Life

These Bourbons Are Young, But They’re Full Of Big Ideas And Definitely Worth Trying

Aging whiskey is a tricky thing. Let’s take a look at bourbon, for instance. To be called “straight bourbon,” the juice has to stay in a new American oak barrel for at least two years. The same barrel process is true of “straight rye.” That’s a minimum legal requirement and it’s often exceeded to create a more fully mellowed spirit. Even standard bottles of straight Kentucky bourbon like Jim Beam spend four years in the barrel — twice the legal requirement.

Why? Well, it’s generally accepted that four years is the prime spot for many bourbons to age. But for whiskey to legally be called “bourbon” — sans the “straight” part — it simply has to touch new American oak for… really any amount of time, up to two years. That can (and sometimes does) mean a matter of minutes. These days, bourbons that age less than two years are often called “young bourbon” or just “bourbon whiskey.”

Okay, so we know “straight bourbon whiskey” has been aged over two years and we know “bourbon whiskey” has not met that legal requirement. Is it even worth seeking out bourbon without the “straight” moniker? Yes. There are nuances and innovations happening that are upending the norm and leading to wholly new expressions. They’re not going to bear the slowly unfolding qualities of a 15-year-old Pappy, but they’ll certainly grab your interest.

The ten bottles of bourbon below are a mix of the disruptors and outliers. Are these the best-of-the-best? Maybe not… yet. But these bottles represent interesting experiments and bold disruptors created by distilleries that aren’t afraid to go against the grain.

CLEVELAND UNDERGROUND BLACK CHERRY WOOD

The Story:

Cleveland Underground has the most interesting story of any modern bourbon. Whiskey innovator Tom Lix developed a new way to age whiskey in hours instead of years. The short of it is this: The hot juice goes into a new American oak barrel to meet legal requirements denoting bourbon. Then the juice, oak staves, and finishing wood chunks go into a proprietary pressure-cooker-like device where a vacuum is created and oxygen-rich air is pumped in forcing the liquid literally through the grains of the wood over and over again until the whiskey is fully “aged.” This process takes about 24 hours.

Seriously, we’re not making any of this up. The process and science produce exact results every single time. No angel’s share. No opening up barrels to taste year after year, hoping they pop. Lix, of course, has won a slew of awards from both the engineering community and for his whiskeys.

Tasting Notes:

Due to the unique way Cleavland Underground is “aging” the whiskey, a whole new line of wood can be used to influence the bourbon. Cleveland Underground’s Black Cherry Wood is a great place to start amongst Lix’s expressions.

Notes of bark-forward cinnamon and clove nibs lead the way with support from sweetgrass, light citrus, and a flourish of tart cherry. Clear notes of vanilla shine through with a brace of worn leather. Unripe red berries play mix with the spices. A fatty and sweet dried stonefruit note comes through with a hint of orange zest. Finally, that vanilla kicks back in with the leather, leading towards a spicy and woody finish.

RESURGENT BOURBON WHISKEY YOUNG AMERICAN

The Story:

This Young American bourbon peddles in classic refinement and well-executed aging. The juice is distilled and aged in Kentucky before making the journey to Elverson, Pennsylvania where it’s proofed and bottled in very small batches. The high-corn mash bill is cut with a dose of rye, giving the expression extra depth while remaining young.

Tasting Notes:

There are echoes of wood that are overpowered by sweetcorn and malted barley crackers. Light florals pop as rich vanilla and caramel dance through the taste. The corn mellows towards a rich and buttery hominy base, spiked with fresh peaches, black pepper, and more vanilla. The finish rolls in subtly as the spice kicks up the alcohol warmth.

HUNTER & SCOTT BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Reservoir Distillery’s Hunter & Scott Bourbon is a shining example of the distillery’s craft and style. Their main line is renowned for a grain-to-glass experience of local Virginia crops (all sourced less than 40 miles from the distillery) and having 100-percent mash bills for the wheat, rye, and bourbon whiskeys. This expression is the best of all worlds and blends the wheat, rye, and bourbon into one bottle — each aged one-and-a-half to two years.

Tasting Notes:
Black tea leaves, vanilla beans, rich tobacco, and stone fruits lead the way. Next, a rush of Red Hots that lean more into the spice of the cinnamon than the sugar burst this sip open. Hints of sawdust mix with a clear butterscotch presence. Finally, that peppery rye spice with a hint of wheat mellowness kicks in as the warming finish hits a dry note.

