There’s no disputing the fact that people long for a good, stiff drink while stuck at home in lockdown. But while beer and liquor sales are up, in general, smaller breweries and distilleries are still struggling. Even in cases where these companies are cranking out more bottles of hazy IPA or artisanal spirits, they’re losing important business in other areas (tasting room traffic, etc).
That’s why it’s so important to support the little guys. If we don’t, many of them might not still be here when all of this is over.
Today, we turn our attention to bourbon. While many drinkers are loyal to the likes of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey, small brands are gasping for breath. That’s why we gave some of our favorite bartenders the chance to tell us their favorite bourbon expressions from smaller distilleries.
J Henry & Sons Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami
I’m going with J Henry & Sons Straight Bourbon Whiskey 5 year. Produced using ingredients grown on their farm in Wisconsin, this bourbon is delightfully smooth and complex while appealing to both wheat and rye drinkers. Great people, great ingredients, great juice.
Frey Ranch Bourbon
Juyoung Kang, lead bartender at The Dorsey in Las Vegas
Frey Ranch Bourbon from Nevada. They are a farm-to-bottle distillery, meaning they grow their own grains and turn it into whiskey. They also make their own honey. They’re a real renaissance distillery.
Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon
Matt Shields, bartender at The Bay Restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
Every now and then a random state makes a solid whiskey. Utah made High West, and Texas made Balcones. Balcones is such a great whiskey for how young the distillery is. They seem to have a passionate approach to their craft which cannot be ignored. High West is a close second.
Jessi Lorraine, bartender at Elda in San Francisco
I love Woodinville Bourbon when it comes to smaller bourbon brands. It has a loose nuttiness and warming sweetest that goes great with the charcuterie board or trail mix you’re enjoying during quarantine.
Michter’s US-1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Blake Jones, bartender and director of beverage at The Kennedy in Pensacola, Florida
Super subjective. If I had to pick, I’d say probably Michter’s. Although their operation isn’t tiny, it’s smaller than most in Kentucky. They really understand the science behind it, and it’s really awesome to see their process.
Oppidan Smoke & Sea Bourbon
Danielle Becker, bartender at the Aspen Meadows Resort in Aspen, Colorado
Oppidan Spirits, Smoke & Sea Bourbon. Their bourbon aged in Scotch barrels. It’s such a fun blend of sweet bourbon, peaty scotch, and brininess. It’s so smooth and easy to sip.
Rowan’s Creek Bourbon
Freddy Concepcion Ucan Tuz, bartender at JW Marriott in Cancun, Mexico
Rowan’s Creek Bourbon is my go-to. Rowan’s Creek Bourbon is from a small distillery with a lot of history that goes back into 1684. This Bourbon has a vanilla, herbal, caramel, and floral notes which express a sense of oak and spiciness once tasted. A fantastic way to enjoy an after-dinner drink at the lobby lounge.
Wesley MacDonald, owner of Caña Bar and Kitchen in Curaçao
For me, Blanton’sStraight from the Barrel is one of the best bourbons I can get my hand on. A cask strength beast bottled at around 130 proof. Very hot and lively, yet smooth and easily palatable. In my opinion, it’s the best expression of the Blanton’s series. Obviously, it’s not made at the smallest distillery but Buffalo Trace still isn’t on the same size level as Beam or Wild Turkey. Count it?
Hudson Baby Bourbon
David Powell, brand ambassador for Hudson Whiskey
It has to be Baby, baby. Baby Bourbon started New York state’s distilling renaissance, and Ralph’s lobbying in Albany became a legislative model for accelerating craft distilling in so many other states. They’re about as close to a single grain whiskey as you can get (90-95% Corn in every bottle), and the flavor profile is made to stand out rather than blend in. What else could you want in a bottle of whiskey?
You might not think of bourbon when you think of a place like Evanston, Illinois (although you also might not think of Evanston, Illinois very often). But, by now, you probably should. That’s because Paul Hletko and the folks at FEW have been crafting one of the best bourbons in the country since the distillery opened its doors in 2011. It’s well-rounded with subtle corn sweetness as well as vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. Perfect for sipping neat or in your favorite cocktail.