Staff editor at the New York Times Clay Risen informs as well as he entertains in the encyclopedic American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit.
What do you think makes the recent “whiskey boom” particularly about whiskey?
I think whiskey embodies a lot of what people are looking for right now in terms of bar culture, in terms of drinking culture. There was a trend, for a long time, that really hurt whiskey: the popularity of “white spirits”—vodka and rum and things—starting in the 60’s and 70’s to the end of the century. Those things are still very popular but I think you see across the board that people are turning away from the “blander”, or “lighter,” spirits and cocktails in favor of things with more robust flavor, things with stronger character, and things with a certain amount of history to them.
Whiskey does seem like a liquor out of the far past.
People are nostalgic, they’re looking back to the past, and I think whiskey fits right into that, being something that has a history, something that has left an indelible print on America. All of that opens a moment for people to start creating, saying: “Okay, you know whiskey. You know the big brands out there. Here are some twists on those.” Many smaller expressions are coming out of craft distilleries. There are some very different ways to think about whiskey. And there are some styles that were almost completely moribund. Rye whiskey had almost completely dropped off the map, and now it’s moving. All of it makes for a very exciting moment.
Are there any particularly exciting distilling trends you’ve seen bubbling up?
Actually one that I just read about—this isn’t the first place to do this, but there’ve been enough to call this a trend—is in craft brewing there’s a trend of aging beers in Oak barrels and sometimes in whiskey barrels. Getting a barrel that used to hold Wild Turkey Bourbon and putting beer in it, letting it sit for up to a year so it soaks in a lot of the bluesy, sweet vanilla, maple, Oaky flavor from the whiskey. That’s very popular right now with beer. Well, a number of whiskey makers—and Buffalo Trace has announced they’re about to do this—are flipping that. The idea is to take a Bourbon, aged and ready-to-go, and put it in a barrel that used to hold beer. The whiskey absorbs some of that beer flavor, the malt and the chocolate flavor. They usually do this with stouts, so you’re getting that great stout flavor. But if you do it right, it’s just a little icing on it; it’s not dominate.