With so many big-name bourbon brands filling up the shelves right now, crafty bottles can get lost in the mix. That’s especially true if you’re not in the particular region in which that craft whiskey is being made. It’s the nature of the beast. We can’t all know all of it.
Still, we do feel obligated (and excited!) to highlight some of the craft whiskey makers making quality bourbons out there. Bottles that expand the palate and change the game up, in part because they don’t have storied legacies or prototypical flavor profiles to live up to.
As for defining “Craft” bourbon whiskey, let’s look at it this way. For this exercise, “craft” is a distillery that’s owned and operated by an independent entity or group. That doesn’t mean that a small crafty distiller doesn’t have a distributor that also puts, say, Remus Reserve or Yellowstone on the shelf. It just means that these are distillers making their own juice their own way in their own neck of the woods.
The ten bottles of craft bourbon below are bottles we’ve tasted recently (sometimes again) that really do deserve a bit more shine. As always, click on those prices to see if you can snag one of these bottles in your neighborhood. And if you’re planning a trip to the region these whiskeys are made, maybe consider dropping by the distillery to say hello.
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Dry Fly Straight Bourbon 101
Average Price: $50
This bourbon from Washington is truly one-of-a-kind. The mash bill is 55 percent local corn and 45 percent local triticale. “Triticale” is a hybrid grain that marries wheat and rye into a single product. So, essentially, this whiskey is has a mash of corn, rye, and wheat. That juice is then aged for a minimum of three years before proofing and bottling.
The nose draws you in with this creamy vanilla ice cream that’s bespeckled with chunks of soft yet sweet peaches that are just touched with cinnamon and allspice next to a light, almost oaty vibe. The palate really holds onto the vanilla ice cream aspect of the nose while layers of wet cedar lead towards a very mild and slightly sweet chili tobacco hint next to a touch of new leather and lemon pepper straight from the 90s. That citrus and pepper drive the finish towards a warm yet soft end.
This is softly spicy while still feeling very familiar. The depth at play isn’t overly deep but still distinct enough to make for either a nice sipper on the rocks or a cocktail base.
Peerless Smal Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $86
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.
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.
Peerless’ Rye gets a lot of attention from the public while their bourbon tends to be an afterthought. That’s a real shame, as this whiskey is pretty phenomenal. For a craft bourbon whiskey from Kentucky, this can easily stand next to the biggest names (and probably win a blind test or two against them).
Cedar Ridge Reserve Iowa Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $68
Iowa’s first distillery planted itself right in the middle of America’s grain belt. They’re making a product that requires corn, rye, and barley, so there’s really no better place to set up a distillery. Cedar Ridge’s Reserve Iowa Bourbon wins awards pretty much everywhere it drops a new expression.
The corn-fueled bourbon spends five years aging, adding a deep complexity that’ll help you fall in love with bourbon in general.
This is a big whiskey with a lot to ponder. It opens with a flourish of freshly cracked black pepper, warm honeycombs, and fields of blooming jasmine. There’s a dry nature to the sip with fresh herbs — dill and fennel, predominately — hitting first. Then the corn arrives. You can almost taste the fresh green husks in the whiskey.
This is a spring farm in full bloom distilled into a glass.
This is one of those bourbons that I wish I had more access to. It’s really well-made and very accessible. It’s also a great cocktail base if you’re looking for something a little more floral and herbaceous.
Litchfield Distillery 5-Year Double-Barreled Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $60
Litchfield is one of those local craft distilleries that do a little bit of everything. Their Double-Barreled 5-year-old is a highwater mark of the operation. The juice is made from locally grown Connecticut grains. That whiskey is then aged for a few years. Finally, it’s proofed with local water and re-barreled to add an extra layer of woody depth to the bourbon.
The sip starts with an almost vinous note that goes into sweet caramel and spice. There’s a clear vanilla essence through the woody oak. The aged-grape flavors come in again with a slight sweetness before a warm, woody, and spicy finale.
Connecticut is probably pretty low on the list of whiskey destinations all things considered. Still, this distillery is doing some fine work and is a stone’s throw from New York City (if you’re in the area and looking for a day trip).
