Spirits

The State of American Craft Whiskey

December 05, 2019

Story: Clay Risen

Photo: Lizzie Munro

Spirits

The State of American Craft Whiskey

December 05, 2019

Story: Clay Risen

Art: Lizzie Munro

It’s been 10 years since craft whiskey boomed. We blind-tasted 60 bottles from coast to coast to find out how far it's come.

The year 2009 marked the beginning of an acceleration in small-scale American distilling that, a decade later, shows no sign of slowing. Many of today’s biggest names got their start that year: Catoctin Creek (Virginia), Kings County (New York), Wyoming Whiskey (Wyoming), Smooth Ambler (West Virginia). Balcones, founded in Texas in 2008, started operations in 2009, and High West opened its iconic saloon in Park City, Utah, the same year.

What explains the upsurge? Economics, for one thing. An upside to the Great Recession was the huge number of creative, ambitious and suddenly unemployed people it produced, several of whom used their severance pay as seed money to start making whiskey.

Not every distillery founded in 2009 was started by a recession victim, of course. For others, it was the rush of regulatory reforms that hit its stride that year, as Prohibition-era laws fell with the slightest push. Several states, like Tennessee, dropped rules that effectively prohibited new distilleries from opening; others, like South Carolina, went further and slashed licensing fees and paperwork requirements for small distilleries. It helped, too, that the efflorescence of high-quality cocktail bars, already underway, demanded a steady supply of bespoke spirits, while their shelves offered a running advertisement for new brands.

Today, there are more than 1,700 distilleries operating in America, up from about 250 in 2008, by far the most since Prohibition. The majority produce whiskey in some form—bourbon and rye are the dominant styles, but these days competition and curiosity are driving rapid innovation. American single malt has gone from a curiosity to a mainstream category. Rapid-aging technologies, though controversial, are an accepted part of the scene; so are distilled beers. And distilleries like Wigle in Pennsylvania and High Wire in South Carolina are experimenting with terroir, a concept once thought alien to distilled spirits.

High West (which was purchased by Constellation Brands in 2016) showed that whiskey tourism was a real thing, that people would go out of their way—and pay—to see a still. So did the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: A million people now visit the state’s distilleries every year, a 370 percent jump in just ten years. Many of those distilleries are now full-on visitor experiences, with restaurants, gardens and gift shops.

It is, in short, a great time to be a whiskey fan.

In 2019, there is a distillery in every state in America, and several more in the District of Columbia, though most of them are concentrated in a handful of areas: the Pacific Northwest and Northern California; Colorado, Texas and the Southwest; Virginia; and New York; not to mention Kentucky, where a slew of start-ups complement the existing behemoths like Jim Beam and Heaven Hill.

Slowly but inexorably, distillers are starting to talk about regionalization and style—a Pacific Northwest “style,” a Colorado “style.” Many of these are vague and notional, with as many exceptions as there are rules. Still, distillers in New York state have codified “Empire Rye,” a set of very specific rules they hope will set their whiskey apart from those in other states. Many industry observers expect other states to follow suit soon.

But the profusion of distilleries and SKUs is one thing. The better question is whether today’s craft whiskey industry, after 10 years of growth, is producing something worth drinking.

We recently blind-tasted nearly 60 bottles from well-regarded independent distillers from across the country, organized by region. We wanted to answer the question: Where is American whiskey today? And is regionalization the future—or is it already here? Here’s what we found, along with some of the best whiskeys from each region.

West Coast

Given their long history of wine making and craft brewing, it makes sense that the three West Coast states would also be home to a deeply rooted yet innovative craft whiskey scene. Even as it has come into its own, the region’s distilling industry is still closely connected to wine and beer—not only are many distilleries located near wineries and breweries, but they often collaborate with them. Not surprisingly, given the influence of brewing, most of the leading distilleries make malt-based whiskey.

Portland, Oregon, home to a strong craft-brewing culture and the gateway to the state’s wine region, is also home to a robust distilling scene. Clear Creek, founded in 1985, makes a single expression, McCarthy’s, a deliciously peated malt whiskey that could easily stand beside the best Islay has to offer—it smells like beach fire, seaweed and brisket.

Charbay, founded in 1983 in Northern California, uses shelf-ready beers like Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA as its base. For its Doubled & Twisted release, they blend single-malt whiskey with whiskeys made from stout and pilsner beers. The result is a load of coconut and tropical notes on the nose, with a surprisingly dry, malty flavor.

Seattle-based Westland, founded in 2010, is part of the new generation of craft distillers, but it has already established itself as one of the best in the country. Like Clear Creek, it produces a single-malt whiskey that broadly adheres to the Scotch style but is made in a way that highlights local ingredients and climate. It has a strong malty backbone, backed by caramel and baking spices.

