A Golden Age for American Whiskey Writers

 

The whiskey writers, from left, Heather Greene, Noah Rothbaum, Fred Minnick, Lew Bryson, Liza Weisstuch and Clay Risen. Credit Cole Wilson for The New York Times

If you haven’t been to a liquor store in a while, you may be surprised to find the shelves of whiskey groaning with American bottles. Now the same transformation is playing out at the bookstore.

Soaring consumer interest in American whiskeys over the last decade has created a symbiotic cottage industry in writing about those spirits. Unlike almost any other spirits (Scotch is a notable exception), bourbon and rye and other American whiskeys have been taken up by many writers as their primary — and sometimes only — topic.

“I liken covering American whiskey to covering sports,” said Fred Minnick, who writes about whiskey full time and is the author of three books on the subject. “Sports teams have these very rabid fans. Bourbon fans are the same way. They want to know every single thing.”

And so, book after book on the subject has been published in the last few years. They include Mr. Minnick’s “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey”; “Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits” by Lew Bryson; “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit” by Clay Risen; “The Art of American Whiskey: A Visual History of the Nation’s Most Storied Spirit, Through 100 Iconic Labels” by Noah Rothbaum; and “Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life” by Heather Greene.

Opportunities to write about American whiskey have grown well beyond trade journals like Whisky Advocate. Mr. Risen, for example, has written for The Atlantic, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Garden & Gun and The New York Times, where he is the deputy Op-Ed editor.

Though Mr. Risen also writes about other subjects, he describes himself as a whiskey writer as often as not. It’s a beat that has taken off only in the last 15 years. Sales of bourbon and its close cousin, Tennessee whiskey, have exploded in the United States, to more than 20 million nine-liter cases in 2015 from just over 13 million in 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

“When I started, there was really one person who had a sole focus on American whiskey,” Mr. Minnick said. “That was Chuck Cowdery.”

A former advertising man who worked for bourbon distillers, Mr. Cowdery is widely considered the dean of American whiskey journalism. He writes a well-read and highly opinionated whiskey blog.

None of these journalists worry about running out of copy.

“American whiskey is complex,” Mr. Minnick said. “Every day there is someone acquiring a little guy, or there is a lawsuit. From that side of things, there’s a lot of drama. If you have drama, you have something to write about.”

The very circumscribed nature of American whiskey lends itself to exacting reportage, Mr. Bryson said.

“The problem with writing about rum is there’s no regulation, and it changes and does whatever it wants,” Mr. Bryson said. “But whiskey is quite regulated, and there is a lot more expectation there from the drinkers. You can make predictions and statements about it.”

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, but by legal definition it must be made from a grain bill composed of no less that 51 percent corn, and it must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Similarly, rye whiskey must be made of no less that 51 percent rye.

Liza Weisstuch, a journalist who has covered whiskey for a decade, likened the spirit to wine in its headline-generating potential. “It’s a huge category with lots of players that has a massive popular appeal,” Ms. Weisstuch said. “So many people want to understand it all but often don’t know where or how to start asking questions.”

With so many writers on the trail of the same stories, you may expect some backbiting. But most journalists describe their interactions with the same word: “congenial.” Within reason, of course.

“I see it as akin to the bourbon distillers down in Kentucky,” said Mr. Rothbaum, who is also the drink and food senior editor at The Daily Beast. “They’re all friendly, which is not to say people aren’t competitive.”

Whether the public’s thirst for this much American whiskey literature is sustainable remains an open question. Ms. Weisstuch said she thinks it is, though she also writes about Scotch. Mr. Minnick’s next book will be about rum, and Ms. Greene’s will be about all spirits.

“At this point,” Ms. Greene said, “it would feel a bit like dancing on the head of a pin, sticking to this one subject.”

NYT > Food