Life

The Best *True* Craft Bourbon Whiskeys, Ranked

Craft bourbon can often be a murky area in the whiskey industry. Opening a distillery from scratch and then waiting for two, four, maybe even five years to put a bottle on the shelf is not cheap. So a lot of small-time operators will source barrels and blend in-house or have a big distillery contract distill their juice and maybe age it too. We’re not here to talk about those — still worthy — producers today. The list below is all about the small-time operators that are actually doing everything in-house.

For this list, I’m defining a “craft bourbon” as something made outside the main players in the industry that’s also produced at a single craft distillery. That’s not to say that some of the craft distilleries below don’t have partnerships with distributors (Constellation Brands being one). Distribution is a different matter altogether and obviously, these small-time operators need to get their bottles on shelves.

Lastly, I’m providing my tasting notes on each of these to give you an idea of what’s in the bottle. Hopefully, you’ll find something that speaks to you and find yourself a new bottle for your home bar cart.

Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months

10. Town Branch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Town Branch
Town Branch

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $35

The Whiskey:

Town Branch is Lexington’s destination distillery/brewery right in the city. Their flagship bourbon is a high-malt mash bill, adding more smooth sweetness to the mix. The whiskey ages for four to five years before it’s blended and proofed with water from the “town branch” of Elkhorn Creek, which runs through Lexington.

Tasting Notes:

This is as soft as it is classic on the nose with hints of rich caramel mingling with dark cherry, soft nutmeg, and a hint of leathery oak. The palate follows that path while layering in a twinge of orange blossom next to cherry leather with cinnamon and clove hints and a twinge of pipe tobacco in a wooden box. The finish is subtle and short and marries the cedar with the orange blossom with the cherry lingering the longest on the backend.

Bottom Line:

This is a pretty nice and classic pour. It’s a little muted for my palate but still works wonderfully in a classic bourbon-focused cocktail.

9. Watershed Bourbon Finished in Nocino Barrels

Watershed
Watershed Distillery

ABV: 56%

Average Price: $99

The Whiskey:

This Columbus, Ohio distillery likes doing things their own way. The juice in this bottle is made from a mash of 60 percent corn, a 35 percent mix of wheat and rye, and five percent spelt chips. That whiskey mellows for four to five years before it’s re-filled into Nocino barrels. Nocino is an Italian black walnut liqueur, which adds a serious nuttiness to the final product.

Tasting Notes:

Walnut pound cake comes through on the nose with orange oils layered next to a hint of espresso macchiato, a dash of nutmeg, and a drizzle of salted caramel. The palate part dark chocolate-covered walnuts and part dried cranberry with a hint of clove, allspice, and cinnamon warming the senses. Maple syrup drives the mid-palate toward a finish that’s full of walnut shells and cedar boxes full of orange tobacco.

Bottom Line:

This is delicious and bold. It’s a little warm in the middle, but a single rock will calm that down nicely.

8. Leopold Bros. Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

Leopold Bros. Bourbon
Leopold Bros.

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $60

The Whiskey:

This crafty expression has been garnering a lot of attention since it dropped. The mash is made from 64 percent corn, 21 percent malted barley, and 15 percent Abruzzi Heritage Rye that Todd Leopold — the Master Distiller — grew for his malting house at the distillery in Denver. That mash ran through a classic pot still before it was barreled and left to rest for five years.

Tasting Notes:

The floral and spicy nature of that Abruzzi rye really comes out on the nose with a touch of candied apples, Quick powder, and the faintest hint of sourdough rye with a light smear of salted butter. The taste leans into stewed pears with nutmeg and clove spices leading the way as Almond Roca and green peppercorns jostle for space on your palate. The end mellows out as that spice fades towards an eggnog vibe with a creamy vanilla underbelly and a final touch of that floral rye and hint of pear.

Bottom Line:

This is a great example of spice and grains that build from the nose to the palate and take you on the journey. That mild floral edge also helps this stand out as a good cocktail bourbon.

