With so much huge-name branded bourbon on the shelf — think Jack Daniel’s, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and so on — it’s easy for the local crafty stuff to kind of get lost in the shuffle. But don’t sleep on small producers, local craft bourbon whiskey has exploded over the past decades and there’s a ton of great stuff out there. There’s also a ton of absolute trash, naturally. So let’s help you avoid that by vetting some of it on your behalf.
Below, I’m going to taste test eight modern classic craft bourbons. They all have tons of awards and tend to break through the static of an over-saturated bourbon market. For this exercise, I’ve focused on a batch of slightly wider known craft bourbons. And there’s something for everyone — barrel strength, bottled in bond, special finishes, and high-rye pours are all in the mix. Plus, some of these you can actually get outside of their home regions (some are even nationwide), which means that you might be able to try these bourbons wherever you are.
More importantly, I kept this to small-time craft producers. That means that there is no sourced juice at all. A lot of craft producers will source Kentucky, Indiana, or Tennessee whiskeys to cut with their own juice until their original stuff is old enough to sell. We can talk about them on a different day. This is all whiskey that’s actually made, grain to glass, by a small to mid-sized distillery. Whether or not that producer/distiller has a big contract with a huge distributor/international spirits corporation is not a consideration at all.
Every single one of these bourbons is made by a small team of very passionate people in a distillery that sometimes could fit in your backyard. Period. That makes our lineup today the following craft bourbons:
- Woodinville Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Washington)
- Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Nevada)
- Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Bottled-In-Bond Indiana Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Indiana)
- Chattanooga Whiskey Bottled In Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey Vintage Series Fall 2018 (Tennessee)
- Redwood Empire Whiskey Grizzly Beast Bottled in Bond Batch #002 (California)
- 291 Bad Guy Colorado Bourbon Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished (Colorado)
- Jeptha Creed Rye Bourbon Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Kentucky)
- Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey, A Blend (Colorado)
When it comes to ranking these bourbon pours after the blind tasting, I’m going solely on taste. Luckily, these were all really tasty bourbons (in one way or another), so ranking them was a delight. Okay, let’s jump in and find you a great craft bourbon to add to your bar cart!
Part 1 — The Craft Bourbon Tasting
Nose: Mocha and leather mix on the nose with fresh-cut green grass and piping hot cornbread dripping with butter and caramel sauce with a deep chili spice attached to orchard fruits.
Palate: The palate starts off with a nice and subtle barrel char leading toward Almond Roca toffees, cherry-chili tobacco, and velvety vanilla cream with a sense of red spices with just the right amount of sharpness.
Finish: The finish leans into a stewed apple with a hint of clove and sassafras that, in turn, leads to almond tobacco and plenty of cedar wrapped in old leather.
This is f*cking delicious whiskey.
Nose: Fruity cherry gummies mingle with raw sourdough bread dough, vanilla beans, dry grass, and burnt brown sugars on the nose.
Palate: The taste has a corn chip/husk vibe that leads to tart cranberry, more of that vanilla, and cinnamon-spiced oatmeal raisin cookies wrapped in old pipe tobacco leaves.
Finish: This all coalesces on the finish with the spice, oats, tart red fruit, and vanilla playing second fiddle to the dry firewood and slightly spiced tobacco end.
This is also tasty AF. It’s classic and touches on a twinge of crafty local grain vibes (with the oatmeal cookie vibe). I like this a lot. Not quite as much as the last pour, but extremely close.
Nose: The nose opens with dark stewed cherries and spiced prune compote next to cinnamon waffles with a hint of maple syrup and dark chocolate chips.
Palate: The palate is pure silk with notes of Cherry Coke next to clove-studded oranges dipped in dark chocolate with a flake of salt with whispers of apple fritters, eggnog spices, and singed cherry bark with maybe a hint of apple wood in the background.
Finish: The end has a subtle warmth thanks to wintry mulled wine spices that lead to fresh pipe tobacco kissed with dates and chocolate and packed into an old cedar box for safekeeping.
This is just excellent. It’s pure classic bourbon with a deep profile that just keeps giving.
