Above the fold, American whiskey is bourbon, bourbon, bourbon these days—but we’re of the opinion the top stories (and spirits) require a little more reading to find. From apex-reaching single malts to paradigm-shifting distilleries way outside of Kentucky, there’s a lot of great whiskey on the market and coming soon.
Whether you’re in the mood for something different after a tooth-and-nail fight for the biggest names in Kentucky bourbon, or just looking to get ahead of the market on the next great must-drink bottles, we put together a list of the brands to keep an eye on in 2021 and beyond.
10 American Whiskey Brands to Watch
1. Chattanooga Distillery
While Chattanooga has been making solid whiskey for many years, they caught attention in 2020 for the release of its 99 Rye. It’s a unique recipe using the notoriously difficult-to-work-with malted rye. That bottle turned heads, and if the rest of Tennessee’s distillers didn’t take notice, it’s on them if they get lapped by this exciting underdog.
As much as we’d love to tell you 99 Rye is where it’s at, the bottle to buy right now is its long-awaited Bottled in Bond. This 4-year-old whiskey is surprisingly fruity with jammy, silky textures that suggest honey and baked goods. When these guys turn out a 7-year-old whiskey, the world is going to hear about it.
What to Drink Now: Chattanooga Bottled in Bond Bourbon, $50; chattanoogawhiskey.com
2. Westland Distillery
This Seattle, Washington, single malt distillery has long been one of our favorites. But in the last 18 months, Westland has doubled down on the core elements that make its whiskies so delicious. Massive investments in experimental barley research are just the tip of a mountain of initiatives meant to further diversify the flavors coming out of its blending lab.
Though many of the things we’re most excited about are far off, Westland has taken the unprecedented step of looking at the core line of products that made it what it is today, and simply saying, “We can do better.” The result is one newly reformulated “Flagship” single malt: a wholly new blend of peated, sherried, and other malts. This whiskey is greater than the sum of its parts—and at the sum of its MSRP, it’s also a steal.
What to Drink Now: Westland Flagship Single Malt Whiskey, $60; westlanddistillery.reservebar.com
3. Kozuba Distillery
A Polish family making Florida whiskey is the sort of chaotic energy the whiskey world desperately needs in 2021, and these folks have it by the barrel. Kozuba’s vodka-making origins led into whiskey-making in 2014, and though the production is small, the quality is high.
Case in point: our recommended bottle, High Wheat Rye Whiskey, a now 6-year rye whiskey, made with 65 percent rye and 35 percent wheat. It’s a highly unusual mashbill—typically, the only times you’ll see wheat and rye together are as part of a four-grain bourbon recipe. This two-grain recipe confounds the mind. It’s flavorful, it makes excellent use of the characters of both grains, as if to sternly ask all of these multi-generation American whiskey makers why they need corn at all. We can only hope there’s more to come.
Wyoming whiskey had a notoriously rough start when it released too-young whiskey to an underwhelmed market in the state. But an aggressive buyback of the less-than-impressive bourbon cleared the slate, it seems every drop coming out of that whiskey house since then is delicious.
The single barrels are great, the Outryder bourbon-rye mashup is tasty, but now that the distillery is able to produce older stock reliably, we’re getting to see some really great bottles. The notable recent release was a fundraising effort for the national parks. One-of-a-kind bottles raised $120 million, but the parallel release of a limited-edition small batch of 5-year-old whiskey shows the polished spirit they’re capable of now: cedary and creamy with hints of vanilla, tea and just a dash of nutmeg.
What to Drink Now: Wyoming National Parks Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon, $50; wyomingwhiskey.com
Master distiller Owen Martin has been tinkering away with every aspect of Stranahan’s for a few years now. He was at the helm when Stranahan’s Mountain Angel 10 Year was released last year, and was also first to admit that, over the next few years, the Stranahan’s single malt we know is going to go through some big changes.
One of those changes has to do with the average age of the spirit itself. The brand has reached a degree of maturity, and Martin is confident there’s ample stock to see some cool projects through to the end. Right now, they’re being released as distillery exclusives—delicious stuff like this season’s Caribbean Rum Cask. We’re not allowed to share the other things to expect soon, but rest assured you can comfortably sip on Mountain Angel until then. It’s nuanced, subtle, and brooding, with layers of tobacco and molasses.
