Anyone who talks bourbon talks water. Kentuckians talk about their limestone karst that filters out the bitter effects of iron; Coloradans talk about pure snowmelt. The rest of us downplay the natural trickles and talk about reverse osmosis and the perks of our own filters. Whatever the talk, the proof comes in the pouring, and as craft distilleries continue to win over tastebuds and awards panels, the more the mindset shifts that Kentucky’s the only place where you can get a good bourbon.
But outside of the Bourbon Belt, we’re seeing the rise of fresh perspectives on American whiskey: it might all be in the water, but there’s enough good H20 to go around. There’s creative interpretation. There’s pushing past the traditions of old. And while a few of these whiskeys don’t stick by the hard-and-fast rules of bourbon production — High West’s a blend, George Dickel filters — they’re close enough. We don’t aim to split hairs here. If it’s an American whiskey, near enough to the bourbon process, and it tastes good going down, it’s on the list.
In compiling this amalgamation of nationwide spirits, we consulted with Parker Newman, co-founder of Ezra’s Liquor, a craft liquor store in Chicago and online. Newman collaborates with craft distributors to attain labels that are often overlooked or overshadowed by the big names. If you see it in the mainstream, you won’t find it at Ezra’s. But as Parker, who has the lugubrious task of tasting every spirit he sells, can attest, the smaller stills are producing whiskey that deserves recognition — even if they don’t see nationwide distribution.
Maybe these are the apocrypha of the bourbon world, but that doesn’t mean they’re not inspired liquids. Don’t turn away a good glass of the brown stuff because it’s not canonical. Reading beyond the Pappys and the Elmer T. Lees, you’ll find texts that are intricate and interesting, layered and complicated, robust and satisfying. They’re as good as some of the stuff coming out of Kentucky. It’s made on American soil, and it’s damn good bourbon. So drink up.
FEW Bourbon Whiskey
Evanston, IL: Evanston, the birthplace of the temperance movement, just got a new neighbor. FEW — named for Frances Elizabeth Willard, the leader of the temperance movement — is bringing grain-to-glass whiskey that’s sweeping up awards and leaving many wanting more. It’s a traditional bourbon whiskey, starting with spice, rounding with vanilla, and finishing with a lingering caramel. From the ashes of temperance rises a craft distillery whose bourbon is a movement all its own.
Tin Cup Whiskey
Denver, CO: Jess Graber, the guy behind the illustrious Stranahan’s Whiskey, is up to some new tricks. Tin Cup uses a high-rye mash bill, adding spice and pepper to the sweetness of the corn mash. And, true to the Stranahan’s name, the whole thing comes together in an approachable and enjoyable sipping experience.
High West American Prairie Reserve
Park City, UT: High West holds a variety of unique accolades to its name: it’s the first distillery in Utah and the only ski-in distillery in the world. Since the 1870s, this distillery in a town founded by prospectors has grown to be one of the major players in the craft world, making their name on their masterfully blended whiskies. The Prairie Reserve maintains the closest fidelity to a straight bourbon, blending together a 6-year and 10-year bourbon. It’s a full-bodied flavor that isn’t shy, with plenty of spice and bite, which lends a distinct resonance to the rough-hewn ways of the West.
THE NDP ON THE MGP
Critics of non-Kentucky bourbons often pick on the NDPs (non-distiller producers). And many NDPs get their whiskey from the MGP — an ingredients supplier that produces and resells whiskey made at an old Seagram’s distillery in Indiana. The argument is that an NDP with MGP is not articulating the craft of mashing, distilling, and aging their whiskey. They have a point, but there’s also a counterpoint.
What NDP critics forget is the costs and time investment of producing whiskey. For many NDPs, sourcing whiskey from a manufacturer (many source from Kentucky producers, not solely the MGP) is the only way to get on their feet, rather than waiting years for their whiskey to age and, subsequently, selling a product. The critics also discount the careful attention that goes into finishing (often with subsequent aging) and blending the whiskeys, even when they’re produced off site. It’s a distinct art form, and many of the NDPs are introducing inventive interpretations of how whiskey can and should taste.
Balcones Baby Blue
Waco, TX: Down in Waco, Chip Tate is mixing up some mighty fine whiskies. Balcones takes pride in mashing, fermenting, and distilling all their own whiskey, without sourcing from beyond. In the Baby Blue, they take atole, a roasted blue cornmeal, for the mash, giving a nutty, spicy flavor. The first Texas whiskey on the market since prohibition, it’s not a bourbon, but it follows the spirit of the process with a distinct and rebellious Texan kick.
Journeyman Featherbone Bourbon
Three Oaks, MI: Journeyman takes grain to glass to a new level, sourcing local grains to make their mash; it is, as Newman notes, “literally a combination of bits and pieces of the Midwest”. And the Midwest flavor lingers with a long, toasted wheat finish, like a slow sunset over the plains.
Big Bottom Whiskey Straight Bourbon 111 Proof
Hillsboro, OR: With their 111 proof bourbon, Oregon’s Big Bottom Whiskey takes the rich flavors of their Straight One and expands them exponentially. The flavors come out bold, and the experience is rich. The bourbon ages for at least 6 years, taking a small edge off the high proof, but the experience is engaging with the flavors as they come in loud across the palate.
George Dickel No. 12 Whisky
Tullahoma, TN: Dickel exists in the tradition of Tennessee Whisky, and like Jack D, they run their white dog through a filter. While naysayers call fraud, those in the know see the experience as uniquely satisfying, and Dickel’s No. 12, calling on the 8- to 9-year barrels, offers an exceptionally luminous taste. It’s sweet and moderate, and a perfect sipping whisky.
Finger Lakes Distilling McKenzie Bourbon
Burdett, NY: A banker and a winemaker shared the same last name — McKenzie — and the same passion — fine spirits. Settling in New York’s wine region, they joined together to create a locally sourced grain-to-glass bourbon that could put upstate NY on the whiskey map. They age first in charred oak, then finish with local chardonnay casks, creating a smooth finish to ride out the sweet and spicy bourbon body.
35 Maple Street Bib & Tucker Bourbon
Sonoma, CA: Bib & Tucker wants to bring a touch of the “special occasion” to the bourbon market, so they reappropriate the olde tyme expression for a Westerner’s finest attire. The bourbon doesn’t disappoint for the occasion, leading with vanilla, moving into spice, and finishing off with a nutty release. The 6-year whiskey is complex yet approachable, and drinkable for all occasions — formal attire or not.
Breckenridge, CO: Coloradans are pretty sure they’ve struck liquid gold, and there’s enough distilleries popping up to call it a modern-day whiskey rush. Mile High Spirits Fireside Bourbon and Peach Street Bourbon are strong contenders, but it’s Breckenridge Bourbon that brings the most prolific flavors to palate. Using snowmelt and a high-rye mash, the bourbon’s a full mouth experience that lingers with a long finish.