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Clay Risen Talks Death, History and the Rebirth of America’s First Spirit | Books

Clay Risen headshot by Kate Milford

From Old Monongahela, the generic name for the spirit that dominated American tastes in the 19th century, through the distinct styles of Kentucky, Maryland and the myriad expressions of the latest micro-distilleries, Clay Risen explores all things rye in American Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Original Spirit. This is his third book in a series that also includes American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye and Single Malt

Risen, a New York Times reporter and editor who grew up in Nashville, is also known for writing obituaries and for various works of U.S. history. Recently he spoke with Chapter 16 by phone about the rebirth of rye as a popular spirit, his other writing interests and the current political moment. 

In the introduction you recall three decorative decanters on a sideboard at your grandmother’s house, labeled with metal tags reading “Scotch,” “Bourbon” and “Rye.” Did any relatives or visitors choose the rye bottle?

No. It was untouched, which fits with attitudes toward rye at that point. It was more like a historic curiosity than anything else. I was probably more curious about it because all the adults probably knew what it was or knew what it had been. I had no idea what rye was. I don’t think I ever tasted it until 2006 or 2007, as I was getting to know bourbon, and rye was bourbon-adjacent. 

It’s been nine years since your guide to bourbon was published. What’s changed in the world of whiskey since then?

Well, I’ll tell you the biggest: I could never write a book like that again. Then, it was at least possible to conceive a book that covered most of the whiskey in the country. It covered everything in about 300 pages. Today you would need thousands of pages, and it would be out of date almost immediately. New distilleries open all the time. New whiskeys come out all the time. There are so many different facets of the industry of American whiskey that it makes the idea of a comprehensive book a little outlandish. 

What makes rye so American?

As a grain, rye has been distilled for a long time in Europe. There still are rye-based spirits in Northern Europe, but they’re very different from rye whiskey. Our marriage of aging and a predominantly rye mash bill is something that until recently was unique. It was being distilled here long before bourbon, long before any other type of whiskey. 

In the section “How to Drink Whiskey,” you write that “you should treat a whiskey you don’t know like a dog you don’t know.” Metaphorically speaking, were you bitten by any bad dogs while working on the book?

Sure. Rye is spicy and often has a little edge to it. I like that a lot. But it can catch you unawares. If you stick your nose right in it, it can bite back.


I’ve enjoyed your palate notes in previous books. They’re often surprising and sometimes poetic. Some in this book were linen, Big Red chewing gum, aspirin, flat cola and cherry cough syrup. What does linen taste like?

There are two ways to think about tasting notes. The first a quasi-scientific approach. You get a bunch of great noses in a room and have everyone sit down and calibrate. There is a right set of smells to find and a right set of tastes to find, and those things are indicative of qualities of the whiskey. That’s one way to do it, and that’s perfectly fine. The way I do it is much more impressionistic and suggestive. What I’m trying to get across is a general sense of what this whiskey is like. I hope when people read the notes, it sets off something in their imagination. What would linen taste like? Something airy and maybe slightly floral, sort of soft, maybe a little waxy. The idea is to be a little playful with it.

Let’s talk about your other job, as an obit writer for The New York Times. Week in and week out, you share stories of people who may not be household names, but who have led extraordinary lives. What is your process?

Each one is a little different. These are assigned to me, and I really like having no idea what’s in the box when I wake up in the morning and open that email. And then I find out, today I’m going to spend my time with a documentary filmmaker or a research scientist or a politician. … There’s almost something sacral about it, knowing I am helping to put this person into history.

My last question is about your third job: writing history books. Are you working on one now?

Yes, I have a book due in July about the second Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s. It certainly has a lot of resonance. For example, New York and California and a lot of other states cracked down on high school and elementary teachers, essentially creating a blacklist for teachers who might have said anything in the classroom that showed any sort of sympathy for communism. … It’s very hard to read about the career of Sen. Joe McCarthy and not feel like this is a play that is continually being reproduced on our political stage. 

To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee. 

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