7. LAWS Four Grain Bourbon

Laws Whiskey House

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $78

The Whiskey:

A.D. Laws out in Colorado is a special shingle. The distillery is renowned for its award-winning four-grain bourbons. This bottle is the most accessible of the bunch. The juice is made from 60 percent corn, 20 percent heirloom wheat, ten percent heirloom rye, and ten percent heirloom malted barley. That hot juice is then aged for over six years before it’s batched and cut down to 100 proof per bonded whiskey laws.

Tasting Notes:

This feels more crafty on the nose, with a balance between bitter black tea that’s been cut with a summer-y and floral honey as touches of cinnamon and orange pop in the background. The orange and spice thickens and leans into an orange pound cake with a buttery and spicy streusel crumble as that black tea bitterness circles back to cut through all that butter, spice, and orange. The end leans into the spice with more of a cinnamon candy vibe that drives towards a final dusting of dark cocoa.

Bottom Line:

This has a nice complexity to it that helps it shine as a sipper or a cocktail base. It still does feel more crafty than classic, which is fine but drops it a little on this list.

6. Chattanooga Bottled-In-Bond Vintage Series, Spring 2017

Chattanooga BiB
Chattanooga

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $55

The Whiskey:

This particular whiskey was made back in spring 2017 and released in late 2021. The whiskey is a blend of four mash bills that all feature specialty malts ranging from honey malts to peated barley to naked oats to chocolate roasted barley to caramel malts and many more. The throughline is yellow corn, bonded warehouse aging, and proofing down to 50 percent ABV.

Tasting Notes:

You get all those grains on the nose with rich toffee, dark chocolate-covered sweet and tart berries, malted vanilla milkshake, and a hint of yellow masa. The palate sweetens like honey dripping on a buttery southern biscuit while hints of soft leather mingle with cherry tobacco and this very distant whisper of hickory smoker smoke. The sweetness of that woody smoke dissipates quickly as hints of dry cedar mix with cherry tobacco leaves and a mix of vanilla pods and allspice berries bring a mild warmth.

Bottom Line:

There’s a lot going on here and it all makes sense. That’s a tough trick to pull off. Overall, this is great on the rocks sipper. Still, it’s a little wild and unique compared to the next five which are just that little bit more dialed.

5. Nelson Bros. Whiskey Reserve Bourbon

Nelson Bros. Bourbon
Nelsons Green Brier

ABV: 46.65%

Average Price: $69

The Whiskey:

This new release from Nelson’s Green Brier is a big evolution for the brand. This high-rye bourbon is aged for four years before it’s masterfully blended into his expression. It’s then bottled without any fussing or meddling.

Tasting Notes:

A vanilla wafer with soft nougat greets you on the nose with a hint of burnt orange zest, Christmas cake, candied cherry, and a little bit of apple pie filling. The taste has a moment of grilled pineapple that leads to brandy-soaked dark chocolate-covered cherries with a supporting act of zucchini bread, pecan pie, and a whisper of lemon meringue pie — it’s kind of like being in an old-school diner. A mild dusting of white pepper ushers in the finish with a smooth green tea cut with menthol tobacco.

Bottom Line:

This was made to be your next go-to bourbon, full stop. It’s a killer cocktail base that you can pour over some rocks and sip. It wouldn’t challenge you but you’ll have something truly classic in your hand.

4. Woodinville PX Cask Finish Bourbon

Screen-Shot-2021-08-03-at-12.10.22-AM.jpg
Woodinville Distillery

ABV: 47.5%

Average Price: $70

The Whiskey:

This whiskey takes Woodinville’s signature (and much-lauded) five-year-old straight bourbon and gives it a new finishing touch. The juice is finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. While there are similarities between this and the much-loved Woodinville Port Cask Finish, this feels like a step up in many small, tough-to-define ways.

