If you’re out to find the best craft distilleries in the land, you are in extreme luck. We’ve had the pleasure of talking with Justin Nierengarten @bourbontraveler, and we are thrilled to share his whiskey passion and energy right here. Buckle up, y’all. You’re going to be blown away, and you’re certainly going to want to take some road trips soon.
Justin is a Kentucky native, a pharmacist by day, and a whiskey connoisseur by night. We dig his curiosity and sense of adventure. And we are inspired by his willingness to keep learning and to literally go the extra mile (or miles, in this case). This Bourbon Traveler has been all over the nation, as you can see by his map above. We’re honored to have his keen eye and palate, generous spirit, and whiskey enthusiasm guiding us.
Without further delay, we place you in Justin’s capable, well-traveled hands.
You’ve heard it said that a rising tide lifts all boats. Perhaps there is no specific industry out there tha's defined by this saying better than the world of whiskey.
The “bourbon boom” of recent years has shown exponential growth at all of the large scale whiskey producers. But even the titans of the industry were not able to supply enough for the rapidly growing demand. Then something magical happened. And it’s still happening. It’s the all-out eruption of craft distilleries.
distilleries come in all shapes and sizes, and they encompass several different
approaches to bringing a new product to the market.
category (and most straightforward) is the non-distilling producer (NDP). This
type of company buys ready-made bourbon and can label, bottle, and sell the
product immediately. Or they may decide to finish it in a different type of
cask (rum, port, Madeira, toasted barrels, etc.). This particular category
includes the two largest producers of whiskey: Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in
Indiana and George Dickel in Tennessee.
category is the contract-distilling producer. This type of distillery, in an
effort to save on initial costs, will create a recipe (mash bill, char level,
age, etc.) and have an already-established distillery produce for them until
they are fully capable of doing things themselves.
category is the distiller. This is a company that completes every aspect of
producing the whiskey from start to finish. To avoid a dissertation here, I
will focus on the distilleries I have visited that are actually distilling and
distributing their own product.
Note: The back of your bottle will say “Distilled and Bottled By ______ Distillery” if it is, in fact, their own product.
is a list of the best craft distilleries I have personally visited. I
considered several aspects when composing this list. Of course, the primary
goal is to find great whiskey, but it’s not the only criterion.
uniqueness, creativity, diversity of product, branding, special releases, and
location all went into my final decisions. So, without further ado, here they
are in no particular order. I simply invite you to travel around with me. In
the end, you’re the judge; you can experience them and rank them.
[Home base is, of course, Louisville, KY. Where else would the Bourbon Traveler hang his hat?]
New Riff Distillery, Newport, KY (website screenshot)
|Located across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, New Riff is rapidly developing a strong following due to their recently introduced products. Currently, they offer three whiskeys, all of which are aged a minimum of four years: single barrel bourbon, bourbon, and rye whiskey.
Before releasing their first product in fall of 2018, they sourced bourbon from a distillery in Indiana and sold it under the brand name O.K.I. (which has quite the cult following as well). Rest assured, though: everything being bottled and sold under their current New Riff label is their own product, start to finish.
Bonus: This distillery gets extra credit for the design and artwork of their bottle. It is one of the most attractive bottle designs on the market.
Nierengarten’s Pick? New Riff Bourbon Bottled in Bond
Wigle Whiskey Distillery, Pittsburgh, PA (website screenshot)
|Turning our trek northeast, we cross Ohio and find ourselves in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. This smaller, urban distillery offers a vast assortment of whiskeys. The current portfolio includes seven different types of rye whiskey (which should not be a surprise given the region’s history of rye production), a bourbon, two different wheat whiskeys, and several flavored whiskeys.
