After penning two best-selling books on whiskey, Clay Risen is serving up another undiluted tome dedicated to the tipple. The deputy editor of The New York Times, who has garnered a reputation as one of the country’s leading authorities on spirits, has joined forces with top-shelf publisher Assouline to deliver The Impossible Collection of Whiskey.
For the project, the 44-year-old Brooklynite, curated 100 of the world’s most coveted whiskeys. To make the cut, bottles had to showcase rarity, age and/or innovation. Naturally, they needed to taste good, too.
Connoisseurs will, of course, recognize heavy hitters, like the Midleton Very Rare 45-Year-Old (the world’s oldest and most expensive Irish whiskey), but may be surprised by a 30-year-old single malt from the Czech Republic. It’s not simply about the most expensive expressions, this is Risen’s love letter to whiskey and a celebration of the spirit’s deep and complex history.
Indeed, the book transcends a superficial “Top 100” listicle. Instead, Risen explores each bottle’s backstory and artfully justifies its position on the list. Quibbling among collectors is to be expected, but that’s half the fun of it. The whole point is that this impossible collection is the stuff of dreams.
In keeping with Assouline’s brimming collection of thousand-dollar coffee books, which run the gamut from stogies to football to Bentleys, the Impossible Collection of Whiskey is itself a work of art. Presented in a wrought-iron-trimmed wood box modeled after a whiskey barrel, it’s an elegant representation of the subject matter.
While penning the page-turner, Risen uncovered some unexpected truths about whiskey—who knew India could be the next big global producer?—and the writing process itself. Robb Report caught up with the author to get the skinny on each salient revelation.
A Generation of Great Distillers Will Come From Outside of Traditional Whiskey Regions
“I’ve been very lucky that my career in writing about whiskey has tracked closely with the explosion in interest, not just in the United States but globally. At first people thought it was a trend, something that would pass. Now, in 2020, it’s clear that’s not the case. Scotland, and Kentucky, will continue to dominate the industry, alongside Canada and Ireland, but the future will be much more diverse. That’s why it was so important to me to include whiskey from new corners of the world—India, Taiwan, Australia. Not only are these great whiskeys in their own right, but I firmly believe that in a generation, distilleries in these countries will find a place alongside the best single-malt Scotch and bourbon producers.”
American Bourbon Still Takes a Backseat to Scotland and Japan in Global Acclaim
“I find it curious that after 15 years of the bourbon boom, American whiskey still doesn’t receive the sort of global acclaim—in auctions, on fan-review sites—that Scotch and, to a lesser extent, Japanese whisky receives. That’s not at all true within the United States, where bourbon bottles, new and vintage, can command enormous prices. This will change as the bourbon boom continues to spread overseas, and it’s one reason why I included a strong contingent of American whiskey in the list.”
A Bottle’s Backstory Sometimes Trumps Taste
“One of the points I make repeatedly in the book is that this list is not simply about the highest-priced whiskeys, or the rarest, or even the best-regarded. It’s some of all of that, but it is also about telling a story about whiskey history. So, for example, the centennial bottle of Elmer T. Lee, released on the what would have been the 100th birthday of the legendary distillery manager. Is the liquid as good as the greatest Macallan, or even the greatest Buffalo Trace whiskey? It’s great whiskey, but no, it’s not. But that’s not the point. The bottle is important because of what it says about whiskey history, and bourbon history in particular. Lee invented single-barrel bourbon. And he, along with Booker Noe and a few others, arguably saved the industry at a time when Kentucky whiskey was in a freefall.”
The History of Whiskey Is Largely Undocumented
“For an industry that occupies such a large cultural footprint, I am constantly surprised at how thin the historical record is, especially in terms of secondary sources. Until recently, books about whiskey history were rare. Fortunately, I enjoy digging through archives to find primary sources, so that part of the book was a lot of fun.”
You Don’t Have to Sample Every Bottle to Write the Ultimate Guide
“I’d like to say that I tried every whiskey on this list, and I have in fact tried many of them. But I doubt anyone in the world has tried them all–this is, after all, an ‘impossible’ collection.”