A whole lot of people think bourbon can only legally be made in Kentucky. That's not true. But the oft-repeated myth shows how indelible the relationship between Kentucky and whiskey is, a relationship that dates back to Alexander Hamilton and a despised whiskey tax that drove distillers from the mid-Atlantic region to the friendlier Southern state.
The absolute best whiskey in America still comes out of Kentucky, whether you believe it is Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, or perhaps a more offbeat selection. Likewise, Jack Daniels is, if not the best, the most famous whiskey in America, and the best-selling too. Jack has stamped Kentucky's neighbor to the south, Tennessee, as another state uniquely linked with the good stuff.
But what about whiskeys from other states? Are any worth a damn? There are now around 2,000 distilleries in America, at least one in each state. As this "craft" micro-distilling boom is only about a decade old, many of today's companies have not yet had the time (or resources) to create a good whiskey. Furthermore, some craft distilleries don't produce their own whiskey. Instead, they use the same "sourced" juice, usually courtesy of a giant factory called Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Indiana, and simply slap their own label on the bottle. We won't count those whiskeys for our purposes.
So can any of these smaller outfits that actually distill their own product one day help their state wrest the long-held whiskey crown from Kentucky and Tennessee? The search for the next great American whiskey begins in 2019 with the best distilleries in the 47 states, plus D.C., that aren't Kentucky, Tennessee, or Indiana.
Note: Most of these bottles are in the $40–to–$60 range.
The Best of the Best
These distilleries are the ones likely to cause Kentucky's "Bourbon Trail" to veer out-of-state. Most were founded in the 2000s, and many focus on more atypical whiskeys, like hopped, fruited, or finished. They all make undeniably delicious bourbons, ryes, and even single malts. The following 10 are ranked by quality.
For the longest time, Westland was the independently owned "little guy" making the absolute best whiskey in America. Unlike most U.S.-based micro-distilleries that focus on bourbon, it set its sights on single malts. And, they were all quite good—mature, refined, yeasty, and flavorful—whether it was Westland Peated or Garryana, produced using barrels made from a unique local oak tree. In 2016, Westland was acquired by French drinks giant Rémy Cointreau, so it is no longer the independently owned underdog. It is still the best non-Kentucky/Tennessee/Indiana whiskey in America.
Distribution: Texas, Illinois, California, and the tri-state area
Balcones was perhaps the first distillery to be the toast of the micro-whiskey world, back when the legendary Chip Tate helmed the Waco enterprise. Tate left under a cloud of investor squabbling in 2014, and Balcones lost some luster in the press, but it is still producing world-class stuff. Well, of course it is—its unique whiskeys like True Blue, distilled from blue heirloom corn, and Brimstone, smoked from sun-baked scrub oak, are based on Tate’s recipes. And Balcones continues to innovate and produce world-class stuff on its own accord. (Tate now runs his own joint down the highway, which surely makes you wonder whether it will become Texas’s best whiskey distillery one day.)
You might not be too optimistic the first time you encounter Wyoming Whiskey, what with its bland name and simple packaging. The first batches of wheat whiskey from this joint weren't too swell either. But once it had enough juice to produce a five-year-old product, the distillery started killing it. Nowadays, it makes barrel-strength and high-rye products, and 2017’s Double Cask (finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry barrels) was its best whiskey yet. In September of last year, the company formed a “strategic partnership” with Edrington, the spirits giant best known for its scotch portfolio.
City: St. Helena
One of the most advanced micro-distilleries in the game is this Napa Valley outfit started by a European expat who wanted to make grape brandy. Today, Charbay produces wine, tequila, vodka, rum, walnut liqueur, and some of the more interesting whiskeys in the world. Thirteenth-generation master distiller Marko Karakasevic is a mad man (and a truly fun dude to drink with), and he should probably be credited with inventing hoppy whiskey; he first distilled an IPA in 1999. By now he has refined his technique, and products like the hoppy Whiskey R5 and Whiskey S (distilled from Bear Republic Brewing's Big Bear Stout) aren't just unique, they are delicious.
City: Park City
High West's products up to this point have mostly been sourced from Indiana. But it does have a distilling component helmed by wiz kid Brendan Coyle, who has a masters of distilling from a Scottish university. While High West is quite adept at taking sourced juice and making intriguing blends like Bourye, Yippee Ki-Yay (finished in vermouth and Syrah barrels), and A Midwinter Night's Dram (finished in port barrels), it 100-percent distills its Valley Tan Whiskey, which is named after the alcoholic "refresher" Mormons used to drink. In 2016, High West was named Distiller of the Year by Whisky Advocate—and also was acquired by Corona's Constellation Brands.
Virginia Distillery Co.
