The season of patios and bellinis is over people! While it breaks my heart that I can no longer enjoy a gallon-sized fish bowl of peach sex in the sun, I look toward the horizon. The future holds a season full of pumpkin spice, wool sweaters and bourbon. Straight, pure, unadulterated bourbon. While the bellini holds a special place in my heart, a couple of ounces of corn-dominant, American oak aged whiskey fills me with joy. Like most people, when I first got into bourbon I associated it strictly with the state of Kentucky. Kentucky is to bourbon as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir and while Kentucky is responsible for 95% of production, there is a common misconception regarding where it can be made. While Kentucky is the champ the truth in fact, is that bourbon can be cooked up anywhere in the States. For whiskey to be bourbon, it has to meet a few requirements. It must be 51% corn. It must be aged for some time in new American oak, the length of which is not regulated. Only water can be added post ageing, whereas scotch may see some caramel colouring added. Lastly, as of 1964, it can only be produced in the United States. While Kentucky may be the hub for bourbon there are distillers elsewhere making some insanely good product and just like there can be exceptional pinot noir found outside of Burgundy, exceptional bourbon can be found outside of Kentucky. Here are 4 bourbons to try from outside of Kentucky, along with a bonus Japanese offering!
Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon - Kirby, Wyoming - $73 (all-in)
After a 33 year career with Makers Mark, head distiller Steve Nally founded Wyoming Whiskey. This independent and family-operated distillery located in Kirby, Wyoming produces traditional-style bourbon. They take major pride in their family, their team and quality. All of their non-GMO grain is sourced locally from the Big Horn Basin and their water is gathered from a one-mile deep limestone aquifer. The mash bill consists of 68% corn, 20% winter wheat, and 12% barley. Aged a minimum of 5-years in non-temperature controlled rickhouses, this whiskey comes out floral and sweet with flavours of butter, vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. A flavour combination fit for the Greek goddess of autumn herself.
Oppidan Four-Grain Straight Bourbon - Wheeling, Illinois - $82.50
Located in Wheeling, Illinois this distillery isn’t much for fancy write-ups or long-winded stories of how they got to where they are today. They prefer to let the whiskey do the talking. They take traditional methods and put an exciting spin on them with two bourbons that blow me away. First the four-grain straight bourbon. Consisting of 68% corn, 14% wheat, 9% rye and 9% malt, this classic mash balances the sweetness of corn and the spiciness of rye beautifully. Caramel, vanilla, baking spices, leather and sweet corn are the dominant flavours here which, in my opinion, shine in an old fashioned or a black manhattan. The second bourbon from them is the solera-aged bourbon. First released in 2016, this recipe contains malts more often used in the production of beer rather than whiskey. Corn, malted rye, chocolate malted rye, special B and 2 row barley are distilled and aged in 3 different types of oak in what is referred to as a “solera system”. The aging process starts in American oak and is then transferred to French oak, then oloroso sherry casks. The French and sherry casks are never fully emptied which leaves a consistent base that will be blended with each new “top-up”, the younger bourbon mixes with the more mature bourbon as it makes its way through each level of the system. This guy is best served with a 24oz steak and a side of John Prine.
Koval - Chicago, Illinois - $89
Established in 2008, Koval produces some of the “greenest” bourbon around. All their grain is locally sourced, organic and non-GMO. They take major pride in being as low impact and environmentally friendly as possible using hyper-efficient stills and waste management techniques. The mash is mainly corn with the rest being a unique ingredient in the world of American whiskey. Millet, a cereal grain more common in Asia and Africa, takes up the remaining percent and adds a distinct tropical, mango fruit quality. All their bourbons are single-barrel aged for no more than 4 years and can be traced back to the specific distillation. Using only the “heart cut” of the distilling process (no tails, which are commonly used in bourbon) provides the most crisp and aromatic version of the distillate. This grants them the ability to age a shorter amount of time in charred barrels because it simply doesn’t need the extended aging. Koval distillery is unapologetically “new-school” and are producing some of the most exciting product on the market. Pick up a bottle of their single-barrel bourbon for an atypical expression of a classic American spirit.
Breckenridge - Breckenridge, Colorado - $77
This distillery is the highest in the world, not only because of legal pot but because they are located at 9600 feet. They benefit from the altitude by sourcing their water directly from the Rocky Mountains. Their bourbon always has a high-rye content making it distinctly spicy, which mellows out after 2-3 years in charred oak sourced from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. Distinct flavours of banana, brown sugar and white pepper coupled with the spicy rye content make this bourbon an excellent option for a Manhattan or would put a cool spin on a Sazerac.
Mars Shinshu Iwai - Japan - $63
I’m going to break a rule here and talk about a whiskey that is not technically bourbon, but with a heavy corn content is a great bet for bourbon lovers wanting to try something new! The Mars Shinshu distillery is located between the Southern Alps and the Central Alps of Japan. Run by the Hombo family, who have been distilling for over a century, this distillery has called many locations home with its current location at just over 2600 feet. This site provides excellent water, and the cool temperatures make for a long maturation process. The Iwai whisky is inspired by the great whiskeys of the States and is corn dominant with light malt picking up the slack. This lighter-style whisky is aged in ex-bourbon barrels and has heavy orchard fruit flavours, vanilla, and brown sugar perfect for cocktail-ing or drinking straight from the bottle.