Clay Risen on Working the Whiskey Beat - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Clay Risen on Working the Whiskey Beat

If you visit the Nearest Green Distillery north of Lynchburg, Tennessee, you’ll find a display along a corridor near the Barrel House II restaurant. It honors five significant people who figured in the rebirth of the story of Nathan “Nearest” Green, a former enslaved person who was the first master distiller at Jack Daniel’s and taught a young Daniel how to make whiskey. There’s Daniel himself, of course; Fawn Weaver, the entrepreneur who built the distillery and puts out its signature whiskey, Uncle Nearest 1856; Ben A. Green, a reporter who outlined Nearest Green’s importance in his 1967 book, Jack Daniel’s Legacy (the two Greens aren’t related); Annie Bell “Mammie” Green, a descendent of Nearest; and Clay Risen. 

[Clay Risen is] indirectly responsible for the existence of the [Nearest Green] distillery where his image is displayed.

Risen is a reporter with The New York Times, where he writes obituaries. He also pens books about such disparate subjects as Teddy Roosevelt and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he’s best known as a whiskey writer. And he’s indirectly responsible for the existence of the distillery where his image is displayed.

Weaver was having breakfast on the top floor of the Four Seasons hotel in Singapore when she read a June 25, 2016, story in the Times written by Risen. Like much of the rest of the world, Weaver first learned from that article of the existence of Nearest Green and the important role he played in American whiskey history. 

“A lot of journalists do this,” says Weaver. “They don’t have the time or resources or budget with their various publications, so they do a ‘lob.’ They’ll find out as much as they can, written in such a way, in hopes that someone will complete the work. Usually, no one picks it up.” Weaver fielded Risen’s lob and ran with it. She moved to Tennessee; did exhaustive research on Green; shared her research with Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniel’s and soon chose to formally recognize Green’s contribution; bought the farm where Green and Daniel first worked together; built the distillery; and produced the whiskey. She basically rewrote the history of America’s most famous whiskey brand. “Clay told me I was the first person who took the lob,” Weaver says. (Adding an uncanny quality to the connection between the two, Risen and Weaver were born on the same day.)

“…here’s this woman who took the story and decided to create this brand and create a real narrative around it—that’s pretty impactful. I was overjoyed to see that.”—Clay Risen

Any journalist will tell you it’s rare that anything they write has a real-life impact let alone changes the landscape of the beat they cover. Risen’s piece on Green arguably ranks as the most significant piece of whiskey-world reporting of the century. Risen is, by nature, modest. But he, too, recognizes the effect of the piece. “Seeing the impact my article had in a really concrete way,” he says, “not just a bunch of people reading it, but here’s this woman who took the story and decided to create this brand and create a real narrative around it—that’s pretty impactful. I was overjoyed to see that.”

When Risen first began reporting on whiskey about 10 years ago, the professional niche barely existed. Today, whiskey journalism is an increasingly crowded field, having grown alongside the booming public interest in whiskey itself. And in that field, Risen is the preeminent practitioner, with regular must-read whiskey stories in the Times, four whiskey-related books under his belt, and another due this fall. 

His position can be chalked up to a number of things, including the undeniable influence of having a perch at the Times. There’s also his prodigious output to consider. “The thing about Clay is he’s a very fast writer,” observes Reid Mitenbuler, a friend and fellow whiskey author. “I’ve wondered sometimes, how does this guy do it? Does he have more hours in the day?”

But more than anything, Risen’s career can be traced back to two fateful decisions. He published a story everyone had neglected to report, and he wrote a book no one wanted to write. 

Risen’s career can be traced back to two fateful decisions. He published a story everyone had neglected to report, and he wrote a book no one wanted to write. 

The Green story came about when a Daniel’s publicist pitched Risen a laundry list of possible story angles connected to the distillery’s upcoming 150th anniversary. “It was stuff people know already,” Risen says. “But one of the stories was of Nearest Green. Well, one of these things is not like the others. That one is really interesting! I don’t think they expected me to say that. I think they were caught off guard.” The article won Risen an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award.

The book nobody wanted to write was Risen’s first, American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, a straightforward tasting guide to 200-plus whiskeys that came out in 2013. George Scott used to package book projects, including bird guides, and shop them around to publishers. He saw an opening in the market for an American whiskey guide. But he couldn’t find a writer for the job. He’d been turned down by multiple established booze scribes when he floated the idea to Risen after reading one of his pieces (about beer, no less) in The Atlantic

The book sold out its first run of 5,000 copies in pre-sale, and they began work on an expanded edition within the year. To date, it’s sold more than 125,000 copies, an astounding number, and has become, in Scott’s determination, the “best-selling book about American whiskey ever published.” The two subsequently collaborated on a similar guide to single malt Scotch whisky. A guide on rye whiskey will arrive in October.

Given his rate of success, you’d imagine Clay Risen was a 24/7 whiskey man. But, unusual among whiskey writers, he has other interests. In addition to writing obits for people ranging from the in-house orthopedic surgeon at City Ballet in New York to Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge, Risen regularly turns out non-whiskey books. The Bill of the Century (2014) tracks the battle over the Civil Rights Act. The Crowded Hour (2019) is about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. He’s currently working on a book about the Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s. “I’m not someone who could sit and do one thing,” Risen says. “I think I’m more productive when I do a lot of things.”

“I think he’s one of the smartest writers in whiskey right now.”—George Scott

“He’s a historian at heart,” Scott says. “Having a great palate, and his knowledge of American history and his methods as a history writer, I think he’s exactly the right combination. I think he’s one of the smartest writers in whiskey right now.”

Weaver goes further. She doesn’t even think of Risen as a whiskey writer per se. 

“I wouldn’t put him in that,” she says. “I think he’s too far above that. I don’t say that as a knock to whiskey writing. But Clay could hop on a plane to Ukraine and write the definitive story about that.” 

The historical bent of Risen’s work comes honestly. Born in upstate New York and raised in Nashville, he took a lot of history courses at Georgetown University (where he was editor of the school newspaper), and got a master’s degree in social science at the University of Chicago. He had applied to various history programs and was considering a life in academia, when a job offer came from The New Republic. He began writing about whiskey—an interest of his ever since his grandfather gave him a taste of Blanton’s bourbon in 2002—for The Atlantic. By 2010, he was working for the Times

Risen admits that having multiple writing focuses can be confusing to some. “People think my history books can’t be any good because I write about whiskey,” he says. “‘You’re a whiskey guy! What are you doing writing this?’” On the other hand, it can also lead to unusual experiences. “I’ve given a lecture on Teddy Roosevelt or Civil Rights, followed by a whiskey tasting.”

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