The enduring appeal of America’s spirit and finding affordable bourbons with whiskey expert Clay Risen

We’re wrapping up another year. And maybe we could all do with a stiff drink, or perhaps a toast, because while it’s been another long and weird and exhausting year, it looks like it might be another long and weird and exhausting year in 2022.

2021 has also been a year filled with promise. Think about how uncertain the world looked a year ago. Today more than 70% of the country has at least one dose of the vaccine. That’s something like a miracle. So let’s raise a glass to your health. And let’s raise a glass to the promise of 2022. And if we’re being specific about it, let’s raise a glass of bourbon, the past, present and future go-to spirit of the South. But that wasn’t necessarily the case just a decade ago.

High end bourbon sat on liquor store shelves at prices so cheap, they might make you gasp now. In his new book simply and appropriately titled “Bourbon,” Clay Risen chronicles the history of this American whiskey from the early days in the mountains of Kentucky to the global phenomenon that it is today.

This week, he joins The Reckon Interview in our final episode of the season to explain the drink’s enduring appeal, offer a few pointers on how to identify a good bourbon, and a few recommendations for affordable and findable bottles that you can grab as last minute Christmas or New Year’s gifts. And so as we close out 2021 And the fifth season of The Reckon Interview, I’m raising a glass to my family, including our new son Jack, to a better South, and to you, for listening to our show. Cheers. Let’s get started.

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

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John Hammontree: Clay Risen, thanks for coming on the Reckon Interview.

Clay Risen: Hi, thanks for having me.

John Hammontree: As you write in the preface to your new book “Bourbon, the Story of Kentucky Whiskey,” not too long ago, bourbon was not in as high demand in the United States as it is right now. What sparked its resurgence?

Clay Risen: I think it wasn’t one thing, it was a lot of things going on. And I think one of the one of the overarching things is just that bourbon is—and brown spirits are—pretty traditional in terms of, you know, the American palate and what we look for. And it’s more like, why was there a period when we weren’t drinking a lot of bourbon? There was a, you know, about 30 years — 70s, the early 2000s — when, generally speaking, vodka and white wine and so called sort of cleaner spirits were dominant. And that started to change. There’s part of it’s that’s generational, you don’t want to drink what your parents are drinking kind of thing. But I think one of the main things that I think really kicked it off was renewed appreciation of craftsmanship, authenticity, local or native spirits. There’s a real appeal and a real… the story of whiskey, as well as the the flavor is something that I think a lot of people just find irresistible. They’re just really drawn to that as something that is honest and true. Even if a lot of it ends up being marketing, there’s an aspect to whiskey — American whiskey, bourbon, in particular — that I just think speaks to what people look for in terms of values and what they buy and consume.

John Hammontree: Yeah, I know for me, when I moved out to California, I had never been a big bourbon drinker. But somehow that felt like it would keep me tied to my Southern roots. At the Safeway grocery store there, you could buy a bottle of Buffalo Trace for I think $20 at the time. I would drink a glass of that and was Justified every night. That was my connection. But it does seem like a spirit that has kind of its place in the American mythology. You’ve got the Whiskey Rebellion, of course, in the late 1700s that kind of led to the Constitution, but it wasn’t really our first spirit, right? We were kind of a rum region when when we were the New World? 

Clay Risen: Yeah, well, look, I mean, when different populations, different countries from Europe settled the east coast, settled in North America, yeah, they brought their traditions with them. And so you had Germans coming over, and Scots who are, and Irish who are distilling. England was much more of a fortified wine country, and also a country that had developed in its British East Indies holdings, a lot of rum distilling, rum industry, and as the United States was a British colony, it was flooded with rum. And so that, to your point, even though there was a diversity of spirits, rum really was was spirit that was kind of the default for a lot of people.

