Derby season is upon us, or more likely behind us if you are getting to this article after the first of the month. It’s that wonderful time of year when the Mint Julep is inevitably added into cocktail rotations, and the big Kentucky whiskey brands emerge from their winter slumber to remind the consumer that bourbon isn’t just a cold-weather drink. Today’s bourbon landscape is crowded with quality offerings from big producers across the state, but Kentucky’s craft distillers shouldn’t be overlooked. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour is an ever-growing collection of new and interesting distilleries. Some are brand new while others are resurrected from the past, but all work hard to produce the best bourbon on any given store shelf. Competition is stiff, but with each passing year, more and more of these small-scale producers have been able to release bourbons of comparable age and, occasionally, superior quality to the industry heavyweights. Here are five brands you should consider sipping on this spring.
With a lineage that stretches back over 130 years, Kentucky Peerless (often just “Peerless”) is an old brand that’s seen new life during Kentucky’s craft bourbon boom. It survived Prohibition with a rare medicinal use permit but was shuttered during the difficult market that emerged after Repeal. The founder’s great-grandson, Corky Taylor, has revived the family business and even managed to keep the original distilled spirits plant number (DSP-50) for the new, state-of-the-art Peerless Distillery in downtown Louisville. While a tasty Small Batch Rye was the first product from Peerless, their Small Batch Bourbon followed a few years later. It’s aged at least four years and bottled at barrel proof without chill filtering. Unlike most distilleries that use traditional sour mash, Peerless uses the unique “sweet mash” process during fermentation, allowing them to distill to lower proofs and barrel their whiskey at a lower proof, preserving more of the flavor compounds in the spirit. The result is a big bourbon with sweet barbecue notes, rich oak, candy apple, and brown sugar.
A distillery in a liquor store parking lot might not inspire much confidence, but New Riff’s state-of-the-art operation in the northern part of the Bluegrass State is turning out truly exceptional whiskey. Founder (owner of the adjacent Party Source store) Ken Lewis kept his passion project close to the office when he decided to get into the craft whiskey game. The distillery’s stated approach is “a new riff on an old tradition,” which has involved taking a uniquely patient approach to craft distilling. Despite firing up the stills in 2014, the distillery didn’t release its whiskey until it reached four years old and could be certified as a Bottled in Bond product. That dedication has produced a bourbon that can go toe-to-toe with many of its larger competitors in quality and flavor. The single barrel offering is particularly engaging, showcasing a bright and spicy palate of cinnamon candies, dried citrus, and dark fruits.
No Kentucky craft whiskey producer has been able to attain cult-like status quite like Bardstown’s Willett Distillery, and it’s easy to see why. The distillery emerged during the bourbon boom that followed Repeal but shut down during the lean bourbon years in the 1980s, becoming an independent bottler instead and using sourced whiskey to sustain several old brands. This arrangement left them uniquely positioned with exceptional, if very limited, stocks of aged whiskey when the bourbon craze hit. After re-establishing a distillery in 2012, their expansive whiskey portfolio is once again distilled and aged in-house. From their entry-level Old Bardstown line to their beautifully bottled Willett Pot Still bourbon, there are many great options to explore from this distillery. If you can find a bottle, their namesake Family Estate line of single barrel bourbons are all bottled at a robust cask strength and drawn from several unique mashbills that offer lots of exceptional flavors to explore.
This craft distillery in Lebanon may have only begun distilling in 2012, but it is built on a Kentucky distilling legacy that’s over two centuries old. Their Master Distiller, Steve Beam, traces his family lineage back to both the legendary Beam family, still busy in the bourbon world today, and the Dants, who were no strangers to the bourbon business before Prohibition. In fact, it was the Dant’s Yellowstone Distillery and the Yellowstone bourbon they produced there in the 1880s that inspired Limestone Branch’s Yellowstone Select bourbon. The vintage label mimics the original bottle, while the bourbon itself is a blend of Limestone Branch’s four-year-old bourbon and some slightly older sourced stock from parent company Luxco. That careful combination yields a classic bourbon profile full of brown sugar, vanilla, butterscotch, and balanced oak notes perfect for cocktails or sipping neat.
Distilling delicious bourbon is a difficult science, and many craft distillers often have to learn on the job. Not so with Wilderness Trail founders Pat Heist and Shane Baker, who, after advising some of the biggest distillers in Kentucky bourbon, decided they wanted to get in on the action themselves. Like New Riff, they didn’t release a whiskey until it could be labeled Bottled in Bond, and just recently, a new silver label, six-year-old bourbon, was added to their lineup. Like Peerless, they also use the sweet mashing process with low barrel-entry proofs to preserve as much flavor as possible. And flavor is something their bourbons have in spades, showcasing lots of unique fruit notes and ample baking spice. Since opening in 2013, their distillery in Danville has rapidly expanded to the point where they don’t technically qualify for “craft” status anymore. Last year, they were invited onto the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, joining the likes of Jim Beam, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill. That fact just proves my point that you shouldn’t overlook the little guys. Some day soon, they might be the next big thing.