You can’t throw an ironically mustachioed barkeep these days without hitting a new craft whiskey. But like any over-hyped trend, America’s brown liquor boom has its share of hucksters and bush leaguers, which can make deviating from Kentucky bourbon—the Old Faithful of U.S. hooch—sort of daunting. We’re here to help.
The following are the gentleman-rebels of the whiskey world—they push boundaries without forgetting to taste great. And, as luck would have it, they’re cooked up in cities that are worth their postcards. So step away from the Maker’s Mark and have a dog-days whiskey adventure. Just don’t forget a bucket of Advil.
New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon
Whiskey is basically distilled beer, so it makes sense that a few microbreweries have entered the liquor game. Handcrafted in Holland, a Lower Peninsula hamlet known for its tulip festival and proximity to Lake Michigan, this bourbon begins its aging process in new American oak and finishes up in barrels originally used to flavor the brewery’s popular Dragon’s Milk stout. The beer-soaked wood imparts a malty kick to the otherwise easygoing whiskey, which you can (and should) sample at New Holland’s pub before pedaling west to the white beaches of the big lake.
Montana Spring Wheat Whiskey
Wheat whiskey is lighter on the tongue than, say, corn whiskey, but that doesn’t mean it lacks complexity. Take this tasty restorative made from wheat grown just up the road from RoughStock’s copper stills. It’s butter-smooth until it hits French oak, at which point, well, you tell us after taking the tour and tasting (if you really want to know, we taste cinnamon and, unexpectedly, Nilla wafers). Something I’m sure we can agree on is that it’s a big win-win that one the finest new microdistilleries in the nation sits smack-dab in ski-bike-hike heaven.
Not all of Darek Bell and Andrew Webber’s post-modern whiskeys work (I’m a firm believer that quinoa should stay in salads), but many do, including this rye-based moonshine. Un-aged whiskey is akin to holy water in many parts of the South, and I’d happily be baptized in Corsair’s bold, peppery take on the old white dog. Try it yourself at the distillery’s Nashville headquarters, located in a former autoworks. Side note: MUSIC CITY!
Straight Triticale Whiskey
You know how authentic Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have two menus—one for delicate Americans, the other filled with wondrous delights from the edge of the culinary cosmos? The craft booze version of that scenario is happening over at Dry Fly, an Eastern Washington outfit that offers some very decent vodka, gin and whiskey and some lights-out spirits in its specialty “Creel” collection in 375-ml bottles.
The real superfreak of these mini-batch experiments is a whiskey distilled from triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid developed in Scotland and Sweden in the late 1800s. The resulting whiskey boasts heavy grain notes tempered by fruit and a hint of smoke. So remember, when you pop into Dry Fly’s Spokane headquarters, ask for the “Creel” menu.
Campfire by High West
Located at the base of the Quittin’ Time run high in Robert Redford country, this “ski-in distillery and gastro-saloon” isn’t trying nearly as hard as that self-description would have you believe. Its whiskeys, though deep, funky and satisfying, have an effortless quality, as does the laid back bar and eatery. Tour the distillery (the state’s first since 1870—though that’s not saying much because, you know, Utah) then head to the saloon and sip on some Campfire, a unique, highly drinkable blend of Scotch, bourbon and rye.
Baby Blue by Balcones
A leader in the small-batch scene, Balcones formed five years ago in Waco with the ambitious goal of developing a “Texas whiskey.” We’re not sure if its signature single-malt, with its toasty fruit notes, screams “Lone Star,” but it’s damn decent. Even better is the Baby Blue, born of roasted blue corn meal and tasting of hazelnut and, yes, maíz azul. Come to think of it, this one might be the home-state whiskey they had in mind.
Hudson Manhattan by Tuthilltown Spirits
Pre-prohibition, rye whiskey was the adult beverage of choice for Yankees. But when the fun stopped in 1920, it all but disappeared from the Northeast. Thankfully, the alchemists at Tuthilltown in Upstate New York have revived the spirit, which hadn’t been produced in the state in more than eight decades. The name of this 92-proof wonder is a mandate, and one you’d be wise to follow (it really is the perfect Manhattan rye). Here’s a mandate of our own: Tour the Tuthilltown distillery ASAP. It’s located in a 220-year-old former gristmill that’s on the National Register of Historic Places and—much like the whiskeys it produces—has soul to spare.
Straight Rocky Mountain Whiskey by Stranahan’s
A few years back, a volunteer firefighter named Jess Graber met his future business partner George Stranahan while battling a barn fire on Stranahan’s Aspen, Colorado, property. The barn didn’t make it, but a friendship blossomed between the two men, who shared a passion for fancy sauce. Talk about a creation story. The friends went on to form Denver-based artisan distillery Stranahan’s, which offers but one very special product: a single-malt made from Rocky Mountain water and Colorado grains. It’s a big, bold sipper best enjoyed straight up in the Rackhouse—Stranahan’s in-house pub frequented by all manner of urban cowpokes.