And then that changed when the United States was formed, and when we left the confines of the British Empire, and we didn’t have access to cheap rum anymore. And so there, we’re sort of, it’s sort of like a forest fire that clears out all the big trees and suddenly all the little ones are able to sprout up and so things like rye whiskey in particular on the East Coast, and then bourbon is as it developed in Kentucky very quickly came to the fore and it wasn’t alone. There were there were other spirits that early on were pretty popular. A lot of fruit brandies. These are basically farm products, you know anything, whatever you’re growing on your farm, you want to find a way to extend the life of it, the shelf life of it. So if it’s green, you want to find a way to increase its value and to make it more portable. So in a way whiskey is that, is simply that, it’s the concentration of flavor and the sort of value of the grain into a liquid form, that you can then transport and sell pretty easily. Same thing if you’re growing fruits, if you’re growing whatever. And it was only in the 1800s, that a consumer focus emerged where people started to demand certain styles and certain certain types of whiskey. And so that’s where you get the emergence of particularly aged whiskey, of rye on the east coast, of bourbon in the Ohio River Valley, you know, in Kentucky. It’s, everything else is history.

John Hammontree: So let’s start with the basics. You know, for people who may not know the difference between different types of whiskey, you’ve written books on all types of American whiskey. But what is bourbon as it compares to rye or to Scotch or to Irish whiskey?

Clay Risen: There are lots of kinds of whiskey. Some of them are identified with their national identity. Scotch, Irish, Japanese, Canadian. Bourbon is simply a type of whiskey. So whiskey is a grain spirit, derived from grain, it’s essentially distilled beer that is then aged and aged in wooden barrels. Different countries, different styles have different rules about those barrels, but generally speaking, they’re large oak barrels. Yeah, so bourbon needs to be made with primarily corn. So it, so 51% corn. Usually it’s significantly more than that. With the rest of the grain being rye, barley, wheat, things like that. And it needs to be distilled, obviously. And it needs to be aged in new oak barrels, and those barrels need to be charred on the inside. So it gives it a particular flavor profile.

One thing that bourbon doesn’t have to be is aged or made in Kentucky. Yeah, Kentucky would love for you to think otherwise. But it just has to be made in the United States. Now that the reality is most of it is made in is made in Kentucky. All the big distilleries are there, except for Jack Daniels, George Dickel. We sort of debate whether those are bourbon distilleries, but but in any case, Kentucky is the heart of bourbon production, but you can make it in California. You can make it, there’s some great bourbon being made in Texas. There’s great bourbon here in New York. It’s all over the place.

John Hammontree: Yeah, I think he wrote in the book that bourbon is now distilled in all 50 states is that there’s at least one distillery in in all 50 states? 

Clay Risen: That’s right, there’s at least one distillery in every state. 

John Hammontree: So the whiskies that claim to be a Tennessee whiskey like Jack Daniels, or, in Alabama there’s Clyde Mays, which claims to be an Alabama-style whiskey. Some of that’s just marketing and they are probably more in the bourbon family?

Clay Risen: Well, I mean, it depends on how you… So, Clyde Mays, they actually add some stuff to theirs, which would this is sort of a, it was sort of second level requirement. You can’t add anything to bourbon. There’s no coloring, there’s no flavoring added, it has to be… you can say it’s, you know, bourbon with such and such added. But you can’t just call it bourbon. So you have to call it something else. So you know, they make, their Alabama style is in there, some fruit juice, some apple juice added. And that’s fine. I mean, that’s, you know, that’s cool. That’s a different style, but it’s an additive to it, or it’s an addition to the whiskey production.

Tennessee whiskey is a weird one. Because what they do to make Tennessee whiskey is you make, you basically make bourbon in every way that you would bourbon in Kentucky. But you before you age it, you filter it through maple charcoal, and you let it sort of either seep through or mellow. And that, you know has a way of signing, kind of, if you can sort of imagine kind of sanding off some of the edges of the flavor. You know, so it gives Jack Daniels or George Dickel that sort of, you know, their signature kind of sweet flavor. A little less harshness. There’s nothing about that process that disqualifies them from being bourbon. And you could do that same thing in Kentucky and still call it bourbon. But they’ve chosen to say well no, this is we do this extra thing and that’s what makes it Tennessee whiskey. So you know, you can we can have, and people have this debate all the time. Well, you know, is Jack Daniels, in fact, a bourbon even if they don’t say they are, or does that addition give them the right to kind of stylistically, regionally define themselves. You know, I kind of go with, with their qualifier, they want to call it something different, that’s fine. But I think that’s an important distinction to understand.

