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Yes, you’re allowed to make bourbon outside the Bluegrass State. We promise.
When you write about whiskey online, as I do, you will frequently encounter a frustrating character. I’ll call him the know-nothing know-it-all. This is the kind of guy who, no matter how minor the quibble, will always find a way to correct some fact in your article. The only thing worse than his pedantry, however, is that he’s often completely wrong.
No subject invites his ire more than the argument about what defines bourbon, how bourbon legally needs to be made, and where it must be produced. For some reason, the know-nothing know-it-all seems to have the misguided belief that bourbon can only be made in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
True enough, Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, where the most bourbon is still produced, and—it’s hard to argue this—today’s best bourbon is made. But, according to the 1964 Congressional statute which defined bourbon as a “distinctive product,” it can be made anywhere in America—that means all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. As of this year, every single state has a distillery making whiskey and most are making bourbon. Not all of it is good, of course, but with each passing year, more and more states are starting to lay claim to making world-class stuff. Ten of my favorites are below.
And yet…I will still guarantee you that someone will correct me when this is posted online, commenting on Facebook, @-ing me on Twitter, DMing me on Instagram, just to say something like: “I didn’t even read the article because bourbon can only be made in Kentucky.”
Alas, there’s no hope for the know-nothing know-it-all.
High Wire Distilling Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey
High Wire Distilling Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey South Carolina Bourbon has to be produced from at least 51% corn, yet there’s no rule about what kind of corn, with most distilleries using dent or “field” corn due to its high starch and low sugar content. This Charleston-based distillery takes a more interesting approach by going for a heritage bent. Jimmy Red, a one-time moonshiners’ corn, was nearly extinct (down to just two remaining cobs), when an heirloom-obsessed seedsman named Ted Chewning revived it. The blood red varietal immediately became a hit on the local culinary scene, deployed by top chefs like Sean Brock in dishes like grits and cornbread. High Wire was given enough seeds to plant 2.5 acres, which was eventually enough to distill two batches of a truly unique bourbon starting in 2014. It tastes nutty like marzipan, fruity and sweet like cherry cola and Laffy Taffy, oily on the palate with a creamy finish. With each year High Wire is able to produce more and more, with the limited release packaged in a gorgeous Le Creuset ceramic bottle.
Smooth Ambler Big Level Wheated Bourbon
Like many modern American distilleries, Smooth Ambler garnered early fame by releasing great bottles of bourbon and rye sourced from other distilleries, in what they called their “Old Scout” series. Unlike many other distilleries, however, they’ve moved onto releasing quality bourbon solely comprised of their own distillate. Big Level is a wheated bourbon, meaning wheat is the secondary grain as opposed to the more traditional rye—this is the same style of bourbon as Maker’s Mark, Weller, and, yes, Pappy Van Winkle. This five-year-old “wheater,” like most of the sort, is incredibly pleasant, sweet on the palate with notes of toffee, pancake batter, and pecan pie.
Wyoming Whiskey Double Cask Bourbon Whiskey
Located in the Bighorn Basin in America’s least populous state, this humbly-named distillery has quietly been making great bourbon for nearly a decade. Working from a wheated bourbon base—no surprise, as their first master distiller came from Maker’s Mark—this whiskey goes through a double maturation process. It is first aged, for five years, in new charred oak as required before finishing in decades-old Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. That adds unique notes of prunes, figs, raisins, and sticky toffee pudding, giving it a bit of a Speyside single malt quality.
Balcones Distilling Texas Pot Still Bourbon
This Waco-based distillery was one of the first craft brands to market when they hung their shingle in 2008 and that’s given them a serious head start on the competition. While they most excel at American single malt—know-nothing know-it-all: “Idiot, you can only make single malt in Scotland!”—the distillery also offers several bourbons. The best is this core product comprised of roasted blue corn, Texas wheat, Texas rye, and malted barley, aged at least two years. The hot central Texas heat causes the liquid to inhale wood from the barrel, creating a dark copper whiskey that looks wise beyond its years. The palate is hardly oaky, however, with notes of corn bread, Mexican chocolate, and caramel corn.
