American Rye fills a void in the spirits bookshelf for a resurgent category that is essential to cocktail culture and divergent whiskey exploration. The book is well-presented in a green-hued cover - a tip of the cap to the unofficial category label color – with a presentation that will fit well on a highbrow bookshelf or tucked into the corner of your home bar. As we have come to expect from Clay Risen, the book is well written and organized and presents both a historical introduction as well as practical tasting notes for today’s consumer. This tome could be a great stocking stuffer for the cocktail enthusiast or burgeoning whiskey devotee who is unfamiliar with the category and interested to gain a solid foothold.
To my dismay, Risen doesn’t provide much else in this book for the whiskey aficionado. I was disappointed that the historical introduction didn’t cover new ground or provide nuance to the category’s rise, decline, and subsequent renaissance. Perhaps there is not much ground to unearth with rye whiskey or my expectations were unrealistic following my readings of Brian Haara’s Bourbon Justice and David Jennings’ American Spirit. I think I just expected too much from a writer as great as Clay Risen with a relatively untouched subject as rye whiskey in the publishing world. Like Ridley Scott’s 2010 film version of Robin Hood, I was in familiar territory with an expectant storyline and one of the greatest directors of the modern age and I was utterly bored.
Let me be clear, the book is a good book. If you don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend taste-testing rye whiskey bottles or bar pours, I generally agree with Clay’s palate and reviews and I think you will be pleased with the results if you follow his lead. It’s just that I would have considered American Rye a page-turner in 2010 had I read it in the movie theater instead of attempting to stay interested in the Robin Hood film. Back then, there were very few rye whiskey options in the market, and no one was educated on the ones that were present. Fortunately, whiskey - especially rye whiskey - was very inexpensive in 2010 and I was able to taste through all the options and develop my own rankings and preferences, and they are very similar to Risen’s.
The biggest miss to me is that the reviews are organized alphabetically. I would have loved to see a categorical listing according to the four primary rye whiskey styles identified in the book: Old Monongahela, Maryland, Kentucky, and MGP. I think the issue is that I’m a hobbyist writer for a blog and Clay Risen is a bona fide journalist. I can (and do) speculate on mash bills and production methods in rating and organizing reviews. Risen stuck to the information he could verify, leaving much to be desired, but a high integrity review and categorization. This book will end up as an addendum Christmas present for my father – both because I think he will thoroughly enjoy it and find it useful.