Mid-Atlantic/New England

The history of American distilling began here, with the first commercial distillery reputedly founded in 1640 on Staten Island. Later in the colonial era, rum production centered in New England, where merchants would bring molasses from the Caribbean. Rye whiskey production took off around the Chesapeake Bay and, by the late eighteenth century, in central and western Pennsylvania. When George Washington left the presidency, he opened one of the largest whiskey distilleries in America at Mount Vernon. Today, after almost a century of decline, rye is making a comeback, and many of the region’s best distilleries specialize in it, often reaching back to the traditions and styles from its heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The New York Distilling Company, based in Brooklyn, is known for its excellent gins but also makes a well-regarded whiskey, Ragtime Rye. At three years old, it captures all the grassy goodness of a young rye, but it has enough age to show some restraint, with a delicious undertone of vanilla and baking spices.

Located outside Philadelphia, Mountain Laurel Spirits, maker of Dad’s Hat Rye, is self-consciously historical, claiming to use a recipe based on the “Old Monongahela” style, made with rye and barley (and no corn), that dominated in the nineteenth century. Made with a heavy dose of malted barley and malted rye alongside unmalted rye, it tastes of peppers and cherries, with a soulful herbal note running throughout.

The South

The South has a long whiskey tradition, though after Prohibition the industry consolidated around Louisville, with a few outposts in Tennessee. That’s beginning to change, with strong distilling sectors emerging in Virginia, Texas and the Carolinas, as well as around tourist magnets like the Blue Ridge Mountains, Nashville and Charleston, South Carolina. Given the dominance of the large corporate distilleries in Kentucky, you might think it would be an unwelcome place for start-up operations, but some of the region’s best craft whiskeys are coming out of the Bluegrass State.

New Riff, located in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, has emerged as one of the most exciting new distilleries in the country. Backed by deep pockets and a stellar production team, it had the resources and patience to wait four years before releasing its first whiskey, a bottled-in-bond, high-rye bourbon. It’s rounded, with a spiciness evocative of Red Hots candies.

Louisville’s Kentucky Peerless Distilling has been making similar waves with its rye whiskey, which it bottles at barrel proof. The revival of a pre-Prohibition brand, it was an overnight cult hit, with a price tag to match ($90–$150). It’s a compelling whiskey, opening with vanilla and caramel before exploding with spice at mid-palate, then offering a dry, slightly bitter finish.

Just north of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, High Wire Distilling turns out a variety of unique spirits, among them New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey. With a nose of banana candy and a creamy palate that balances an earthy graininess with the sweetness of cake batter, it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted. But it’s also just a delicious, well-made spirit.

The Midwest

Kentucky and the Upper South might be home to bourbon, but in the late nineteenth century, the Midwest, in particular Illinois and Ohio, produced the vast bulk of the nation’s whiskey. The region’s massive factories are long gone, but with the whiskey renaissance a new crop of producers is sprouting. Unlike distilleries in other regions, those in the Midwest still lack a common sensibility, or even a collective sense of regionality, aside from the fact that many are both exceedingly innovative and limited in their distribution. In other words, they cater to a healthy local consumer base, which in turn drives their production decisions. Over time, expect to find a diverse range of expressions coming out of the Midwest, instead of a single, dominant style.

Among the region’s many impressive distilleries is Union Horse, located outside Kansas City in Lenexa, Kansas. Its Reunion Straight Rye Whiskey is made from a 100 percent rye mash bill and aged for up to five years. Distilled on a pot still, it has deep, rich caramel notes that sit nicely along a warm, spicy backbone.

We were also taken with Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey, made by the Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan. Wheat whiskey, in which wheat is the majority grain in the mash bill, is still relatively rare. But Journeyman’s expression is worth searching for; on the nose and palate it resembles a delicate rum, with raisin bread and cake batter notes.

The Mountain West/Southwest

Colorado has long dominated this region’s distilling scene. That makes sense; the Denver area was also out ahead of the craft brewing revolution, and many of the state’s first craft distillers got their start making beer. While the number and quality of Colorado’s distilleries has continued to grow, the Centennial State no longer has a monopoly on exciting craft whiskey producers; leading distilleries now dot the map from Wyoming to New Mexico.

Leopold Bros. began in Michigan in 1999 and relocated to Denver a decade later, making it one of the oldest craft distilleries in the country. It is also one of the most renowned, especially for its American Small Batch Whiskey. Made from a mash bill of corn, rye and malted barley, it bears notes of malted chocolate, herbs and grilled vegetables.

True to its Southwestern heritage, Santa Fe Spirits smokes its Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey using mesquite instead of peat. The result is a finely tuned set of barbecue and spice notes that permeate the nose and palate.

Hamilton Distillers, in Tucson, also uses mesquite to smoke its Whiskey Del Bac Dorado. But the smoke notes are subtler, and barely present on the nose; they come through on the palate, though, alongside a gentle cinnamon kick.

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