HUDSON BABY BOURBON

The Story:

Tuthilltown Spirits is another innovator in the bourbon game. Their 100-percent New York-grown corn mash bill creates a distillate that then goes into what can best be described as mini barrels. The average whiskey barrel clocks in at around 53 gallons, Tuthilltown uses three to 14-gallon barrels. Then, to amplify the aging process, they bump bass-heavy sound waves through the barrels to create a vibration that helps the juice integrate with the wood. The combination of smaller space and vibrating liquid accelerates the aging process, meaning that this highly-aged whiskey spends less than four years in the barrel.

Tasting Notes:

Freshly shucked ears of sweetcorn greet you and are backed by vanilla. That corn builds and takes on a roasted and buttery quality that leads towards a marzipan texture and taste. Oak and vanilla draw a throughline that brings about a rich finish underpinned by the fattiness and sweetness of that marzipan.

SOURLAND MOUNTAIN BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Out in New Jersey, Sourland Mountain Distillery is bringing the farm experience to their distillery — the place is a working farm. The grain-to-glass distillery is all about offering something local and refined, albeit young. Their bourbon is aged for one year in new American oak, meaning it’s a prime candidate to test right now to see where this distillery will go.

Tasting Notes:

The whiskey hits classic bourbon notes: Vanilla, caramel, and oak are all present. There’s a rough-around-the-edges alcohol burn that leans into a roasted corn and butterscotch notes. The alcohol draws through to the end with the vanilla and caramel blunting the warmth.

MCCAULEY’S VIRGINIA BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Virginia’s Dome & Spear Distillery is a hand-crafted grain-to-glass experience of local whiskey in every bottle. Their McCauley’s expression is a shining example of the distillery’s boutique country nature. The mash is full of local corn that’s distilled and aged in new Virginia oak on-site. The whiskey is then bottled in very small releases of 200 to 250 bottles, making this a rare find.

Tasting Notes:

You can’t escape the corn on this one’s nose. That corn dissipates quickly as more kettle-corn-covered-in-caramel nature takes over. Malty wheat crackers kick in with a toffee feel and notes of roasted almonds. A slight spicy edge comes into play as the caramel and vanilla lead to a warming finish.

DARK HOLLOW PENNSYLVANIA BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Back in Pennsylvania, Hewn Spirits is producing some fine bottles. Their bourbon uses heirloom corn from Bucks County for the mash bill and ages the young bourbon to a fine point. The result is something that’s unique to the place it’s made and worth seeking out for a one-of-a-kind whiskey experience.

Tasting Notes:

The corn is subtle-yet-present. There are clear notes of vanilla that remind you of oak. Hints of butterscotch and caramel come and go as a herbal whisper comes into play with a slight candied apple edge. The end is bordering on hot with vanilla and caramel blunting the sharper alcohol burn.

HORNED HARE YOUNG BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Austin’s Horned Hare takes Indiana juice, ages it for a little less than 12 months in new oak, then bottles it in New Orleans. The high-rye bourbon (60 percent corn and 36 percent rye) packs a wallop and aims to please without breaking the bank. Bottles clock in at around 30 bucks, making the young Southern-by-way-of-Indiana whiskey worth having around for parties.

Tasting Notes:

There’s nothing overly-wrought about this sip. Classic notes of vanilla and caramel greet you. The corn is there with a buttery edge. There’s a hint of florals floating around in the background. The rye spice kicks in exactly when it should and leads towards a nice, warming hug.

BRECKENRIDGE BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Out in Colorado, Breckenridge Bourbon serves as the perfect après-ski sipping whiskey. The expression is a blend of straight bourbons with high-rye mash bills, each aged less than three years. The bourbon blends in-house distilled whiskey with select barrels from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana.

Tasting Notes:

A meeting of Tennessee and Kentucky greets you with hints of ripe banana next to buttery popcorn. Wet brown sugar cuts in with a dose of sharp white pepper, sourdough rye, and toasted sesame seeds. Then the vanilla and oak drop in as the spice leads towards an almost bitter end.

FEW BOURBON WHISKEY

The Story:

Illinois’ FEW Bourbon is a unique expression. The mash of corn and Northern rye with a slight dose of malt adds a very North-meets-South feel to the spirit. The juice is then aged in barrels that range in size from five to 30 gallons. The final ripple is the wood used in the barreling, Minnesota oak. That particular species grows much faster than other oaks and has a much tighter grain, making absorption broader in the smaller format.

Tasting Notes:

Ripe cherries, toasted oak, and garam masala lead the way. That spiciness remains right up front with a clear corn essence. Hints of apple and caramel ride throughout, with vanilla peaking towards the end as the spice takes back over on a toasty finish.

×