This is an ambitious distillery that came prepped with a clever plan to keep the lights on. Instead of starting with a vodka or gin like most new distilleries, since opening to the public in 2015, Virginia Distillery has sourced single malt scotch from the Scottish Highlands and brought it over to America to blend with its own locally distilled single malt. If that’s not enough to make products like Virginia-Highland Malt Whisky its “own,” the distillery often goes one additional step by aging this blended juice in a variety of intriguing barrels. These run the gamut from the industry-expected (sherry and port) to the off-beat (local beer, cider, and chardonnay) to the truly inventive (a cold brew coffee-soaked cask). It expects to release its first purely Virginia-distilled single malt, called Courage & Conviction, in 2020.
Distribution: 14 states
If you thought we wouldn't honor anything standard, you were wrong. Courtesy of Mountain Laurel Spirits is a series of classic straight rye whiskeys that are flat-out tasty—no bells and whistles needed. Products like Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey might be returning the Keystone State to its roots as a preeminent maker of whiskey. Though, truth be told, the best product from Dad's Hat is a 94-proof rye finished in vermouth barrels.
Distribution: 24 states
Colorado is one of the foremost states when it comes to craft whiskey, and Stranahan's, its most famous distillery, is indeed terrific. But the Leopold brothers, former brewers from Michigan, are making better, more intriguing spirits. The nearly 20-year-old company has a "pre-prohibition"-style whiskey and a Maryland-style rye, but its series of fruit whiskeys is the most interesting. Particularly good are the Rocky Mountain Peach and Rocky Mountain Blackberry, both lower-proof products that use macerated and blended local fruits to sweeten and add complexity.
9. West Virginia
Distribution: 30 states
Smooth Ambler recently gained much acclaim from whiskey geeks for its Old Scout single barrel selections. Unfortunately, all of those single barrels come courtesy of MGP in Indiana. In 2017, however, the company released Wheated Bourbon, a so-called “Appalachian whiskey” completely distilled in West Virginia, which was highly sought-after amongst the cognoscenti. Smooth Ambler was acquired by French company Pernod Ricard in 2016.
Keeping pace with High West and Smooth Ambler, this farm distillery has long sourced some of the best rye whiskey in America. Founder Raj Bhakta and former Makers Mark master distiller, the late Dave Pickerell, had the genius to snap up barrels of Canadian rye back when no one wanted them. Its products like Boss Hog and Old World may be pricey, but they're some of the better, older rye bottlings around. Just recently, WhistlePig started releasing its own farm-to-bottle distillate called Farmstock, a “triple-terroir” rye produced using Vermont water, rye grains, and barrels made from local oak.
The Best of the Rest
These distilleries are still in their nascent stages. Some are young but showing promise. Some are a little older but still coming into their own. And some aren't even that good; they are just the only whiskey makers in that particular state. All, however, distill their own products. The following 38 are unranked and listed alphabetically.
The state's first whiskey distillery to open in 100 years—goody two-shoes Alabama started prohibition five years early, in 1915—has one product, John's Alabama Single Malt, smoked with peach and pecan wood.
The country's northernmost whiskey maker—located in Sarah Palin's hometown—makes Alaska Outlaw Whiskey, as well as a smoked salmon vodka.
Whiskey Del Bac
If any little guys are going to surpass the big boys at their own game, they will have to create something completely different. Something like Whiskey Del Bac’s Dorado, made with mesquite-smoked malts. It’s like drinking a bag of Barbecue Lay’s.
City: Little Rock
Rock Town utilizes 100-percent Arkansas ingredients for products like its Hickory Smoked Whiskey and Single Barrel Bourbon.
This northwest Connecticut spot's farm-to-bottle Batcher's Bourbon is currently being bottled at eight years of age, quite old for micro-distillery juice.
Our nation’s first state is not exactly a whiskey hotbed, which made it easy for this acclaimed brewery to burst onto the scene with Alternate Takes, a recently released experimental whiskey made of applewood smoked barley and finished in rum casks.
District of Columbia
City: Washington, D.C.
Jos. A. Magnus crafted one of the buzziest whiskeys in the business today, but unfortunately, its armagnac-finished Cigar Blend is MGP juice. Thus, One Eight Distilling's Rock Creek Whiskey is literally the only D.C.-distilled whiskey currently on the market.
City: St. Augustine
This community-owned distillery, located in a historical commercial ice plant, makes a Port Finished Bourbon aged in barrels from nearby San Sebastian Winery.
Despite draconian alcohol laws in its state, Thirteenth Colony managed to produce a four-years-aged Southern Bourbon and a Southern Rye finished on French oak spirals.
Distribution: online only
A few years back, Hawaiian moonshine was the closest thing to whiskey in Aloha-land. Luckily, today there’s this extremely small-batch distillery using a variety of atypical yeast strains, then "hyper-aging" for a year to produce Ala Wai Single Malt and Ala Wai Corn whiskey.
This distillery's flagship product, Idaho Whiskey, is a small-batch bourbon that is a top seller in the state's government-run liquor stores.
