his book, which consists of profiles of over 200 whiskeys and tasting notes on each of them. He admits that his selection is not exhaustive, but it is representative of what can be found on the shelves of a good liquor store, although some of the products reviewed are almost only available regionally. The majority of the whiskeys he covers are bourbons, with a healthy admixture of rye whiskeys and some more exotic whiskeys distilled from wheat and even spelt. Risen’s profiles generally document the history of the distillery, a surprising number of them quite small and only recently founded, and the specific whiskeys produced. To take the familiar Maker’s Mark, Risen reports that the first bottle was produced in 1959, that the company has been sold several times and is now in the hands of Jim Beam. Most interestingly, he notes that, unlike most whiskeys, Maker’s is not filtered prior to bottling, making it slightly cloudy. He then reviews Maker’s Mark Straight Bourbon Whisky (oddly spelled without an “e”) and Maker’s 46 Kentucky Bourbon Whisky, only introduced in 2010, and differing from its elder brother by being aged an extra six weeks in a barrel with seared French oak staves, giving it a more woody palate.

Other profiles contain interesting trivia and information. For example, Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon, produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery and sold in the roundish bottle with the distinctive horse and jockey astride the stopper, actually has eight different stoppers with slightly different poses of the racing duo, one for each letter of the name. Less dignified than this equestrian theme was Cabin Still bourbon, which was once sold in a decanter featuring a hillbilly sitting on a barrel with a jug of Cabin Still in one hand and a shotgun in the other. The bourbon is still made, still occupies the bottom shelf, but only comes in a plain bottle.

Finally, for each whiskey he reviews Risen provides tasting notes that include a picture of the bottle (very useful for shopping purposes, and I definitely recommend you bring this book with you), remarks on the nose (aroma) and palate, a general summary, and, most controversially, a rating from zero to four stars.

Perhaps no human endeavor apart from sports has attracted so much scoring and arguments over scoring as liquor. Wine has its Robert Parker and Wine Advocate, among others, and so do most other alcoholic beverages, including various whiskeys. My immediate reaction after flipping through Risen’s book for the first time was to declare his palate exquisite — because it largely agreed with my own. In my opinion, Jim Beam did better in Risen’s scoring than it deserved, but on the other hand I was cheered by his defense of Knob Creek: “Haters can hate on this mass-produced ‘small batch’ whiskey, but Knob Creek is high quality stuff.” I was also heartened by Risen’s sparing use of a high number of stars in this age of everyone-gets-a-trophy. Of nearly 200 bourbons, only seven gained three and half stars and a mere six were awarded the full four stars.

Particularly intriguing are Risen’s tasting notes, apparently compiled during an enviable number of whiskey tastings with his friends, and with an understanding spouse. His notes on many whiskeys are straightforward; for example, a nose with “cherries, caramel, and vanilla” or a palate of “butter, oak, cinnamon finish.” Others are more elaborate and sometimes quite funny. The nose of one whiskey I won’t name is described as “rubber tires, dried hay, chlorine, and moth balls; a steaming pile of cornbread.” Another: “artificial candy notes, including bubblegum, cherry, and Flintstone’s vitamins, along with some barley and Cheerios.” As a practicing scientist myself, I determined that replication was the best method to test his results. I therefore assembled an expert panel drawn from friends and family and acquired four bourbons that had earned at least three stars from Risen. Also at his suggestion, we sampled each bourbon in a tasting glass with a bell shape to capture the bouquet, first trying the contents neat and then with an admixture of a wee bit of water. The four bourbons vying for accolades from my own team of scientists were described by Risen with such terms as a nose of “pear, candy apple, and cherries,” or a palate of “smoke, salt, pepper; quick finishing.” We all pretty much agreed on Risen’s general description of each whiskey. Try as we might, though, my colleagues and I were unable to detect everything Risen described, apart from aspects of the finish such as “quick” or “hot.” While most of us could find caramel, vanilla, or fruit flavors, none of us could agree on anything much more specific. We did however agree with Risen that the few drops of added water surprisingly altered both the nose and palate of our bourbons, a claim I had heard before but viewed with skepticism. In debating the question of why we were not capturing the hints of candy apples and salt, we were divided in our opinion as to whether Risen had fallen prey to the power of suggestion (“Ya, I taste Red Hots too”) or whether our own palates were unsophisticated and needed more training. With a lifetime of whiskey tasting ahead of me with Risen’s book at my side, I am dedicating myself to continued practice.


John T. Scott is  chair of the political science department at UC Davis and a professor specializing in early modern political thought. He also has an interest in experimental research, especially when it involves beer, wine, bourbon, and other libations.