Sonoma Distilling Co. Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $40
Out in California, Sonoma County Distillery is working some unique magic with their bourbon. Sonoma Bourbon has a mash bill that eschews rye and instead uses local wheat. The bill ends up at 70 percent corn, 25 percent wheat, and five percent barley. The wheat adds a nutty and bitter dimension to the final product that’s worth checking out.
There’s a grassy nature here. Think of a field of grass at the very end of summer when everything is amber-gold and the sun is scorching the earth. Then rushes of buttery and brisk toffee come into play alongside oaky vanilla, bitter roasted coffee beans, and wonderful echoes of almond-heavy marzipan. There’s a mild alcohol spice on the backend that leaves you wanting another sip.
There’s a lot of interesting craft coming out of California right now. This small distillery in the heart of wine country is a highwater mark for the region and continues to make some truly tasty (and award-winning) whiskey.
Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $44
This small-town craft distillery is making some of the finest grain-to-glass whiskey on the market. Their signature bourbon is a wheated bourbon that utilizes grains grown within 100 miles of the Wyoming distillery. The juice is aged for at least four years before it’s small-batched, proofed with local water, and bottled.
The vanilla and caramel on the nose are creamy to the point of feeling like a stiff pudding with a hint of wildflowers. The palate holds onto those flowers and pudding while adding cinnamon sticks warming in browned butter with a note of cedar. That spice broadens out to a Christmas spice vibe as a buttery toffee sweetness and mouthfeel lead you toward a finish that’s just the right length.
You’re starting to see this on more and more shelves and we’re here for it. The whiskey feels unique while still delivering on classic bourbon vibes. It’s 100 percent worth checking out if you can snag a bottle near you.
Pinhook Bohemia Bourbon High-Proof
Average Price: $38
Pinhook’s contract distilled bourbon is all about refinement. The expression is made from 100 barrels that are matured for 34 months before being small-batched by Pinhook’s Master Taster Sean Josephs. The juice is barely touched with that soft Kentucky limestone water to take the edge off.
This opens with a lemon curd vibe with a buttered bread — nearly croissant — feel next to a mild dose of spiced fruits. The taste is toffee sweet but is countered by a powdered dark chocolate bitterness, marzipan smoothness, and plenty of that creamy citrus. The sip ends quietly and fades quickly, leaving you with a nice touch of lemon oils next to dark chocolate powder and a hint of spicy stewed oranges.
This is always an interesting release every year. It’s refined, different, and well-made without being ostentatious or overdone. It’s just an easy sipper and a great mixer, taken all around.
Laws Four Grain Bonded
Average Price: $78
A.D. Laws out in Colorado is a special shingle. The distillery is renowned for its award-winning four-grain bourbons. This bottle, to us, 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.
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.
This list probably could have just been Colorado crafties. Laws is one of many great whiskeys coming out of the state. But if you haven’t tried any juice from Colorado yet, we’re telling you: start here.
Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $56
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. The grains (corn, wheat, rye, and barley), fermentation, distilling, aging, and bottling all happen on-site at Frey Ranch.
The sip draws you in with hints of burnt orange rings next to fresh honey, apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks, cherry tobacco, and vanilla pods. The palate leans dry with cornmeal, bales of straw, woody eggnog spices, cherry stems, and a touch of dried mint next to cedar boxes full of vanilla tobacco. The mid-palate turns with a note of pancake syrup that leads back towards the dry woods and tobacco.
Nevada is another one of those states that probably doesn’t scream “bourbon” to most whiskey drinkers. Still, there are some interesting distilleries popping up, with Frey Ranch leading the pack.
Leopold Bros. Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon
Average Price: $60
This expression dropped last year and has been garnering a lot of attention. The mash is made from 64 percent corn, 21 percent malted barley, and 15 percent Abruzzi Heritage Rye that Todd Leopold 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.
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.
This continues to be one of those bourbons that you can’t stop thinking about. While it’s harder to get outside of Colorado, it’s worth the effort to experience something truly unique in the world of whiskey.