John Hammontree: What is it about Kentucky? You know, the region itself, that made it such a natural home for bourbon, you know, going back to the 1800s, I guess?

Clay Risen: So, you know, I think historically one thing to remember about Kentucky is that even though it’s a great place to make whiskey, the entire Ohio River Valley was a great place to make whiskey. And you had whiskey production in Illinois, in Ohio. Large distilleries, some of the largest distilleries were actually around Peoria for a long time. Kentucky obviously, was a centerpiece as well. I think what helped Kentucky over the long term was that it does have a pretty good climate where it’s very hot in the summer, very cold in the winter, it has really good water sources, as opposed to some of the other places in the area, it sits… the sort of, you know, the heart of bourbon country sits on a shelf of limestone, and that the water filters up through that. And it’s particularly apt for agriculture, for horses, but also for making bourbon. It is really great for distillation. And you can find that sort of geologic formation in other parts of the country, but it’s just, Kentucky has that in addition to a lot of other things. And it also has a really great water system.

So Kentucky has one of the longest — this is, I always find this fascinating — Kentucky has one of the longest, if you took up all the rivers in Kentucky, it has one of the longest river systems in the country, I think it might have the longest river system. You know, coming down from the Ohio River, you can sort of imagine the Ohio River is at the north end, you know, sort of defines the northern part of Kentucky, the northern border, you know, it’s just like strings hanging down, including, you know, the Cumberland is one of the big ones, the Kentucky River, but a lot of smaller rivers. And what that did was make it possible for early on for farmers who wanted to sell their whiskey or other goods in, let’s say, New Orleans, it made it really easy for them to put their stuff on the river, have it taken up to the Ohio River put on flatboats and, and you know, down to the Mississippi and so on. So, so there were a lot of historical advantages going for Kentucky.

But you know, I mean, there’s also there’s a political story. Kentucky, in the 19th century, was a politically very powerful state. And it’s lined up a lot of legislation that in the long run, kind of made bourbon a kind of shoo in as a whiskey category. The Bottled in Bond Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, these things, some things that we don’t even think of as being about whiskey. The Pure Food and Drug Act had a section in it that defined what whiskey was, and essentially said, you know, it has to be bourbon, or it has to be say, you know, if it has rye it’s essentially bourbon, but it’s made with rye. You know, it has to be there has to be the standards. And by the way, some of the only places that do it this way are in Kentucky. And then after Prohibition, a very similar story, companies that were pretty well invested and had banked on the end of prohibition had gone out and consolidated struggling distilleries and bought up stocks, you know. They had a law, they had a huge incentive to lobby and to shape legislation that really prioritized, to really, you know, advantage Kentucky distilling. And so, you know, it’s a fascinating story. And that’s one as someone who, you know, I write political history and social cultural history as well as about whiskey. I find this a really fascinating story, because it’s, you know, it’s not just a story about climate. It’s not just a story about, you know, our climate in terms of growing and agriculture or, you know, all the kind of natural givens. But it’s very much a story of politics and of culture and, and things that we don’t necessarily think of when we think of a heritage product like whiskey.

John Hammontree: Well, let’s talk about that aspect of it, then, you know, who was making whiskey prior to prohibition and who was profiting off of whiskey prior to prohibition? And how did that change after Prohibition?

Clay Risen: The first thing is that before Prohibition, whiskey distilling was pretty widespread around, you know, sort of if you drew a line from Illinois, due east. So Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and to some extent, Virginia, to some extent, New York, you had lots of distilleries. And the further east you got the more rye heavy you got, so you had a lot of rye that was grown and produced on the East Coast. Further inland, you had you know, bourbon country but also in Illinois and in Ohio, it was also a lot of blending, a lot of you know what today we would think of as kind of real mass produced, real sort of, most of it was safe to drink, but some of it wasn’t.