Nose: Cinnamon, butter brown sugar, walnut, and raisins meld on the nose with some vanilla to create a moist oatmeal cookie next to buckwheat pancakes griddled in brown butter and topped with apple butter, and maybe some apricot jam with a dash of nutmeg, dark chocolate shavings, and creamy vanilla whipped cream.
Palate: The palate leans into cherry hand pies and vanilla wafers with a counter of dried wild sage, orchard tree bark, and meaty dates.
Finish: The end has a sharp turn into dried red chili pepper cut with pipe tobacco, dark chocolate bars, cedar bark, burnt orange, and lime leaves with this whisper of cinnamon cookies at the very end.
This is a “wow” pour of whiskey.
Nose: Cherry pie with plenty of winter spice leads off on the nose with buttery brown sugar, tart red berries, and walnut shells.
Palate: The palate opens with burnt orange, salted caramel, and more of those tart berries swimming in rich vanilla cream before a hint of spicy warmth arrives.
Finish: The end leans into brown sugar and winter spice-laced butter with walnut tobacco leaves wrapped in vanilla husks and cedar bark.
This is a very solid and classically hewn bourbon. I like it a lot but it’s more “classic” than “wow,” if that makes sense.
Nose: There’s a whole fruit basket of fruitiness with stone fruit really shining through — think apricots and peaches — next to old tart apples, cinnamon sticks, toffees dusted with crushed almonds, and a murmur of chamomile tea.
Palate: The palate has a dry crafty graininess that’s akin to oatmeal cookie dough wrapped in corn husks with a hint of nuttiness, brown sugar, cinnamon, and something slightly floral but woody.
Finish: The end brings the apricot back as a spicy jam with a little vanilla creaminess and tannic florals.
This is a fruit bomb on the nose that gives way to a dry grain crafty body. It’s deep and interesting with an enticing profile.
Nose: The nose on this is both soft and bold with sharp winter spices next to an orange cream pie with singed meringue and a hint of sour berries (cranberry maybe?) that’s all accented by a big dry sweetgrass note.
Palate: The palate then veers into dry lemongrass and ginger with drier green reeds next to a light touch of salted caramel drizzled over lemon pudding.
Finish: The ginger and woody vanilla lead back into the dry grass as the sour berries attach to a soft and chewy tobacco leaf.
This was a very dry craft whiskey. It balances that dryness with a nice deep classic bourbon vibe. It’s not too shabby by the end.
Nose: This is sweet on the nose with apple orchards, corn mush, vanilla cake, and honeyed biscuits.
Palate: The palate builds on the sweet nose with dark winter spices, soft oak, and a nice balance of vanilla and caramel.
Finish: The end is short and sweet but sticks with you with a classic orchard fruit/vanilla/caramel vibe.
This is classic bourbon but the thinnest pour on the list by far. It’s totally fine but didn’t really stand up to some of the crazy pours on this list.
Part 2 — The Craft Bourbon Ranking
8. Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey, A Blend — Taste 8
Average Price: $41
Colorado’s mountain-high Breckenridge has had some incredible releases. This whiskey is a blend of three-year-old Colorado bourbons made up in the Rocky Mountains and proofed with water from the glaciers.
This is perfectly good bourbon. It’s on the thinner side (thanks to those lower ABVs), so I’d focus on grabbing this in a cocktail the next time I’m in Denver.
7. Jeptha Creed Rye Bourbon Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $47
This whiskey from indie-darling Jeptha Creed is all about local corn. The mash is built with 75% Bloody Butcher Corn next to 20% malted rye and a mere 5% malted barley. That distillate spends a few years chilling in new oak before it’s batched, cut to proof, and bottled as-is.
This is an interesting bourbon that bridges the drier grain crafty vibes with stone-cold classic Kentucky bourbon vibes. It’s a good balance but doesn’t feel like it commits fully to either feel. Still, this is worth checking out if you’re distillery hoping in Kentucky this summer.
6. 291 Bad Guy Colorado Bourbon Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished — Taste 6
Average Price: $109
This Colorado whiskey is made from a mix of local corn, malted wheat, malted rye, and beech-smoked malted barley. As per 291’s classic aging methods, the whiskey is aged for about two years with aspen wood staves in the barrel to accelerate the aging process. Finally, this is batched and bottled as-is.