Their products are typically grain-forward with slight differences showing through in a few of their different barrel-finished products. In the past, their distribution hasn’t had a significant reach. But in the last six to nine months, I have noticed it in stores several states away. If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, pop in for a tasting and hopefully snatch a bottle of their hard-to-find Pennsylvania Bourbon.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Wigle Straight Wheat Whiskey
Two James Distillery, Detroit, MI (website screenshot)
|Let’s make a U-turn in Pittsburgh and head back west over to another urban distillery in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. This vibrant, up-and-coming area offers a distillery with an understated storefront. Just wait until you enter the tasting bar, though.
Their product lineup is a bit on the experimental side while offering some straightforward classics as well. Whiskeys currently being offered and distributed to fourteen states include two bourbons (one of which is a peated bourbon for scotch lovers), a rye whiskey, and a blended whiskey offering similar notes to a Japanese whiskey.
They do offer occasional special releases at the distillery gift shop, so keep an eye out online. Their bottle designs and labeling are works of art. They could just as easily be displayed on a shelf. Of course, I prefer to experience it in my glass.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Catcher’s Rye Straight Rye Whiskey
Dry Fly Distillery, Spokane, WA, (website screenshot)
|Time for a cross-country flight from Michigan to Washington as we nestle into the quaint city of Spokane. Located in the heart of wine country, there aren’t many people out there spreading the Gospel of Whiskey. Dry Fly stands above the rest in the Pacific Northwest.
My fondest memory about this distillery is their willingness to experiment. They have several wheat whiskeys made with 100 percent Washington-grown wheat (one of which is finished in port barrels, of course). They also offer a bourbon which was actually the first bourbon ever legally produced in the state of Washington.
The standout product for me was the triticale whiskey which, on the palate, is very similar to a rye whiskey but finishes sweet and subtle like a wheat whiskey. 2019 stands to be a big year for Dry Fly as they plan to release a single malt whiskey as well as a whiskey finished in beer barrels.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Dry Fly Straight Triticale Whiskey
Oregon Spirits Distillery, Bend, OR (website screenshot)
|Following the compass southwest, we arrive in Oregon. A small, adorable city -- somewhat centrally located -- has my next addition to the list. Oregon Spirits is one of the O.G. craft distilleries, having been in business since 2009.
That being said, they are planning to celebrate their ten-year anniversary this summer. Some exciting things are planned for 2019, including the addition of a blended malt whiskey to their current offerings of bourbon, wheat whiskey, rye whiskey, and some bottled-in-bond premium options.
Oregon Spirits Distillery has also recently opened a large tasting room/event space and plans to host events (including a concert series) this year. This whiskey is distributed all across the state of Oregon as well as to all Total Wine locations across the country.
Nierengarten’s Pick? J. Becher Straight Rye Whiskey (Bottled in Bond)
Sugar House Distillery, Salt Lake City, UT (website screenshot)
|Time to hop a quick flight across the pond (the Great Salt Lake, that is) from Oregon to Utah. Sugar House was established in 2013 and, at the time, was only the fourth licensed distiller in the state of Utah. This is indicative of a couple of different things.
First, Utah state laws make it somewhat difficult to obtain a license to distill. Second, the people over at Sugar House are a team of dedicated enthusiasts. Their location is very unassuming (even for a craft distillery) in downtown Salt Lake. It comprises a small still alongside their small barrels with aging whiskey or rum.
Their whiskey portfolio only consists of a malt whiskey as well as a bourbon. But I was struck by how committed and passionate each and every employee seemed. They do not cut corners. They do not put out a product before it is ready. I appreciate their loyalty to crafting a worthy spirit.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Sugar House Bourbon Whiskey
Alamo Distillery, San Antonio, TX (website screenshot)
|The last flight of our trip is going to take us from Salt Lake City down south to San Antonio. Alamo Distillery is the smallest craft distillery on my list. Their entire operation is being conducted in a somewhat modest warehouse.
At the time of my visit (late 2017), they only had a handful of barrels with aging whiskey inside. They have since expanded and introduced new products. Their original bourbon was a wheated bourbon that drank very sweet and smooth with a little burn on the back end.