One of the many reasons for prohibition was that alcohol spirits are not safe. And I don’t just mean they’re not safe because what we understand them to be not safe today, but you know that they were adulterated and that you could never know what was in that bottle. Was it, you know, what made brown? Was it what they say? Was it the wood that aged it? Or are they chemicals?

And so there was a lot of that being made in some parts of north of the Ohio River Valley, or the Ohio River. So, and there were some pretty large distilleries, there’s a pretty, pretty wide variety in terms of size. You know, some, some large companies, some relatively small ones, and in a fairly dispersed industry, you know, located in small towns that will then ship their whiskey to larger facilities for distribution. And, you know, it was quite a robust industry and a really fascinating one to learn about.

Because, you know, all of these different places have their own styles, they have their own ticks, their little, you know, unique distinctions. Prohibition destroyed all of that. And it reduced the industry down to just a few players who were given medical distilling licenses, they were allowed to not make more whiskey, but they could sell the whiskey that they had for medicinal purposes, because at the time, there was a belief that, you know, a little whiskey would cure your cold or was good for colicky babies, or you know, whatever. And, and honestly, it was a huge loophole that allowed people to sell and consume whiskey without breaking the law. But a number of companies, particularly the larger ones, some of the larger savvier once said, well, prohibition is not going to last, you know, this is this will inevitably end. Too many loopholes, there’s too much moonshining there’s, you know, there’s a market this, this is, this will fall apart. So let’s get ready for that. And let’s buy up all these companies, all these brands, all of their stocks, you know, all of the whiskies that they have aging, let’s build our empire, and in so that we’re ready for that day when whiskey does become legal again. And sure enough, that’s what happened.

Obviously, we know, you know, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt ended prohibition and then we pass the 21st amendment. What did that end up looking like? Well, ended up looking like kind of the opposite of what the industry was beforehand. Only a few very large companies, as some of them, a couple of them Canadian, most of them, the United, American, that owned all the production and had significant control of distribution. And a few smaller players either managed to come back or stuck around. Jim Beam had been shuttered, and Jim Beam was a historical figure. He was the guy who was in charge of Jim Beam. He had gone tried to make money as a citrus grower and Florida. Didn’t work. So when prohibition ended, he built a new distillery. He built the distillery and the brand that we know today as Jim Beam. And so so he was there, Pappy Van Winkle, who was another one who, his distillery, Stitzel Weller, opened soon after the end of prohibition. So there were there, there were some smaller players. But really, it was dominated by, you know, large names for making volume whiskey, you can sort of see in that post prohibition era, both why it took off, why whiskey took off in the post World War II era, and then why it collapsed. You know, there just wasn’t a lot of diversity. There wasn’t a lot of good whiskey out there. There’s a lot of kind of mediocre whiskey. And then a few small distilleries are making good stuff, but not enough to really change people’s minds when younger generations came along and said, we don’t really want to drink that harsh brown stuff anymore. We want to drink vodka and we want to, you know, do whatever whatever vice is hip with, with this generation.

John Hammontree: Who are some of those big players that emerged after Prohibition? You mentioned the Jim Beam and Pappy Van Winkle were able to bounce back. Who was it that snapped up the smaller ones? 

Clay Risen: Yeah, I mean, it’s so Schenley was, Schenley is not a company that anyone knows anymore. I mean, it doesn’t exist. It ended up being, couldn’t, you know, consumed itself and they’re still Schenley era brands that exist and, but, you know, and Schenley owned what is now known as the Buffalo Trace distillery, among other things, but you know, so they’re the sort of dinosaurs, national distillers, which ended up owning Jim Beam and ended up becoming, taking the name Jim Beam and then becoming what today is Beam Suntory. But there are a lot of, you know, sort of recombinations. So it’s, that’s another fun and often confusing part of the history is to go back and look at well, who were the ones who were the big players in the 30s 40s and 50s. They’re not the big players today, or at least they’re not names that we know. Hiram Walker was another one. Hiram Walker is a Canadian company, Hiram Walker had a huge distillery in Peoria. Seagram, which you know, again is Seagram is no more, but Seagram—another Canadian company—was one of the largest most successful conglomerates of the 20th century and among their many holdings were, you know, Four Roses, the brand and the bourbon brand, as well as obviously stuff like Seagram Seven, you know, the Seagrams Canadian, Canada Dry ginger ale. I mean, all these things ended up going in other directions and being owned by other companies. But Seagram was once a power player in bourbon.