Tamworth Distilling Old Man of the Mountain Bottled in Bond
One of the most beautiful distilleries in America, set at the foot of the White Mountains, this grain-to-bottle producer makes a traditionally bonded bourbon using 82.4% organic corn, 11% organic rye, and 6.6% malted barley. The first spirit ever developed by Tamworth, it is distilled in more of an old world method than American style, utilizing pot stills more common to Scotch or Cognac distillation. The cooler conditions of New England likewise have more in common with continental aging, leading to a bourbon with warm fruitcake aromas in addition to the more expected caramel and vanilla notes.
Chattanooga Whiskey 111 Straight Bourbon Whiskey
My friend Blake Riber, owner of Seelbach’s, an online retailer completely focused on craft spirits, claims this is the #1 bourbon made outside of Kentucky. He may very well be right. The secret is three-pronged: the mashbill, the fermentation, and the barrels. Chattanooga uses what they call a “high malt” recipe, with 25% being malted rye, caramel malted barley, and honey malted barley—the other 75% is, of course, yellow corn. It is then fermented for seven days before being aged at least two years in barrels that have both been toasted and charred. The result is an unfiltered, barrel-strength bourbon packed with a flavor and complexity that feels a lot more mature than it truly is.
Finger Lakes Distilling McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey
Located in the rich farmlands of upstate New York, the whitewashed, pagoda-roofed distillery on the southeastern shores of Seneca Lake looks like something from out of Islay, Scotland. Now, they don’t produce Scotch, but they do make several styles of whiskey as well as gin, vodka, and array of brandies, sourcing their fruits, corn, rye, and barley all from local farms in the region. Founder Brian McKenzie believes that using a unique low entry proof before barrel-aging leads to the liquid extracting more sugars from the charred oak which in turn creates a pleasantly sweet whiskey, mellow and fruity, with notes of melon, red currants, and melted caramel.
Spirits of French Lick Sinclair Four Grain
You might not realize that most of your favorite bourbons are, in fact, made in Indiana. Yes, regardless of what state they claim to be from, the open secret in the industry is that most craft distilleries source their product from MGP, a factory distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Not the Spirit of French Lick, however, whose owner/distiller Alan Bishop also owns a seed company. It’s no wonder he’s so keen to jam four grains into his bourbon, opting for wheat and oats along with the necessary corn and malted barley. Despite being just two years old it shows an amazing complexity and depth of character and proves that MGP ain’t the only show in town.
Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Alas, even the small guys are becoming big guys—in 2018 this Cascade Mountain area distillery was acquired by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. You probably didn’t realize a luxury fashion house was in the whiskey game, but that’s generally been a good thing. The parent company also owns single malt masters Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, whose distillery teams seem happy to share their expert knowledge…and sometimes even their smoky scotch barrels. However, Woodinville’s flagship bourbon has always been stellar, a 5-year-old release consisting of corn, rye, and malted barley grown exclusively for the distillery at nearby Omlin Family farm. Central Washington’s extreme temperature swings do a wonderful job of aging, yielding a bourbon that is loaded with caramel and vanilla from the wood sugars, with a long, pleasing finish.
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery Tennessee Whiskey
And if I started this piece by talking about the know-nothing know-it-all’s misconceptions, then I’ll end it that way too. Yes, fans, Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, though bourbon that has undergone the so-called Lincoln County Process; in other words, been filtered through chunks of maple charcoal. It may be officially recognized by the Volunteer State and they may call it “Tennessee whiskey” on the label, but it also still fits all the legal requirements for bourbon. (So, surprise, Jack Daniel’s is also very much a bourbon.) This Tennessee whiskey, er bourbon, resurrects owners Andy and Charlie Nelson’s family recipe, one they claim has not been used commercially since 1909 if you believe their marketing materials. True or hooey, their wheated bourbon recipe is filtered through sugar maple charcoal creating a whiskey redolent of cinnamon sugar-covered apples with just a hint of cocoa.