A guide to the tastiest new offerings in the industry’s most exciting category…
It’s hard to miss the veritable explosion of American whiskies popping up on the shelves of your neighbourhood spirits shops and watering holes lately. Even casual observers have probably spotted a dozen new labels of native browns, while enthusiasts are eagerly licking their lips at the scores of new options available. There are so many, in fact, that some aficionados are suffering from fatigue. Eager to dig deep into the varied offerings of the new American whiskey landscape, we recently sampled over 100 bottles from across various categories to find those worthy of closer attention — and a healthy pour.
“Given the growth of interest in American whiskey and proliferation of craft distilleries, as well as new products by large distilleries, it’s clear we’re in a golden age of whiskies,” David Ozgo , Chief Economist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), tells us. “We’re enjoying a greater variety and higher quality than ever before.” According to Ozgo, over 2,000 craft distilleries have opened across America in the last decade, everywhere from the frozen void of upstate New York to the tropical climes of South Florida, and the impressive elevations of the Rockies to the scrubby desert brush of the American West. Overall, sales of super-premium whiskey offerings have ballooned 136% from 2013 to 2018.
Three categories / trends in particular stand out: American Single Malts, the wild world of Innovations, and Bottled in Bond. Among the burgeoning number of options, including different cask finishes, mash bills, single barrels, and more, these are the bottles that we think should be on your radar.
AMERICAN SINGLE MALTS
While Scotch and Japanese single malts have long held the crown for global whiskey acclaim, it’s time to make room for the Yanks. Formed in 2016, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission was created to establish, promote and protect this emerging yet underserved category of whiskey. While still not legally recognised, members of the Commission pledge that every bottle is distilled from 100% malted barley at a single American distillery, among other qualifications — authenticating arguably the most exciting thing to happen to domestic whiskey this century.
HOOD RIVER DISTILLERS / McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey
Steve McCarthy is credited with creating the American Single Malt category more than two decades ago. On a fateful fishing trip to Ireland he fell in love with peated Scotch, and upon returning to his little distillery outside Portland began sourcing malted barley from Inverness. Distilling in 60-gallon Holstein copper pot stills, McCarthy harnessed his craft and unknowingly launched a segment that would not gain traction for another 20 years. While retaining an Islay-inspired smokiness, his Oregon Single Malt does not overwhelm with an intense campfire potency — think more Caol Ila than Ardbeg. Credit the mellowing to the Oregon oak it ages in for a minimum of three years.
HILLROCK ESTATE DISTILLERY / Single Malt
Hillrock is a truly “field-to-glass” endeavour, growing their own organic barley at their Hudson Valley farm and then malting it for 12 hours using imported Scottish peat at the first American malthouse built since Prohibition. The mash is then small-batch distilled using Vendome copper and brass pots, and entirely aged and bottled at their Hudson Valley estate. The Single Malt’s peat adds a whiff of tobacco to Hillrock’s signature notes of cinnamon, clove, and caramel.
BALCONES DISTILLING / Balcones “1” Texas Single Malt
Balcones arguably coined the term Texas Single Malt. Launched in 2008, the Waco distillery quickly gained acclaim for its flawless attention to detail and flair for experimentation. Although cofounder Chip Tate is gone, Balcones continues to pour great detail into their product — combining traditional elements (Golden Promise barley, Scottishmade pot stills) with Texan flair (aging in the varied central-Texas climate). Their complex Texas Single Malt boasts beautiful colour, cocoa notes and creamy mouthfeel, and has helped earn Balcones more than 350 awards since their first bottle in 2009.
WESTLAND DISTILLERY / Garryana 4|1
Fans of Scotch barley aficionados Bruichladdich will certainly gravitate to Westland, who consider the distant Islay distillery soulmates (and Rémy Cointreau stablemates). Like Bruichladdich, Seattle’s Westland takes the concept of terroir to the furthest levels imaginable — going so far as sourcing peat from a nearby bog on the Olympic Peninsula. Furthering this goal they’ve also turned their attention to wood; the latest edition of their Native Oak Series, Garryana 4|1, partly ages in barrels made of Garry, an indigenous Pacific Northwest oak. Wonderful rounded mouthfeel for this limited expression.
STRANAHAN’S / Diamond Peak
Colorado’s finest, Stranahan’s Diamond Peak is a testament to exquisite whiskey crafting by keeping it simple: made in small batches with 100% malted barley and Rocky Mountain water, aged in new American white oak barrels for four years, and then finished with the Solera method. There’s also a limited Sherry Cask finish, but when your core product is this good there’s no need to get clever.
As American Whiskey hits light speed, innovation fuels much of its acceleration. While cousins across the pond rest on tradition, American distillers are rabidly experimenting with new mash bills, forms of distillation, aging techniques and barrel finishes that are opening up doors not even dreamt of a decade ago. Certain entriescan seem gimmicky or harebrained, and sometimes they are, but more often these attempts at innovation are well rewarded.
HIGH WEST / Campfire
Despite its origins in one of the more teetotaling states in the Union, Park City’s High West has garnered a ton of acclaim. And while their limited edition Bourye (bourbon/rye blend) and Yippee Ki-Yay (rye finished in port casks) are worth seeking, it’s their core Campfire we couldn’t stop pouring. Adding a peated Scotch to their bourbon and rye blends, Campfire takes on a paradoxical but explosive taste that somehow marries the vanilla and black cherry sweetness of bourbon with the smokiness of an Islay single malt, resulting in a truly singular whiskey.