John Hammontree: And who are the power players today? And obviously there’s there’s a lot of startups and smaller distilleries out there. But there’s also been a lot of consolidation in the industry. 

Clay Risen: Yeah, so all the you know, all the big distilleries that survived through the bourbon bust of the 70s to the 2000s, you know, they’re mostly still around. So you get your Brown Forman. Brown Forman is the parent company that owns, well they own Jack Daniels, but they own Woodford Reserve, they own Old Forester. And these are all spirits brands and lots of other spirits. They don’t only make whiskey, but a company like Beam Suntory, you know, they’re best known for well, Suntory in Japan, but in the United States for Jim Beam. So, but they own other things. You know, they own tequila brands and they own not all, you know, a lot of them own wine brands, some of them own beer brands.

Heaven Hill is another one. Heaven Hill is, probably along with Jim Beam, one of the most successful sort of post prohibition startups. So Heaven Hill was purely was a new company that was built after Prohibition, there is no legacy involved at all. And today Heaven Hill is, you know, depends on how you count it, either haven’t Heaven Hill or Jim Beam are the largest distilleries in the in the country. Jim Beam has two facilities that add up to being bigger than Heaven Hills’ one, but Heaven Hills’ distillery, single distillery, is a giant. And you know, there are a couple of companies that we don’t necessarily associate with, they don’t have a brand name that they’re associated with.

A brand like Constellation, which is more of really more of a wine company, historically. But in the last several years, they’ve been buying up beer brands and some of those smaller craft whiskeys. So when you think about consolidation, you know, the older legacy distilleries are not the ones doing the consolidation. They’re generally not buying other brand new brands. They have their own brands, and they have their brand teams, they come up with new things, but they’re not involved.

Diageo is another one. Diageo owns Bulleit and Diageo owns George Dickle. Diageo is a British company. Pernod Ricard is another one that, it’s a French company, you know, better known for you know, they own Jameson, they own a bunch of Scotch distilleries. But in recent years, they’ve been buying up a good amount of the larger, more successful craft distilleries. These players… and, so it’s, you know, the big brands are still the big names.

But, you know, very quietly, you’re seeing some other companies start to move in and start to build up pretty big portfolios of craft brands. So you know, craft, even today, craft makes up 7% of the market. It’s tiny compared to a relatively small number of big players. But, you know, that’s twice as much as two years ago. So craft is growing rapidly. And I do think that whether it’s ever as big as craft beer is, I think, a quarter of the beer industry. Now. I don’t know if craft whiskies ever going to be that size, but could be, I imagine a lot of these companies like Constellation and Renault are banking on that, banking on being able to take small brands and build them into pretty big competitors.

John Hammontree: Do you remember your first bourbon?

Clay Risen: I remember the first one that I… that’s worth remembering.

So, you know, I mean, my first was probably Jim Beam, but you know, maybe not. Maybe it was Wild Turkey. My grandfather was a big fan of Blanton’s and he, this is in the early 2000s, and he, you know, I was over at his house once and he, he wasn’t actually a big whiskey fan. I mostly drank gin and tonics. But he did like Blanton’s. And he said, I’ve got this stuff. You should try it. It’s really good. It’s really different from what you’ve probably had. And you Blanton’s is the first single barrel, it was, you know, one of the first whiskies that was positioned as a, as something that could sit on the shelf next to a single malt, both in its packaging and its marketing and sort of the idea of the whiskey, but also the liquid itself, you know, this was really special stuff that had been selected. You know, one barrel had been selected at a time to bottle. And that just that blew me away. Both the concept that an American product, particularly an American product from, you know, Kentucky, which… I grew up in Tennessee, and you know, every state likes to kind of dump on its neighboring states. And so, you know, Kentucky, what do you know, what do they have? So, so this this idea that there could be this world class bourbon was totally new to me. And then you know, the more I explored and you know, being in Tennessee, I was able to, you know, go up and you could get up to Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam, you know, any of those distilleries within a couple hours from Nashville.

