1. One Great Shining Barrel
When a bottle of whiskey is the product of one distillery, chances are it still contains a mixture of multiple barrels whose unique personalities are sacrificed to achieve a consistent nose and flavor year after year. They can be less predictable, but single-cask scotches or single-barrel whiskeys—like Booker’s bourbon—give those personalities total creative expression.
2. Et Tu, Quinoa?
American craft distillers are experimenting with alternative grains. Josh Peters, the L.A.-based blogger for
thewhiskeyjug.com, recommends Corsair Quinoa: “For a bourbon drinker, there are a lot of similarities—caramels, vanilla, toasted grain. But it does have a strong quinoa note to it, a different grainy wheat flavor that’s all its own.”
3. Bourbon Rules
Even that great instigator of barroom brawls, Jim Beam, is subject to strict regulations from Washington, like all straight bourbons. Contents must be at least 51 percent corn and aged for two years or more in new charred American oak barrels—a process that results in a mildly sweet spirit. The higher-end Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. pays tribute to the 19th-century Kentucky distiller who started it all.
4. Land of the Rising Dram
The first distillery in Japan opened in 1923. Production climbed during the 20th century, but Japanese whisky was overshadowed by the output of the Scottish isles. During the aughts, though, bottlings by brands like Yamazaki and Hibiki began to win international spirits competitions. Now the global demand for Japanese whisky has risen so steeply that little of the high-end stuff makes it to the States. Which is why Yamazaki 12 Year is such a rare treat.
5. From Outlaw to Pussycat
With the fuzz on their tail, moonshiners didn’t have the luxury of aging hooch long enough to take on even the faintest shade from a whiskey barrel. Unlike the rotgut of generations past, the artisanal white whiskey of today isn’t cheap, won’t make you blind, and tempers its youthful ardor with a subtlety beyond its years. This dram of Death’s Door White Whisky from Middleton, Wisconsin, is dangerous in name only.
6. Local tastes
Many of the new American distilleries in states like Arizona and Indiana still produce in the style of Kentucky bourbon or scotch. But some craft bottlings are embracing their region’s terroir, particularly Balcones Brimstone, from Waco, which achieves its smoke and fire by cooking local corn in Texas scrub oak.
7. Blending In
The majority of scotches sold worldwide are mass-market blends—mixes of malted barley whiskeys from multiple distilleries, usually combined with cheaper grain whiskey. A growing number of companies like Compass Box have begun to give blends the artisan treatment. Flaming Heart features a melding of older single malts from different distillers.
8. Finishing School
While most scotch is aged in bourbon barrels shipped from the States after they’ve run their course at Maker’s Mark or Evan Williams, a number of distilleries have been meeting a growing thirst for whiskys that draw flavor from used sherry, rum, and wine casks. In Bowmore 15 Years Old ‘Darkest,’ the barley’s sting mellows against the sweet amber of aging sherry.
9. Rye Rises Again
Before Prohibition, rye was the ruler of American whiskey. When the country went wet again, bourbon claimed the crown, and drier, spicier rye was reduced to an also-ran. There’s been a recent surge in craft rye. The superior Whistlepig 10 Year costs less than $70 a bottle, a fraction of what a comparable bourbon would fetch.