What to Drink Now: Mountain Angel 10 Year Single Malt Whiskey, $130; stranahans.com
Laws Whiskey House is another example of a growing community of incredible Colorado whiskey makers. Its first barrel hit 10 years of age earlier this summer, but its dedication to small, grain-forward batches of terroir-focused whiskey isn’t going anywhere just because they hit double digits.
What is going somewhere are the younger age statements you may have seen (and tasted) in the past. Two has become four, four has become six, and with that comes across-the-board finesse for some already delicious stuff. Releases come at too fast a clip for us to pick one we’re excited for now, but if you haven’t ventured into the world of Laws recently, its spicy, nutty, and lively Saint Luis Valley Straight Rye is a great (re)introduction.
What to Drink Now: Laws Saint Luis Valley Straight Rye, $75; lawswhiskeyhouse.com
7. Lost Lantern
Lost Lantern is a major first for American whiskey: a private labelling brand from husband and wife team Adam Polonski and Nora Ganley-Roper. They’ve spent the last few years traveling the country to visit the distilleries you’re not paying enough attention to, and selecting some of the hands-down most delicious casks, for exclusive bottling.
Chances are, by the time you read this you’ve missed out on most of the stuff they bottle. But with new batches coming every year, the Lost Lantern brand is a buy-on-sight pick for us. More importantly (and lest you assume they’re just picking single barrels), Nora and Adam produce a profoundly delicious, unique blend called American Vatted. It’s committee-blended by the dynamic duo and the distillers of the whiskey components in question. Depending on the batch, that might include the likes of Balcones, Copperworks, Santa Fe Spirits, Triple Eight, Westward, Virginia Distillery Co., all mingled to perfection by a dozen expert palates.
What to Drink Now: Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Whiskey, $120; lostlanternwhiskey.com
8. Frey Ranch
If you had told us that Nevada was capable of making one of the best bourbons on the market in 2010, we’d have been skeptical, but when we first got our hands on a sample in 2020, there was little room for argument.
The four-grain, farm-to-glass brand is the product of the Frey family’s own grain farming and distilling efforts. As if their signature bourbon wasn’t delicious and well-rounded enough on its own, they’ve now started cranking out a limited number of single barrels. These have the complexity and character to stand up against anything we’ve seen coming out of Kentucky recently.
What to Drink Now: Frey Ranch Single Barrel Bourbon, $85; freyranch.com
9. Blue Run
This absolute unknown bourbon bottler wowed in competition this year when it took the top prize for its quirky 13-and-a-half-year bourbon. But with the eyes of the whiskey world upon them now, they’ve already secured some awards for the next project out of the gate: Blue Run Rye.
Blue Run Rye debuts next month, but the sourced Kentucky rye whiskey is already approaching perfection. Early samples showed a honey graham fruit tart character with finessed support struts of vanilla cream and butterscotch under a mellow spice. It took a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this year—overshadowed by the standout performance of one of its bourbons, but delicious nevertheless.
What to Drink Now: Blue Run Rye, $100; bluerunspirits.com
10. Milam and Greene
Former whiskey authority Heather Greene crossed lines to become a whiskey maker a few years ago. As the second name on the Milam and Greene label, she’s been a sort of spearhead for some new innovations with the Texas-based hybrid distiller/sourced brand. Greene is actually one of three parents for the brand, including entrepreneur Marsha Milam and Kentucky distiller Marlene Holmes, who handles the non-Texas part of the Kentucky-Texas equation. Twenty years ago a hybrid multi-state blend would’ve been heresy; today it’s just smart whiskey making.
Many of their bottles have been solid, but the latest release—a 13-year-old sourced bourbon batch for the new “Castle Hill” series—delivers a ton of citrus and chocolate notes, and real nuance despite a bold-ish 108 proof point. Greene, as CEO, will definitely continue to deliver interesting concoctions. Once you’ve proven playing by the rules is for amateurs, doing whatever makes good whiskey is as easy to do as this whiskey is easy to drink.
What to Drink Now: Milam and Greene Castle Hill Series Bourbon, $120; milamandgreenewhiskey.com
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