Craft distilleries are popping up in all sorts of unusual places, from former welding shops to woodworking studios, as a new generation of American distillers focuses on bringing grain to glass. These unique small batch spirits will make great gifts for the cocktail lovers in your life – or add some spice to your own bar for holiday entertaining.
1. Standard Spirit Distillery Oak & Rye Craft Absinthe
American absinthe has been hot since U.S. regulations on domestic production were relaxed in 2007. But the guys at Brooklyn’s Standard Spirit Distillery are taking absinthe in a different direction.
Childhood friends Sasha Selimotic and Taras Hrabowsky, who launched their distillery in 2013 and released their first spirits last summer, are going for an unexpected taste profile. Their absinthe still incorporates the key ingredient – wormwood – but instead of using traditional European-style herbs like anise and fennel (which give most absinthes their characteristic licorice flavor), Standard uses rye and corn mash to deliver a whiskey-like style and color, with oak aging for a little sweetness. It’s designed to be enjoyed neat or in a cocktail — no sugar and spoon required. $50.
2. Catoctin Creek Distilling Company Roundstone Rye
Catoctin Creek has become an institution in the small town of Purcellville, Va., where the distillery holds a place of honor on the town’s main street.
But the company’s flagship Roundstone Rye is taking off way beyond its small-town roots. While many rye whiskeys are made from a mix of grains, owners Scott and Becky Harris have opted to use 100 percent rye. In their effort to create a “pre-Prohibition” style whiskey, they’ve sought out historical sources for recipes and are using old-school techniques, like fermenting in a room-temperature tub, rather than a cold tank.
“We’re sacrificing efficiency for the sake of authenticity,” Scott Harris says. $45.
3. Leopold Bros Silver Tree American Small Batch Vodka
Whatever you do with Leopold Bros vodka, don’t freeze it. You’ll miss out on the full experience of this craft distilled gem.
Todd Leopold, a European-trained brewer and distiller, and his brother Scott, a Stanford-educated engineer, launched their distillery in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1999 before setting up shop in Denver in 2008. While they also make small batch whiskeys, gins and liqueurs, Todd Leopold says vodka is the trickiest to make because of its subtle flavors.
The keys, he says, are the raw materials – mostly wheat, with small amounts of potatoes and malted barley – and a carefully supervised fermentation process before distilling. These combine to create a triple whammy of aromas (with notes of vanilla from the wheat), a warming sensation in the middle and a silky finish.
“The finish is really where it’s at,” Leopold says. $40.
4. Copper & Kings Butchertown Brandy
The reserve bottling from this up-and-coming craft brandy producer is named for where it’s made: the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, Ky.
The copper pot-distilled, small batch Butchertown brandy is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels and new American oak, with none of the added sugar, color or artificial oak flavor found in some lower-end American brandies. Copper & Kings’ non-chill filtration process leaves some of the sediment, but it preserves the spirit’s rich mouthfeel.
The distillers recommend drinking it like a whiskey on the rocks, but we promise not to tell if you splash a little into your eggnog. $60.
5. Balcones Distilling Texas Single Malt Whisky
The DIY spirit reigns at award-winning Balcones Distilling, which operates in a former welding shop in Waco, Texas (the company’s founders revamped the building and built the stills by hand).
Head distiller Jared Himstedt was inspired by single malt scotch (hence the scotch-style spelling of whisky), but he has given it a Texas twist.
“It’s definitely a bolder style of single malt,” says brand manager Winston Edwards.
Balcones uses a barley strain from Scotland for its flagship single malt, but Edwards says the coppering and aging process is “radically different” from the one used by scotch producers, with the distilling team selecting from a palette of around 25 types of barrels (mostly American oak) to get a New World flavor profile. $70.
6. Spirit Works Distillery Sloe Gin
One of the few grain-to-glass gin producers in the country, Sebastopol, Calif.-based Spirit Works is slowly reintroducing the liqueur known as sloe gin to the U.S. market.
Co-owner Timo Marshall hails from a small village in England, where the tradition of hand-picking sloes (a small fruit related to the plum) and macerating them in gin goes back for generations. Marshall’s wife, Ashby, the head distiller, makes Spirit Works’ base gin from scratch, sourcing organic wheat from Northern California and milling, mashing and fermenting on site. European sloes (they aren’t grown in sufficient quantities in the U.S.) macerate in the gin for months to create the appealing red liqueur. Traditionally served as an after-dinner digestive, Spirit Works Sloe Gin is an increasingly popular mixer among bartenders in San Francisco and beyond. $45.
7. Prohibition Spirits Sugar Daddy Rum
It’s all about the aging for these craft rums, says Prohibition Spirits owner and distiller Fred Groth. In the heart of California’s wine country, the Sonoma-based distiller found a niche aging spirits in wine barrels.
Groth takes young rums from the Caribbean and puts a NorCal stamp on them, aging Jamaican rums in chardonnay barrels for a light and amber rum, and Guyanian rums in Pinot Noir barrels for a dark rum.
The Sugar Daddy name is a nod to local lore. The rums are named for San Francisco sugar baron Adolph Spreckels, whose wife Alma is said to have coined the term “sugar daddy” a century ago — and whose Sonoma country house is a landmark. $30-$35.
8. Bloomery Plantation Distillery Limoncello
This distillery in Charles Town, W. Va., is getting accolades for its fruit liqueurs, with its flagship limoncello at the top of the list.
Owner Linda Losey and husband Tom Kiefer fell in love with handcrafted limoncello on a trip to Italy in 2010 and were disappointed by the lemon liqueurs available at home. “We couldn’t find the same flavor profile in America,” Losey says. So they set out to do it themselves on a 12-acre farm with a restored log cabin.
The Bloomery Plantation distilling team uses hand-grated lemon zest from organic California lemons and macerates it in 190-proof corn liquor for around six months to achieve Italian-style authenticity. $25.
9. Westland Distillery American Single Malt Whiskey
Seattle, with a cool, wet climate similar to Scotland’s and proximity to Washington-grown barley, is ideal for producing American whiskey, says Westland’s marketing guru Steve Hawley. And aging in new American oak provides its award-winning West Coast style.
Westland, which produces only single malt whiskeys, is larger than most craft distilleries and distributes in nearly every state. It’s a national brand now, and it will go international early next year. “What we’re doing is contributing our version of single malt to the global conversation,” Hawley says. $70.
10. Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon Whiskey
This small batch bottling from the fifth generation family-owned Willett Distilling Company has been a hit since its release in 2008.
The unique bottle design was taken directly from the blueprints for the company’s copper still, says marketing manager Hunter Chavanne, whose wife is descended from the company’s founder.
The light-to-medium-bodied bourbon is made from a mash of corn, rye and malted barley, giving it a slightly peppery quality. And at around $40, it’s not as pricey as you might expect.