Bourbon drinkers, hear me out. I think you’re stuck in a rut. There’s nothing wrong with loving bourbon—I drink a lot of it—but there are other delicious American whiskeys out there you should be adding to your collection.
When I pour in-store tastings, customers often come in asking to sample a bourbon and leave preferring a rye or malt whiskey from the lineup. And yet, bourbon outsells other American whiskey categories in our store by a ratio of almost 3:1. Why?
I have some theories. First and foremost, I think a lot of whiskey drinkers don’t fully understand that whiskey is a broad category of spirits distilled from grain, and that words like “bourbon” or “rye” or “Scotch” are merely categories within this broader family. Customers frequently tell me they are shopping for bourbon, but that they don’t like whiskey. (What?!) Secondly, I also think that many bourbon drinkers think bourbon itself has an inherent flavor that differs in some way from other whiskey options but is consistent among bourbons. That’s simply not true—the word bourbon just means that the whiskey was distilled in America from 51% corn and aged in new charred American oak barrels. The other 49% of the mash bill can be anything (usually rye, barley, and/or wheat), and the whiskey can be matured for 3 months or 23 years, in small or large oak barrels (or a combo of both), cask finished in wine or beer barrels, and bottled at high or low proof. All of these decisions along the way have a significant impact on the flavor in the final product.
In other words, bourbon doesn’t have just one flavor or style—so why should you feel compelled to limit yourself only to that category? American craft distilleries are producing some truly exceptional whiskeys in other styles, from rye—the original American whiskey used in world-famous cocktails like the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, and Boulevardier—to malted barley, or even more experimental blends and aging techniques.
So, whether you’re picking out a new bottle for yourself, or searching for the perfect whiskey to surprise dad with on Father’s Day, here are five delicious non-Bourbon American whiskeys to expand your home bar:
Breuckelen Distilling ’77 Bonded Rye’
Using grain purchased from the Finger Lakes, this 4-year-old bonded rye was fermented, distilled, and matured entirely on site in Breuckelen’s Sunset Park distillery. Assertive and rich, it’s an excellent rye for drinkers more familiar with bourbon, thanks to the barrel-forward, oaky style and intensity. It is, however, still distinctly rye: bursting with baking spice and ready to elevate your perfect cocktails (if there’s any left after you sip it neat). After taking home a gold medal at the Great American International Spirits Competition, the distillers were surprised to receive a message from one of the judges, asking where he could purchase a bottle…if that’s not a winning endorsement, I don’t know what is!
Virginia Distillery Co. ‘Cider Cask Finish’
While building up their local barley supply and aging their 100% Virginia-grown whiskey, VDC has been experimenting with unusual blends of Virginia & Scottish barley and seasonal, limited-release cask finishes. I tasted through their current lineup a few weeks ago and was most impressed by the Cider Cask finish, which takes their base whiskey and finishes it in local cider casks for a bright, fruity, subtly earthy whiskey with lots of character. Highly recommended for fans of Highland and Speyside Scotch!
Union Horse ‘Reunion’ Rye
At the risk of sounding biased, Union Horse might be my absolute favorite rye whiskey. There’s a modern trend among distillers hoping to capture some of the bourbon market to dilute their rye down as much as possible with corn and barley, to soften it and make it taste like more familiar whiskies. I’m not a fan of that trend! Union Horse is a craft distilled whiskey made from 100% rye grown around Kansas City, then aged 5+ years in new charred American oak. It is classic rye, the way it should taste, and makes the world’s best Manhattan or Old-Fashioned. With extended age for a craft whiskey in this price point, it’s also smooth and rich enough to sip neat with no problem at all. Truly one of the greatest American craft whiskeys!
All Points West ‘Malt & Grain’
Newark’s own All Points West is making some of our favorite craft spirits right now—and though they are delicious and accessible, distiller Gil Spaier also comes at the process of making whiskey, gin, and vodka from a more open-minded perspective than many others. His ‘Malt & Grain’ whiskey pays homage to a long lost style of Irish whiskey where corn was added to the typical malted barley to make a sweeter, rounder whiskey—and it was popular! Unfortunately, the Irish government saw this as a threat; Irish drinkers might abandon malted whiskey for American bourbon if they became too familiar with corn, so they outlawed this blended style. Many years later, All Points West is bringing it back! A blend of malted barley and corn, this should appeal to fans of Irish or Japanese whiskey as well as bourbon, and it doesn’t get much more local than Newark!
Albany Distilling Co. ‘Ironweed Straight Malt Whiskey’
If you’re not sure about a new style of whiskey, why not try it in a smaller format? These 200mL flasks of Albany’s ‘Ironweed’ malt whiskey are a perfect opportunity to see what American distilleries can do with malted barley, the traditional grain used in single malt scotch. Albany’s take is inspired by unpeated Highland scotch. Aged 2 years in American oak, this is a rich & sweet style of malt whiskey with assertive flavors of cereal and vanilla—an easy sipper, but also a fun way to add a twist to your favorite whiskey cocktails. And it fits in a pocket or purse!
Next time you’re on the market for a new whiskey, step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Whether it’s for you or a gift for dad, it’s well world beyond the strict confines of bourbon. There are a lot of incredible American whiskeys out there you don’t want to miss!