When talking American whiskey, Bourbon and rye get the most attention. But this diverse group of “weirdo whiskeys” are both experimental and delicious.
When it comes to American whiskey, Bourbon and rye get most of the attention. Both are wonderful, but that shuts a large number of bottlings out in the cold, just because they don’t fit in those very specific categories.
So this month, we deliberately flung the door open wide and invited all the “other” American whiskeys in. Bring on the American single malts, the wheat whiskeys, Tennessee whiskeys and, most especially, the delightful oddballs that we affectionately dubbed “weirdo whiskeys.”
That’s not intended as a slight. How else to describe such a diverse and delightful group?
Consider, for example, High West’s latest BouRye bottling, which blends Bourbon and rye to delicious effect, but which is technically neither Bourbon nor rye. The Hilhaven Lodge is another example of blending across whiskey categories, incorporating Bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey in the same bottle.
Producers experimenting with various grains also land their products outside of the Bourbon (at least 51% corn) and rye (at least 51% rye) designations. In addition to wheat whiskeys, this month’s reviews brought a wide range of whiskeys that feature barley, whether malted, unmalted or smoked to approximate smoky Scotch; oats (Koval’s butterscotchy Single Barrel Whiskey is a good example, made with oats, malted barley, rye and wheat); and even one unusual buckwheat seed-based spirit (The One and Only Buckwheat), which technically isn’t even a whiskey but has all the vanilla-and-citrus appeal of one.
Finally, let’s not forget what is apparently a micro-niche of sorghum-based whiskeys: Two Southern producers, Arkansas’s Rock Town and South Carolina’s High Wire, scored high with spirits made from this ancient grain (not sorghum syrup), creating intriguing sippers with deep, dark toffee and spice notes.
Although we’ll always be glad to have Bourbon and rye on the shelves, it’s good to see so many other options that are pushing flavors and whiskey-making techniques in new directions.
7 Bottles to Try
High West Distillery Bourye (USA; High West Distillery, Park City, UT); $80, 96 points. The 2017 limited-edition release of this Bourbon-rye blend, all a minimum of 10 years old, perfectly balances sweetness and spice. Rich caramel and brown sugar lead on the nose and palate, finishing with clove, nutmeg and cinnamon sizzle, plus a hint of orange peel. abv: 46%
Westland Winter 2016 American Single Malt Whiskey (USA; Westland Distillery, Seattle, WA); $100, 95 points. A locavore single malt to savor. Look for a golden hue and smoky aroma framed by fresh pear. Peat smoke is pronounced on the astringent, drying palate. Adding water coaxes gentle pear and vanilla forward, though the pleasingly smoky flavor remains, winding into a mouthwatering clove-accented finish. abv: 50%
New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey (USA; High Wire Distilling, Charleston, SC); $50, 94 points. Made with 100% sorghum, this deep amber whiskey shows as peppery up front, then rounds to deep molasses, brown sugar and oak, finishing with an intriguing burnt orange peel finish. A complex addition for whiskey-forward cocktails.
Melky Miller American Whiskey (USA; New Liberty Distillery, Philadelphia, PA); $30, 93 points. This “heritage series” whiskey is made mostly from corn, with just 1% barley, and is aged for 8 years. Yet the producer says it’s made in “classic Maryland style,” which usually refers to a lighter style of rye whiskey (there’s no rye in this whiskey). In short, this is a confusing whiskey to decode, but a tasty one to sip, integrating oak backbone with pecan, brown sugar, almond and hints of sherry and cinnamon. The whiskey is sourced in Indiana but bottled in Pennsylvania. Best Buy. abv: 45%
The Hilhaven Lodge (USA; Diageo Americas, Norwalk, CT); $50, 93 points. A blend of whiskey styles (Bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey) yields a golden spirit with a gentle peach nectar and almond profile, underpinned by oaky vanilla and a cinnamon-clove finish. Feels light, sips well. This is a collaboration between Diageo and Hollywood director Brett Ratner. abv: 40%
Barrell Whiskey Cask Strength Batch 004 Finished in Rum Casks (USA; Barrell Craft Spirits, Louisville, KY); $60, 93 points. Aged 11 years and made with a mix of whiskeys from Tennessee and Indiana, this complex sipper offers honey, vanilla and a hint of red fruit, finishing long and drying with lemon peel and ginger zing. Bottled at cask strength, so feel free to soften with as much water as you prefer; the flavor will hold up nicely. abv: 60.3%
Koval Single Barrel Whiskey Four Grain (USA; Koval, Chicago, IL); $53, 92 points. The four grains in question: oats, malted barley, rye and wheat. The result: an amber whiskey with luscious butterscotch and caramel on nose and palate, plus a spicy clove-pepper finish. Adding water tames the alcohol heat, turns down the volume on the butterscotch and brings forward mellow hints of banana and vanilla. abv: 47%