And you really just start to explore. And this was back at a time when there were still very little interest in American whiskey. And you know, these distilleries, a lot of them didn’t even do tours. My brother and I got chased off the property at Willett, because, well, they didn’t have tours, and totally fair for them to say, hey, you’re not allowed here! Now, of course, we’ll has a great tourism, you know, visitor program, and, totally different. But at the time, it was, you know, it was really kind of terra incognita, which was fun, which was a lot of fun to kind of just be there and exploring and learning about this stuff.

John Hammontree: So how did you turn this into something that you could get paid to do writing and tasting and lecturing about bourbon?

Clay Risen: I was already a journalist, and I was both a political journalist in my career, my sort of day job, but then also a freelance journalist doing all kinds of things. You know, I do book reviews, and I do some travel stuff. And I just, you know, just kind of whatever. And we one of the great things about journalism, if you’re, if you’re lucky is that, you know, you can kind of turn whatever you’re interested in into a paying gig. You know, if you feel like music, you can find a way to get paid to write about music. And that’s, there’s nothing better than the world than that.

So I was writing some stuff, the first place I wrote for was the Atlantic website. And I was, I’ve been writing some political journalism and other related things like that. And my editor was, aside from being the editor was a big food guy, we got to talking and, you know, the subject of whiskey came up, and he said, oh, you know, I think — this, this was like, 2008, maybe. And, you know, start saying, I, you know, American whiskey’s getting big, it’s, you know, people are starting to talk about it, you want to write some things? And, you know, its low stakes, not all low hanging fruit, you know, sort of, what is bourbon kind of journalism. You know, let me tell you about Buffalo Trace, this distillery that at the time, no one has heard of. And, but that was fun, because then it was a way for me to deepen my understanding and my knowledge of the category, while, as you said, getting paid to do it. And then just one thing led to the other. You know, I start writing, I came, moved to the New York Times, I start writing for The Times, start writing books, started doing tasting classes, started doing competitions, you know, these days, there’s more than enough work to go around and more than I can do, and there’s obviously a huge fan base. And there are a lot of really great journalists out there doing whiskey journalism. So it’s kind of fun to have been there. Maybe not from the beginning. But you know, from early on.

John Hammontree: What was the most recent bourbon you drank?

Clay Risen: Well last night, I had Four Roses, Small Batch Select. I mean, I love that whiskey, but it was there. So I had it, trying to think what what else that I’ve had, that’s really been fun. I mean, I get a lot of samples. So I’m always kind of trying new stuff, as well, as you know, maybe going back to some older stuff.

I mean, one of the things that I think, so, I really enjoy, there’s one called Blue Run that has been coming out in a couple of releases. They’re not seasonal, but they do a couple of releases a year. And it’s kind of a new model for whiskey. You know, I think one of the things that we’re seeing with distilling is not just new styles of whiskey, but also new styles of production.