Named to subtly tweak Frances Elizabeth Willard, a local temperance worker of legend, FEW makes an award-winning rye that is spicy and quite good.
You can credit an Iowa pseudo-distillery—Templeton—for clueing the world into the seedier side of sourcing after it settled a massive class-action suit for marketing its product as Iowa-made. Cedar Ridge's bluntly named Iowa Bourbon is actually made in Iowa, from Iowa corn.
Union Horses's five-year-old Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey was good enough to make Wine Enthusiast's list of Top 100 Spirits of the year.
City: New Orleans
While most distilleries are focusing on corn, wheat, barley, and rye, Atelier Vie offers Riz, a whiskey made from rice.
In a city known for world-class beer, this Portland distillery makes a carrot gin and Fifty Stone, a Highland-style peated single malt.
City: Saint Michaels
Once the state for the world's best rye, Maryland's current generation of whiskey makers is still in its infancy. This Chesapeake Bay-area distillery made rum upon opening and now has a 100-proof rye and a single malt.
Associated with Cisco Brewers, Triple Eight distills a 12-year-old single malt named Notch (a portmanteau meaning "Not Scotch") that has won bushels of awards.
Grand Traverse Distillery
City: Traverse City
Michigan is cherry country, and this distillery does make a Cherry Whiskey, alongside several other intriguing options like a peated Islay Rye.
City: St. Paul
Eleven Wells might disclose the most information of any distillery on planet earth with bottles like Wheat Whiskey, which details 13 different production elements, ranging from the usual (proof, age) to the more obscure (barrel char level, yeast type).
In a state mostly bereft of whiskey, Cathead makes a white whiskey called Gold Coast that is distilled from Lazy Magnolia beer.
City: St. Louis
This distillery's Double Barrel Rallypoint won "Best in Class: Whiskey" at 2016's American Craft Spirits Association awards.
If you believe the possibly apocryphal story on its website, this distillery was conceived during a massive snowstorm, as a few friends worried they might run out of whiskey. It makes a series of organic, GMO-free grain whiskeys, like North Fork and Wheatfish, a single-malt.
City: La Vista
Cut Spike Single Malt is made using Scottish copper stills—a bit of a rarity in America, but one that works. It won Double Gold at the famed San Francisco Spirits competition.
Verdi Local Distillery
Verdi makes an award-winning product, Mahogany Whiskey, aged on mountain mahogany, as well as a Fireball-challenging apple cinnamon whiskey.
Tamworth makes a rye whiskey blended with fresh Montmorency cherries, but it garnered viral buzz for last year’s Eau De Musc, a bourbon flavored with extract from beavers’ castoreum sacs—the animal’s anal glands (eek).
Asbury Park Distilling
City: Asbury Park
The state that gave America its first ever distillery is surprisingly lacking in whiskey production today—though it does have this excellent distillery, right near the boardwalk, that makes a Double Barrel Bourbon, aged in both oak and used gin barrels.
Santa Fe Spirits
City: Santa Fe
Founded by Englishman Colin Keegan, this distillery's Colkegan Single Malt is a scotch-style, mesquite-smoked whiskey aged in the high desert 7,000 feet above sea level.
Finger Lakes Distilling
Set in the midst of wine country, Brian McKenzie’s distillery uses corn, wheat, and rye from local farms to craft gins, brandies, and various liqueurs. His McKenzie Rye and Bourbon have ascended to the state’s best, and he’s not afraid to finish them in unique barrels from the region, like pommeau and riesling.
Great Wagon Road
An Irish native from a family of (illegal) whiskey makers, Ollie Mulligan produces bottles at Great Wagon Road like Rua, which means “red” in Gaelic, for the gorgeous hue of this organic single malt.
The only whiskey distiller in the state makes a cinnamon whiskey called 2DOCKS Fire by Proof.
Tom's Foolery is getting good buzz for its Bonded Bourbon, making it one of the few micro-distillers who can claim such a "bonded" distinction.
The only producer of aged bourbon in the Sooner state, Scissortail uses tiny barrels to try to speed up Father Time. The combat veterans who run the distillery made Napalm, a cinnamon whiskey, and offered special #MAGA bottles for Trump's election.
House Spirits makes Irish-inspired Westward Single Malt Whiskey, which is fermented with ale yeast—not surprising in such a beer-friendly area.
Sons of Liberty
This hip South Kingstown bar slashbrewpub slash distillery makes whiskey from its own beers, including an intriguing Grapefruit Hop Whiskey.
This Southern distillery produces a biscuit whiskey, as well as a Sorghum Whiskey from sorghum grown on a Mennonite farm.
South Dakota's only aged whiskey maker has an oat whiskey and a blended product called Bickering Brothers.
One of the oldest distilleries in the state makes a four-year-old Border Straight Bourbon and a New Richmond