Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland by Clay Risen

If you’re looking for a book for someone just getting into Scotch, it would be hard to find a better choice than Clay Risen’s Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland, which includes reviews of more than 330 single malt Scotch whiskies. Risen, Deputy Op-Ed Editor at the New York Times often writes about whiskey for the Times and is the author of American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye.

The Scotch book follows the format of that previous volume. It begins with a lengthy introduction which provides a framework with background information that every Scotch fan should know – what it is, how it’s made and what its history is, along with a brief guide about how to best enjoy it (a section which is largely lifted from the American whiskey book). 

 The bulk of the book is dedicated to reviews of a wide range of single malts, categorized by distillery and/or brand. One thing I really liked about Risen’s American whiskey book which is also true of this volume is that rather than just providing tasting notes in his reviews, Risen gives some background about each distillery and each expression, providing context for the notes and rating. 

 Risen had help on the ratings from a very impressive tasting panel including, among others, The Coopered Tot blogger Joshua Feldman, Bourbon Empire author Reid Mitenbuler and Whisky Advocate senior writer/editor Susannah Skiver Barton. The tasting notes are clear, the ratings are fair and there is no hint of grade inflation.

Of course, it’s hard to cover everything in one volume, and the one noticeable gap in this one is independent bottlers. A common source of confusion for new Scotch drinkers, independent bottlers are a major feature of the single malt market, but Risen scarcely mentions that entire sector of the market.  He does include reviews for a few independent mystery malt brands, but it would have been helpful for readers if the introduction included a few paragraphs providing the basic what, why and how of independent bottlings. That being said, it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise comprehensive work.

There are numerous Scotch books on the market, but Risen’s is the best introduction to single malt Scotch to hit the shelves since Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide.  If you know a beginner or intermediate Scotch drinker, it would be hard to find a better gift…er, aside from Scotch.

- Sku