You know, I think we think most drinkers still think of whiskey distilling, as whoever, whatever name is on the label, those are the people that that distilled it, that aged it. And by and large,  that’s true. If you buy a Wild Turkey, Wild Turkey made that whiskey. If you buy Jim Beam, Jim Beam made that whiskey. But there are other brands where that’s starting to break up. And sometimes that’s for, because it’s cheaper to do it that way. And it doesn’t actually reflect anything on the quality or anything positively. But then you have this category, or subcategory, which I think Blue Run is one, where they contract with a fantastic, independent distiller — in this case, an individual, Jim Rutledge, who used to be the distiller for Four Roses — and they hire him to either oversee production or actually to do the production, at a leased facility. So they’ll lease space at another distillery and he’ll go and make it for them. So it’s sort of you know, there’s the model of nomad brewing right, where an independent brewer will go around and make batches of different… so it’s it’s sort of like that, and and that’s, that’s really cool, right? So then what you’re selling is not, hey, we made this whiskey, it’s we got Jim Rutledge to make this whiskey and here’s what’s cool about it. But you’re buying if you, you know, if you’re geeky about it, you know Jim Rutledge, and you know, you’re buying it, you, you want something Jim Rutledge made because Jim Rutledge is, is a is a genius and a legend. And that’s, that’s pretty cool. I mean, you know, there’s, there’s some of that in winemaking and, and, you know, this is one model among many that I think we’re gonna see more and more of going forward. And it’s, it’s, it’s cool. I like that. I like that, you know, innovation happens at many different levels, only some of which are immediately obvious to the consumer.

John Hammontree: A few days before Christmas, a couple weeks before New Year’s. If anybody’s scrambling to get a last minute Christmas gift for somebody or a bottle to take to New Year’s Eve party, what are five of your favorite affordable and findable bourbons?

Clay Risen: Affordable and findable bourbons? Well, you know, the these days the findable part is getting tough. I mean, whiskies that a year or two ago I would have recommended as really no problem to find is getting harder to do. So with the caveat that I’m leaning heavily on the findable part while still trying to get the fun and not too expensive part as well.

I mean my go to Bourbon is is always Russell’s Reserve. I think that it’s a brand that is made by Wild Turkey. It’s the, Jimmy and Eddie Russell are the master distillers at Wild Turkey, father and son team, but they make this really just fantastic lower proof your lower alcohol content, really balanced, really cocktail friendly, sippable brand called Russell’s. There’s a rye version, there’s a bourbon version, they have different kind of standard as a 10 year old, and it’s affordable and easy to find, and fantastic. I will always endorse that.

Another one that you know is usually you’re able to find it, is I like Old Granddad 114. You know, it’s again, it’s a probably a brand that people have seen around and maybe passed up on because it’s you know, called Old Granddad. But the 114 especially is delicious. So it’s 114 proof. So that’s, you know, 57% alcohol, so it’s packs a punch, but it’s fantastic, especially in the winter, it’s a really great sip.

Eagle Rare is another one from Buffalo Trace. It’s getting harder to find Eagle Rare, but you can still find it. And as far as Buffalo Trace says, it is, they changed the packaging a little bit, but it’s a 10 year old single barrel. So you know, pretty good, pretty good standards, a pretty pretty high bar are right there. It’s just a really nice, round, approachable whiskey.

Anything from Michter’s I would recommend. Their basic Michter’s small batch, Michter’s American whiskey, those are great. They get really expensive. Michter’s makes some of the most expensive whiskey in America, but their basic stuff is really good.

And then you know, and then to round it out. I like Old Forester they do 100 proof — so 50% alcohol version — of Old Forester. It’s sweet and relatively smooth. And you know, I think it gets overlooked sometimes just because Brown Forman makes a lot of other stuff. They make Woodford, they make, they make Jack Daniels, but Old Forester is a really, really solid whiskey, and again, one that you can find pretty easily.

They also have a great downtown location, as does Michter’s. So if you’re ever in Louisville, and you don’t want to go out to a distillery, right there on main, on the main drag, you’ll find both of them. They’re sort of downtown outlets. And they’re super fun. They both have bars, they both have tours, they both have working distilleries, like micro distilleries, within the facility and you can just have a good time. So that doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of the whiskey but the whiskey happens to be really good.

John Hammontree: To wrap up, when you are trying a new whiskey — now this may be hard to convey over audio — but how do you go about tasting it? How do you recommend that listeners try new whiskies?

