Distilleries are creating wild whiskeys using vacuums, Traeger wood pellets, and transatlantic aging.
The fourth and penultimate chapter in Maxim’s annual Best In New American Whiskey guide is very straightforward: Innovation. Today’s list tips a dram to all those distilleries searching for flavor profiles outside normal convention, applying different processes, ingredients, blends, barrels and more to achieve something both remarkable and unique.
Check out 2022’s previous selections for Best Ryes , Best Second Barrel Finishes and Best Tennessee and American Single Malt Whiskeys.
When Michter’s released their US*1 Toasted Barrel Bourbon back in 2014, it was the first toasted barrel American whiskey of any kind. Then in 2019 the Kentucky label introduced a spin, offering a Sour Mash version for that year only. Now three years later they return to the same Sour Mash well with 2022 Michter’s US*1 Toasted Barrel Sour Mash Whiskey.
Considering it starts with fully matured barrels of its US*1 Sour Mash Whiskey—judged “Whisky of the Year” in 2019 by The Whisky Exchange, the first ever American whiskey to win the award—you can expect greatness even before they transfer the whiskey into second aging barrels, which are toasted precisely to Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson’s exacting standards.
“The 2022 Toasted Sour Mash release takes the Sour Mash expression and enhances it by adding notes of smoked honey and gingersnap cookies accentuated by toasted oak, all while honoring the sweet and spicy balance of our US*1 Sour Mash,” notes Wilson. Michter’s US*1 Toasted Barrel Sour Mash Whiskey 2022 comes bottled at 86 proof with a $100 SRP, of course with anything Michters you’ll be lucky to find it at that price. $250
As Mitch Hedberg once so poignantly observed: “My belt holds up my pants and my belt loops hold up my belt. Who’s the real hero?” Really makes you think, don’t it?
The same sort of pretzel logic can be applied to the work of New Holland Brewing’s Dragon’s Milk portfolio. Their original Dragon’s Milk Stout was a potent (11% ABV) beer born aging in ex-bourbon barrels, and it grew in acclaim so quickly that Dragon’s Milk is the #1 stout by volume brewed in America. Employing full Hedbergian logic, the folks at Michigan’s largest craft brewery and distillery then looked at those bourbon-and-now-stout-soaked barrels and had an epiphany: Why not second age their bourbon in that very same wood? Consider it done.
Dragon’s Milk Beer Barrel Bourbon adds to New Holland’s expanding bourbon brand. Starting off with their Origin Small Batch Bourbon—a high-barley mash bill straight bourbon, distilled in small batches (always 100 barrels or less) with a near century-old prohibition-era pot still, aged for 5 years in char 3 oak barrels and bottled at 95 proof—they then add a second aging in those very same barrels that aged their Dragon’s Milk Stout. Expect rich notes of malt, bottled at 80 proof. $30
Rabbit Hole quickly ascended in the bourbon world by taking a diligent approach to quality and following the imagination of Founder and Whiskey Maker Kaveh Zamanian. Among its core portfolio (Boxergrail Rye being a personal favorite) Rabbit Hole’s annual Founder’s Collection takes their superb bourbon and employs a creative twist. This year, Nevallier does so by adding a full year of second finishing in new French Oak barrels crafted from wood sourced in the Nevers and Allier forests. Hence the “Nevallier” portmanteau.
“Innovation for Rabbit Hole is multi-faceted. It is as much a matter of our process and our commitment to doing things the right way as it is a matter of our bringing originality and one-of-a-kind spirits to the bourbon space,” Kaveh Zamanian tells Maxim. “Just as we did with our previous Founder’s Collection release where we took our time to source the Mizunara, we did the same for Nevallier.”
The quality of their fourth Founder’s Collection comes through immediately, as does the “intricate dance of tobacco, vanilla, fig, blackcurrant, spice and cinnamon [which] culminate to a long and dramatic finish sparked by intense spice and floral notes,” Zamanian told us. He points to the relationship Rabbit Hole has established with France’s Leroy Cooperage, and how the details in their barrels really come through in the liquid.
As with the previous Mizunara Founder’s Collection, Rabbit Hole “Nevallier” comes beautifully packaged in a magnetically sealed wood box, ready for happy consumption (and display). $1,500
We’ve been lauding the work of California-based label Wolves since our very first Best Of American Whiskey back in 2019. Founded by two giants in the streetwear game—Los Angeles label Undefeated’s James Bond and Jon Buscemi, founder of numerous luxury projects like Gourmet, Buscemi and black-truffle hot sauce Truff—it’s clear these guys know how to market. But it’s the quality of their whiskey which has their online quick-strike drops selling out in under an hour. For 2022 Bond, Buscemi and CEO Jeremy Joseph unleashed their Wolves for the first time outside of their website to select markets.