WOLVES / Winter Run
When you hear streetwear marketing mavericks are launching a new American whiskey you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes. But don’t sleep on Wolves — we just wish it was a little easier to get hold of. All 898 bottles of its First Run were snapped up within a week, and the Winter Run of 1,338 bottles released last November quickly followed suit. A blend of whiskey distilled from craft stout beer, aged in French oak for eight years; whiskey distilled from craft pilsner beer, aged in New American oak for five years; a rye selected for its spice; and a single malt whiskey aged for nine years in used French Oak barrels, the latest Wolves experiment hit a bullseye.
KENTUCKY OWL BOURBON / Batch #9
The original Kentucky Owl Bourbon dates all the way back to the late 19th century when it was founded by a man named Charles Mortimer Dedman. Resurrected in 2014 by Dixon Dedman, Kentucky Owl has been regularly releasing high-quality, top-shelf bourbon without an exact provenance or age statement, making many very curious about its exact origins — and no doubt leading to even more exploratory sipping. Its latest limited edition bottle, Batch #9, makes waves through raw power; at 63.8% ABV, or 127.6 proof, it’s one of the most potent bourbons ever released.
ANGEL’S ENVY / 2019 Cask Strength Bourbon Finished in Port Wine Barrels
This Louisville distillery’s Cask Strength program is truly a family affair. Back in 2012 three generations of the Henderson family melded minds to start extending the aging of their bourbon in hand-selected port wine barrels. That first year rang true: exalted critic F. Paul Pacult dubbed it the “best spirit in the world” in his Spirit Journal. Now in their eighth year, for Angel Envy’s new high-proof (61.2% ABV) limited-edition drop the Hendersons used juice aged between six and 15 years, with the alchemy of bourbon and port yielding unique notes of butterscotch, honeyed apple, overripe banana and toast.
JEFFERSON’S BOURBON / Ocean
Father and son duo Chet and Trey Zoeller founded Jefferson’s in Kentucky in 1997 with the goal of testing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of whiskey. And who knew how far they’d go to achieve those goals — literally. Their Jefferson’s Ocean expression crosses the equator four times, touching five different continents and over 30 ports of call in its pursuit of extreme aging. Stashing matured Kentucky bourbon barrels in their friend’s research boat, the idea was to test how extreme elements: temperature fluctuations, salt air, and the gentle rocking of the ship would affect aging. The result is a fascinating combo of dark chocolate and dried plums with an aroma of cinnamon and red apples and a touch of salt.
J. HENRY & SONS / 5-Year Small Batch Wisconsin Straight Bourbon and 2019 10th Anniversary Limited Edition Blend
Joe Henry’s chosen strain of corn, an heirloom red, was first grown by his father on a small family farm in Wisconsin, way back in the 1940’s. With the help of UW-Madison they’ve resurrected this rare strain and now grow it (as well as the rye and wheat) on that same farm for use in their award-winning bourbons. The spirit also ages in an unelectrified barn, allowing Wisconsin’s rollercoaster climate to lay its hands on the barrels’ aging effects. The Henrys’ 5-Year is already near impossible to find, and their 10th Anniversary Blend sold out in a day. ■
BOTTLED IN BOND
Although in the midst of a renaissance, bottled-in-bond whiskies are anything but new. In the nascent liquor industry, additives and bootlegging were rife, so in 1897 the government signed the Bottled-in-Bond Act to assure buyers the labeled spirit was the real deal. Bottled in bond (BIB) guaranteed three things: the whiskey was the product of one distillation season at a single distillery; it was bottled and stored at a federally-bonded warehouse under government supervision for at least four years; and it was bottled at 100 proof.
“Transparency in the whiskey industry is paramount — consumers want to know what they are getting,” says Tommy Tardie, owner of Manhattan’s Fine & Rare and The Flatiron Room. “BIB takes the guesswork out of it. There is no question of who distilled it, where it was sourced, the ABV, etc…. It’s all right there on the label in three simple words.”
As the proprietor of two of New York’s most acclaimed whiskey dens, Tardie knows a thing or two about liquid gold. A few of his favorite BIBs include two from distilleries located right in New York. McKenzie’s wheated Bottled in Bond Bourbon Whiskey from Finger Lakes Distilling “tastes wonderful,” he enthuses, with notes of “honeyed vanilla, caramel and cherries with a gentleness you wouldn’t expect in a 100-proof whiskey.” And just over the bridge from Manhattan lies New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “They’ve been quietly carving out a great portfolio of spirits,” Tardie tells us. Their Ragtime Rye Bottled in Bond “is a brand new release for them and I expect it to fly off the shelves.”
From Kentucky, the traditional heart of American bourbon country, Tardie touts both the Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond and the Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Amaranth Bottled in Bond as standouts. “You may know Heaven Hill from the iconic Elijah Craig, but they produce a bunch of other great brands including this one,” he tells us. “In 2019 they released a new version that’s been aged for seven years — a little more expensive, but worth it. The Amaranth BIB meanwhile is “a onetime, very limited run that uses the ancient grain amaranth instead of rye. The amaranth, also known as the grain of the gods, adds some interesting character to the bottle,” giving it “nutty and earthy notes that you won’t normally find in a typical bourbon.”
Text by NICHOLAS STECHER