Clay Risen: I try not to beat people over the head with the right way to drink whiskey, right? There’s no right way, it’s whatever works for you and, but I do have my own way. And especially if I’m really taking, you know, sort of squaring up with a whiskey, I want to know about this whiskey, I’m tasting it in an event or for a book… you know, I’ll nose it and nose it—my joke is always that you want to approach a new whiskey like you do a dog you don’t know. You got to be careful, might bite, you know, and you don’t want to stick your nose right in right in its face or he’ll bite it off. You want to kind of start six inches away and just kind of bring the whiskey closer to you, find your sweet spot. Different people have different sensitivities, but different whiskies have different, you know, volatilities, and some of them are really aggressive on the nose, others are pretty shy, but find that place. And spend some time on the nose, you know. The nose is really important not only in and of itself as a quality, but also to give you hints about the flavor. You know, that’s going to be a big part of that experience. So assess it, you know, what do you think it tastes? What do you think it smells like?

And then, then when you taste it, I sort of break down tasting into three parts. And the first is, you know, what does it taste like right as it hits your lips, that kind of entry? And then you want to let it sit in your mouth for a little while and really kind of swirl it around and give it some room in your mouth. You end up looking kind of silly when you do, but you want to give it some room to start honestly, to start to evaporate. You want to allow that alcohol, those higher alcohols to start to evaporate, because that will change the flavor, the whiskey will literally start to change in your mouth, and that changes the flavor.

And then, then when you swallow it, you want to let it hit the back to your mouth obviously, hit the back of your tastebuds, and think about what it tastes like as it’s going down your throat. And then when it’s gone, you know, does it have a finish? Does it not have a finish? Is it quick? Is it dry? Is it sweet? Bitter? What are the, what are the elements that it leaves behind?

And then to take all of that and kind of come up with kind of a, you know, an overall synthesis. You know, this is this is a dry, a dry whiskey with you know, a lot of tannins on the back end and you know, really almost come up with a story about what is this? You know, individual notes, what kind of what do they tell me about what the whiskey is overall? You know, if I had to say in a sentence, or in a phrase, what is this whiskey? How would I convey that? And how would I do it without jargon? You know, I’d say yeah, it’s kind of dry, it’s kind of you know, it’s got some bitterness, it’s got some chocolate in there. That’s I think the bulk of it.

The only other thing I’d say is to take time with it. You know, whiskey, even more than like a wine or a beer, you know, whiskey is a rough and tumble thing to put in your mouth. And you know, you’re gonna want to, you’re gonna want to maybe take a couple of sips, you’re gonna want to kind of get acclimated particularly to a new whiskey. And then, and then kind of see from there what you think. And if you have to go back to it a few times, sometimes I’ll go back to a whiskey later in the day or the next day.

My palate, like everyone’s palates, changes depending on what I’ve had to eat, when I’m feeling like, what the weather’s like. And you know, I want to find out, well, you know, I thought that whiskey was XYZ. Is it? Is it still or now do I think it’s an A, B, or C? And? And what do I do about that if it is. So anyway, there’s always a lot of… there’s a lot of, you know, sort of, moving parts in there, a lot of complexities. But the point is that you want to come up with a way to kind of systematically think about what you’re drinking instead of just jumping in and sort of trying to make order out of chaos. You want to figure out, starting… what’s the game plan? Again, that’s just me. Other people do with it what you will, it’s your whiskey, and no one should tell you how you should drink it.

John Hammontree: Well, Clay, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about… I feel like I should have been drinking during this conversation. But maybe next time.

Clay Risen: No, it’s my pleasure. It’s a lot of fun.

John Hammontree: And that’s our show folks, thank you to Clay Risen for his time. You can find his book, “Bourbon,” at ClayRisen.com, at your local bookstore, or bookstores online. Seriously, I cannot thank you enough for including the Reckon Interview in your weekly lineup of podcasts this year. I know there are millions of shows out there. And I’m honored that you even set aside one minute to listen to this show. You can help us grow the show in the new year by sharing it with your friends, your family. The bigger audience we get the more we can start to roll out new things like live episodes, in person events, Reckon Interview book clubs and more. 

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