I loved getting a personal tour by the master distiller during times they do n’t typically offer tours. He knew I was in town for only a short while and made an exception. Obviously, bonus points.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Alamo Bourbon Whiskey
Balcones Distillery, Waco, TX (website screenshot)
|Time to hit the road and head a few hours up to Waco. Balcones is a classic American success story. They’re hand-built (2008), and they’re possibly the most awarded small distillery in the country, having earned more than 200 awards since 2009.
They produce the full gamut of whiskeys--from rye, bourbon, malt, and corn whiskeys, to cask strengths of the aforementioned, as well as a couple of interesting finished whiskeys. Balcones offers everything you would look for in the distillery experience.
The tour is very informative, located in a huge historic brick building in downtown Waco. The tasting room is massive, with all the assortment of whiskeys, as well as cocktails and small-bite foods. And the gift shop offers unique souvenirs along with occasional gift-shop-only whiskeys.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whiskey
Rock Town Distillery, Little Rock, AR (website screenshot)
|Buckle up for a “quick” jaunt to neighboring state Arkansas. Our last pit stop before the home state is in Little Rock. Here, we find a hidden gem tucked away in the centrally located capital. Rock Town offers some great choices for the whiskey lover: bourbon, rye, and hickory-smoked whiskeys. These three are also offered as a single-barrel option.
One other option is some special anniversary bourbons they release each year. These are usually composed of the four primary grains (corn, rye, wheat, malted barley) and are released once annually in the gift shop.
The most memorable part of this tour is the tasting afterward. At Rock Town, you are able to try every product they have (including special releases), so plan on having a driver or car service for your next adventure.
Nierengarten’s Pick? Rock Town 4 Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Peerless Distillery, Louisville, KY (website screenshot)
|Finally, we’ve come full circle and find ourselves back in Louisville, KY. Home base. Peerless Distillery is located near several other distilleries in the revamped Louisville downtown, showcasing the city’s strong historic ties to the spirit.
This distillery re-opened in 2015 after being shut down since a few years before prohibition. It’s managed by descendants of the original family that launched the Peerless line in 1889. Their current product lineup consists of a 3-year small batch rye whiskey, as well as a 3-year single-barrel rye whiskey. The gift shop offers a double oak single-barrel whiskey.
Look for their first bourbon being introduced to the market in 2019!
Nierengarten’s Pick? Peerless Single Barrel 3 year Rye Whiskey
This is not an
all-inclusive list. These are simply, for many different reasons, my favorite
distilleries that I have visited. Some had memorable whiskeys, some had
memorable tours. Some I treasure for the details--the passion behind the work,
the belief in top quality, no matter what. All of them were an experience,
though. That’s a common thread.
my list, I noticed each distillery represents its location. The Kentucky
distilleries typically offer a longer-aged, more classic tasting whiskey.
Pittsburgh and Detroit offer very grain-forward, simple yet layered flavors.
The Pacific Northwest and Utah were a little more progressive, using mostly
local grains and not being scared to experiment. Texas is Texas: big, bold, and
spicy. And there is Arkansas, somewhat overlooked in the grand scheme, but
serving up something that needs to be noticed.
Another common thread? The people. Every distillery out there is someone’s dream come to fruition. I encourage everybody who loves whiskey to support these distilleries, whether locally or on a road trip. Hopefully, this helps you get started. Why not begin your whiskey journey today? Cheers!
If you’re not
following @bourbontraveler, we recommend making his Instagram
acquaintance now. And if you’re digging what he says here, you can also catch
him in our articles Guide to Bourbon and Bourbons to Try.
Feel free to
add to this list below in the comments section. Tell us your favorite craft
distilleries. We’re all learning here, and we enjoy getting your input,
wherever you are. Also, feel free to self-promote. We love it!
Pack your bags,
kids. You’ve got some traveling to do. Hope to share a pour with you somewhere
along this beautiful whiskey road.