Three American Whiskies To Warm You Up This Winter

While America was founded on the fortunes of rum, whiskey built the country’s infrastructure. Of course, brown spirits haven’t always enjoyed the popularity seen today. In fact, as recently as 2005, bourbon and rye weren’t that cool. During the 1990s, the Kentucky Distilling Association (KDA) had so little to do, they placed staff on part-time hours. Up until the last 15 years, clear spirits had captured America’s attention, starting with the martini culture of the 1950s up through the premiumization era of vodka starting in the 90s.

Fortunately, a few trends set off a brown booze renaissance, giving bourbon and rye lovers a wealth of choices. Modern cocktail culture, the opening up of international markets, development of tourism and the bourbon trail, American appreciation for heritage products, and the explosion in craft distilleries, all fueled the billion-dollar expansion. Spoilt for choice, neophytes may find it hard to pick a starting point. So this trio of selections offers something for everyone: a well-priced every day sipper, an approachable celebrity collaboration, and a farm-to-glass rye.

Everyday Sipper

Barton 1792 Distillery Small Batch Bourbon, $30

1792 was the year Kentucky joined the union, though Barton Distillery was founded in 1879 in Bardstown. The site for the distillery was selected for the natural spring nearby. Barton retains the distinction of being the oldest fully operating distillery in Bardstown. The distillery underwent several name and ownership changes gaining momentum until the kibosh of Prohibition. After Repeal, then-owner Tom Moore revived the business; an old man by that point, he soon sold the distillery. Sazerac Company picked it up in 2008, finally settling on its current name after a legal dust up with Woodford Reserve over prior name, Ridgewood Reserve 1792.

Of course, distillery’s litany of names is merely tangential to the product line, one that stands out from its competitors. Barton 1792 makes a range of spirits, many winning awards and recognition from seasoned whiskey writers, most recently for the pricier Full Proof Bourbon. However, the Small Batch is the little bourbon that could, a great pick from the mid-range sub-$30 price bracket with a cork stopper, to boot.

Though undisclosed, the mash bill likely starts with 75% corn, followed by a suspected “high rye” content of 17-20%, with the remainder barley. This bourbon starts out with typical corn sweetness followed by a hearty rye kick and tinge of heat. Expect classic notes of brown sugar, caramel, and waves of vanilla from the oak with orange peel and cinnamon spice on the finish. Will change in the bottle as you drink it down, mellowing and smoothing out.

(No age statement; Proof 93.7)

Successful Celebrity Collaboration

Wild Turkey Longbranch, $40

Founded in the 1940s, though with roots tracing back to 1855, Wild Turkey has earned its coveted retail shelf space as an iconic American brand. From its immortalization in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 account of a riotous escapade, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to savvy product placements in Hollywood films like Rambo and Mystic River, everyone who knows bourbon—and many who don’t—still recognize the Wild Turkey label sketch.

Legend has it that distillery exec Thomas McCarthy from Austin Nichols & Co. brought whiskey samples along on his turkey hunts. His pals liked the brown-bagged bourbon so much, they asked him to bring that ‘Wild Turkey’ on future outings. The name stuck. Of course, the contemporary history of Wild Turkey is wrapped up in the longevity of father and son Master Distillers James and Eddie Russell.

James or Jimmy, affectionally called the “Buddha of Bourbon” landed a spot in the distilling hall of fame for his 60-year-strong tenure at the distillery. In a bid to bring a new round of drinkers to the brand, however, talks with celebrity Matthew McConaughey ensued. A longtime devotee to the drink, McConaughey wanted more than a passive role in the development of a new spirit. He wanted to contribute his ideas on taste and texture, leading to his appointment as a Creative Director. He wanted to “be part of the whole story and not just a character in it” he said. The two-year collaboration culminated with the release of Longbranch Bourbon in 2018.

This straight bourbon whiskey undergoes one technique that sets if off from its peers—filtration through oak and charcoal, a bid for additional smoothness. The mash bill contains 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. The nose is bright and sweet with caramel, citrus, orange blossom honey, and a piquant rye note. On the palate, baking spice, clove, and vanilla lead with rest echoing the nose. The conclusion—a trace of smoke. Longbranch is an accessible bourbon that encourages the kind of feet-up relaxing that suits winter.

(No age statement; Proof 86)

Organic Farm-to-Glass Rye from a New York Craft Distiller

Hillrock Estate Distillery Double Cask Rye Sauternes, $90

Rye developed after the American Revolution. Sugar cane shipments from the West Indies dried up, thanks to “British political maneuvers,” writes author and historian Michael Veach. Initially an unaged (white) spirit, producers started aging rye in barrels in the 1820s. Rye became particularly popular in the Northeast—New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland were bastions of rye wheat production. Of course, the story of rye parallels bourbon—growth in popularity, collapse under Prohibition, eschewed for white spirits, now on an arc of popularity so far rising unabated. Rye appeals to bourbon drinkers, though also to consumers who prefer a savory profile over the sweet corn character of its counterpart.

Hillrock Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley was founded by Jeffrey Baker, an investment banker, restaurateur, and spirits and wine enthusiast. Baker’s vision led to the creation of one of few distilleries in the world to floor malt its own naturally grown organic grain and produce spirits on premise. Baker initially tapped David Pickerell as Hillrock’s Master Distiller. Sadly, Pickerell passed away but left his stamp on the project, now helmed by Timothy Welly with input and barrel guidance from Jeff and his wife Cathy Baker.

The Double Cask Rye goes through several aging stages, phasing through #3 and #4 char barrels, before finishing in a Rieussec barrel from Sauternes. The result is an assertive, spicy rich sip with espresso, cinnamon-maple, and botrytis-like apricot notes underscored by a thread of nutty rye bread. In other words, outrageously delicious.

(No age statement; Proof 90)