This is where we get into the really good stuff. This has great depth. The only reason it’s lower in the ranking is that it is so fruit-forward that it starts to border on “one note” a tad. Still, if you’re looking for a fruity bourbon with a classic aura, this is a great option.
5. Redwood Empire Whiskey Grizzly Beast Bottled in Bond Batch #002 — Taste 5
Average Price: $79
The latest batch of Redwood Empire’s Grizzly Beast is a four-grain bourbon. The California whiskey was made with 69% corn, 22% rye, 5% malted barley, and a mere 4% wheat. After five years of maturation, 26 barrels were picked for this batch. Those barrels were vatted and the whiskey was just kissed with pure water from a local Russian River Valley aquifer.
I probably would have guessed that this was a Kentucky bourbon. It feels so classically that with a deep profile that just keeps delivering flavor notes. This is California only for the most part, but 100% worth seeing out if you’re hitting Sonoma, Napa, or anywhere in NoCal this summer. Take a case home if you can.
4. Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $55
Frey Ranch is all about the farm behind the whiskey. In this case, that’s a 165+-year-old farm in the Sierra Nevada basin near Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The grains (corn, wheat, rye, and barley), fermentation, distilling, aging, and bottling all happen on-site at Frey Ranch.
This is just really freaking good whiskey. It’s also just the baseline of the wonderful stuff coming out of Frey Ranch right now, so this is technically their cocktail bourbon. That aside, this is a must-stop if you’re in the Lake Tahoe area. Get some!
3. Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Bottled-In-Bond Indiana Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $62
This new release from Huber Farm’s Starlight Distillery (the distillery to know if you’re in the know) is made from their high-corn mash with a sweet mash method (each batch is fresh) in their old copper pot still. The whiskey is barreled in Canton barrels and left to age on the farm for four years before it’s batched (only 20 barrels) and proofed down to 100 proof for bottling.
This small family-run distillery about 20 minutes north of Louisville is doing amazing work. This bottle is the perfect gateway into the wider world of Starlight and an absolute banger whiskey. You’re going to need to take a detour the next time you’re hitting the KY Bourbon Trail. Trust me, that extra 20-minute drive is worth it for whiskey this good.
2. Woodinville Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $70
This craft darling from Washington state is all about local ingredients. The mash is rendered from locally grown corn, rye, and barley. The spirit is distilled in Western Washington and then shipped to Eastern Washington to age for at least five years. That whiskey is then batched and bottled as-is with no fussing or cutting.
This whiskey is an absolute banger. The profile just keeps going and going, revealing more and more classic bourbon notes. It’s just delicious. You can also now get this outside of Washington. So click that link above and get some. You will not be disappointed.
1. Chattanooga Whiskey Bottled In Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey Vintage Series Fall 2018 — Taste 4
Average Price: $53
The latest seasonal drop from Tennessee’s Chattanooga Whiskey is another great. The whiskey is a blend of four of their mash bills. 30% comes from mash bill SB091, which is a mix of yellow corn, malted rye, caramel malted barley, and honey malted barley. Another 30% comes from mash bill B002, which has yellow corn, hardwood smoked malted barley (smoked with beech, mesquite, apple, or cherry), caramel malted barley, caramel malted, and honey malted barley. The next 20% is mash bill B005, which is yellow corn, malted wheat, oak smoked malted wheat, and caramel malted wheat. And the last 20% is from mash bill R18098, which is yellow corn, pale malted barley, naked malted oats, double roasted caramel malted barley, peated malted barley, cherrywood smoked malted barley, chocolate malt, and de-husked chocolate malt.
While I loved a lot of whiskey on this list, this one truly stood above the rest. It just goes so deep and in so many amazingly tasty directions while still feeling classic, nostalgic, and somehow comforting. It’s an amazing balance. While you don’t have to go to Tennessee to buy this one (just click that price link), it’s worth dipping into the distillery to meet the awesome team making this fantastic whiskey.
Make sure to take as many home as they let you buy.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Craft Bourbons
What a great panel of whiskeys. Truly, there wasn’t a bad pour in the whole bunch.
I’d focus on the top four or five if I was looking for something great to add to my shelf. In the end, though, I’d focus on those top two for a real “wow” pour of whiskey. They’re very different (and from different ends of the country) but they both deliver such a quality sipping experience that you will not be disappointed.