July 10, 2019
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In many ways, you can thank the craft-distilling trend for the truly national reach of the whiskey industry, since many of these whiskey distilleries are less than a decade old. But just because they are relatively young doesn’t mean that they aren’t producing some of the most complex and original whiskies in the nation – including the first hopped whiskies in California and a wide range of mesquite-smoked whiskies.
Of course, the search for America’s best whiskey starts with the two states that are the spiritual home of the American whiskey industry – Kentucky and Tennessee. Many experts generally acknowledge Kentucky to be the premier whiskey-distilling region in the country, followed by Tennessee as a close second. The American Whiskey Trail, created in 2014 to generate more attention about the nation’s proud distilling tradition, lists the following operational distilleries (all open to the public) as being among the finest in the nation:
Of course, those are just the operational whiskey distilleries that are open to the public. There are many more craft distilleries that have legions of fans, all of them loyal to Kentucky whiskey. And Kentucky is the home to Bourbon County, literally the home of American Bourbon production. The state even has its own Bourbon Trail specifically dedicated to highlighting the state’s best bourbon. In addition to the distilleries included on the American Whiskey Trail (Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve), the Kentucky Bourbon Trail lists several other prominent destinations:
And those are just the biggest distilleries. Kentucky also promotes the Bourbon Trail “Craft Tour,” which takes visitors to places like Bardstown, Lexington, and Louisville to check out the state’s best craft distillers.
But outside of Kentucky and Tennessee, where else is it possible to find truly great American whiskey? Historically speaking, both Indiana and Pennsylvania have been known for their high-quality whiskey production. In Indiana, The Indiana Whiskey Company stands out for special acclaim, while in Pennsylvania, Dad’s Hat makes some of the finest rye whiskey in the nation. Another state in the Midwest with noteworthy distilleries includes Illinois.
However, with the growth of the craft distilling movement over the past decade, the centre of gravity of the whiskey industry appears to have shifted to Colorado and the American West. In addition to Colorado (Leopold Bros.), other states with notable whiskey distilling operations include Arizona (Whiskey Del Bac), Idaho (Idaho Whiskey), Montana (RoughStock), Nevada (Verdi Local Distillery), Utah (High West) and Wyoming (Wyoming Whiskey).
These states all have relatively young distillery operations, but now include some of the best micro-distilleries in the nation. For example, Wyoming Whiskey, based in Kirby, Wyoming, has only been distilling whiskey since 2009 but has just released a new line of Double Cask whiskies finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry cask barrels. Wyoming Whiskey is generally considered to be one of the best whiskies produced outside of Kentucky or Tennessee.
The single best micro-distillery in the nation continues to be Westland, located in Seattle, Washington. Westland was founded in 2010, and immediately became the leader of the craft whiskey distilling movement. For many, it was emblematic of how the “little guy” could make just as good of a single malt whiskey as the entrenched giants in the industry. Two whiskies – the Westland Garryana and the Westland Peated whiskey – particularly stand out for their exceptional taste and quality. In 2016, the company was officially acquired by the French drinks conglomerate Remy Cointreau. That might be good for national (and potentially even international distribution), but it means that Westland is no longer an independently owned distillery.
And, finally, two of the largest states in the nation – California and Texas – have also begun to see the emergence of new craft whiskey distilleries. In California, the clear standout is Charbay Distillery, founded in Napa Valley in the early 1980’s. Charbay pioneered the “hoppy whiskey” and its perennial crowd-pleaser is the Hop Flavored Whiskey. The founder of Charbay, Marko Karakasevic, is a thirteenth-generation master distiller, so you can begin to see why whiskies from Charbay - such as the Whiskey R5 and the Whiskey S - are generally considered to be some of the top products on the market today. In Texas, the current market leader is Waco-based Balcones, which makes a very popular True Blue whiskey. Balcones is still considered one of the top micro-whiskey brands in the nation.
The important point to keep in mind, though, is that all 50 U.S. states have at least one whiskey distillery. In addition to the regions mentioned above, states like Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia all have notable whiskey distilleries. And you can even find whiskey production in places that you might not expect – like Alaska, which is home to American Outlaw Whiskey.
In terms of size and importance, both Kentucky and Tennessee are still the national leaders, but it is now safe to say that whiskey distilling is truly a nationwide movement in the United States, extending to every geographic region in the country.