Tasting Notes:

The nose is a bouquet of dark spices next to dried orange rinds, soft Christmas cake, and a slight floral underpinning that’s more “damp” than “dried out.” The taste embraces the holiday spice matrix with a creamy veneer of dark chocolate oranges, eggnog spice, and a velvety mouthfeel with a hint of orchard fruit and toffee drizzle. The finish is long but doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s a sense of the woody spices that’s more akin to cinnamon sticks once stirred in hot apple cider, leaving you with a dry note of spicy tobacco.

Bottom Line:

Speaking of classic, this whiskey is a damn masterpiece and yet it’s fourth on this list! All of that aside, pour this neat or over a rock and dive in.

3. Peerless Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Kentucky Peerless Distilling

ABV: 54.65%

Average Price: $86

The Whiskey:

Kentucky Peerless Distilling takes its time for a true grain-to-glass experience. Their Single Barrel Bourbon is crafted with a fairly low-rye mash bill and fermented with a sweet mash as opposed to a sour mash (that means they use 100 percent new grains, water, and yeast with each new batch instead of holding some of the mash over to start the next one like a sourdough starter, hence the name). The barrels are then hand-selected for their taste and bottled completely un-messed with.

Tasting Notes:

This is bold yet delicate, with a nose full of berry brambles hanging heavy with dark fruits with a touch of tart next to old leather, a spicy plum pudding, and a touch of old cedar. The palate takes that cedar and leans into the wet bark, as a moment of espresso bean bitterness leads into a mid-palate that’s the softest and moistest vanilla cake with poppy seeds. Those berries tumble onto the cake, now dusted with powdered sugar and ground cinnamon, as the finish slowly melts into pure silk.

Bottom Line:

This pulls off a magic trick of feeling both fresh and nostalgic at the same time. It helps that this is delicious but that feeling of sweet smoothness and comfort cannot be denied. And not for nothing, but this makes a killer old fashioned.

2. Garrison Brothers Balmorhea

Garrison Brothers

ABV: 57.5%

Average Price: $200

The Whiskey:

This much-lauded Texas bourbon is the highwater mark of what great whiskey from Texas can be. The juice is aged in Ozark oak for four years and then finished in oak from Minnesota for another year, all under that blazing West Texas sunshine. The bourbon is then small-batched, proofed with Texas spring water, and bottled at a healthy 115 proof.

Tasting Notes:

You’re greeted with a real sense of a corn-syrup-laced pecan pie next to hazelnut bespeckled cinnamon rolls and creamy milk chocolate with a hint of vanilla tobacco lurking in the background. That chocolate drives the taste towards a mint-chocolate ice cream vibe (heavy on the chocolate part) with small dashes of holiday spices, hard toffee candies, worn leather, and a flourish of cedar boxes full of more dried tobacco leaves. The end circles back around to all that sweet and chocolatey creaminess with a final slice of perfect pecan pie on a slow fade.

Bottom Line:

This is the highwater mark for the Texas craft distillery. It’s just so goddamn good that it’s hard not to fall in love with it at first sip.

1. Starlight Double Oaked Carl T. Bourbon Whiskey

Starlight Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon
Starlight Distillery

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $60 (Distillery only)

The Whiskey:

This whiskey from Southern Indiana’s Huber Winery is a masterful blend. The whiskey is one part 60 percent corn, 20 percent rye, and 20 percent malted barley and one part 51 percent corn, 20 percent rye, 20 percent malted barley, and nine percent wheat. That whiskey is then aged for four years before it’s re-filled in unused Seguin Moreau vanilla toast barrels for a final rest.

Tasting Notes:

Vanilla-laced apple fritters with a white sugar glaze mix with baking spices and a slight hint of dry firewood on the nose. That palate leans in the vanilla with a sheet cake vibe with apple-cinnamon frosting next to sticky toffee pudding, apple tobacco, and a hint of vanilla cream sauce. The finish subtle moves away from the sweetness toward a dry stack of firewood with a hint of dry black dirt next to dry apple tobacco laced with cinnamon.

Bottom Line:

This is subtle, delicious, and as crafty as it gets. These Starlight releases are also starting to break through with those in the know. So look out for these. — they’re going to blow up soon.

×