Unlike most whiskeys that distill a grain mash, fifth-generation Master Distiller Marko Karakasevic distills finished beers to create his particular alchemy (it’s why the TTB requires Wolves label their whiskey “Hop Flavored” on the bottle). Karakasevic distills a stout beer (aged for 9 years in used French Oak) and a California pale ale (aged for 7 years in used French Oak) in his ancient alembic still, then blends in two different ryes to balance the spice into the hops, dark chocolate, vanilla beans and lemon peel of the twin beer whiskeys.
Credit the cognac-style alembic for the big bodies and opulent mouthfeel of Karakasevic’s whiskeys—apparently he sleeps in four hour shifts over a 10-day period crafting each small batch, as Karakasevic alone trusts himself to make each “heart of hearts” cut. Truly delicious juice with very unique pleasure points. $140
This one’s a unique venture worthy of discussion. Arcane Distilling aims to make a more sustainable whiskey by employing high-pressure vacuum distilling vs. the traditional copper/fire still, using 15% less grain and 30% less water than traditional whiskey. Moreover Arcane start with a finished craft beer—a triple IPA creating a super hoppy whiskey experience—thick with the scent of Cascade and Mosaic hops. Other top-tier whiskeys like Wolves start with finished craft beer, but Arcane’s Alpha Whiskey is the first we know of to use vacuum distillation, which they describe as such:
“Because so many of the aromas and flavors of beer are delicate and volatile, traditional distillation would all but destroy them when boiling beer to evaporate the alcohol,” explains Distiller Phil Morgan, noting how under vacuum alcohol evaporates at a significantly lower temperature. “Arcane’s custom-designed vacuum still operates at room temperature, allowing the system to preserve and collect those volatile aroma and flavor compounds.”
Alpha whiskey is proudly made in Brooklyn and bottled at 41.5% ABV. $46
Minneapolis’ The O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company have launched a series of whiskeys under the Keeper’s Heart umbrella that aim to unite the twin great whiskey nations of Ireland and America. Under the watchful eye of legendary Master Distiller Brian Nation, known for his work shepherding Jameson, Keeper’s Heart aims for a highly smooth profile.
Their “Irish and Bourbon” expression, a followup to their inaugural Irish and Rye whiskey affair, blends three distinct whiskeys to make its magic. The first two are an Irish grain whiskey (maize and malt) and a triple-distilled pot-still Irish barley whiskey, both distilled at Dundalk’s Great Northern Distillery and aged over four years in refill bourbon barrels. The third is a sweet bourbon (76% corn) aged four years in virgin American oak, sourced from MGP.
Although exact proportions are kept hush, “Irish and Bourbon” (46% ABV) intertwines the sweetness of bourbon with the earthy spices of the single Irish pot still whiskey and the delicate butterscotch sweetness from the Irish grain whiskey for a unique American x Irish Keeper’s Heart experience. $36
We’re normally not ones to promote ready-to-drink (RTD) concoctions—there’s a lot of crap out there. From cheap malt beverages to premade cocktails using swill spirits, there’s an abundance to avoid in the space. Sunday’s Finest and award-winning bartender and Apologue spirits producer Robert Haynes look to somewhat right that ship with their aptly named Gold Fashioned—what they’re labeling as the “world’s first luxury ready-to-drink cocktail.” It’s not the first of course, we’ve tasted a few before, but we’ll co-sign on the quality of Haynes’ offering.
The former bar manager at Chicago cocktail bar The Violet Hour produces his Gold Fashioned at Thornton Distilling outside of Chicago, using only the best ingredients. Haynes starts with twin aged Kentucky straight bourbons—15-year and 9-year—from a “notable” Bardstown distillery, then blends in a 6-year rye from MGP. Lastly comes a homemade 140-gallon batch of bitters using only the finest ingredients: Tahitian vanilla beans; saffron from Herat, Afghanistan; Ecuadorian cacao; orange peel from Seville, Spain; and gentian from the French alps. Lastly comes the sweet stuff—pure Malawian Demerara sugar simple syrup.
Don’t throw away The Gold Fashioned gold-leaf purple box. Inside you’ll find a tiny 2-milliliter spray bottle filled with the Spanish peel mist you’re supposed to spray your glass with to give it the perfect sweet orange citrus zest. With a cost of $150/750ml bottle, that comes out to about $12.50/2 oz cocktail. Not a bad price to eliminate labor, effort and the range of ingredients when you’re on the go. $135
Chicago’s Few Spirits made a name for themselves in the Midwest not only crafting great whiskeys, but also teaming up with some titans of the rock world for highly limited releases. You might remember their super exclusive bottle with Alice In Chains, conceived when, after a long night of imbibing tequila with AIC’s legendary guitarist Jerry Cantrell, Few Founder and Master Distiller Paul Hletko and Cantrell decided to collab on a whiskey aged in tequila casks, calling it All Secrets Known. Before that came Brainville Rye Whiskey with The Flaming Lips.
For 2022 Hletko and Co team up with another great band, San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, to honor the 21st anniversary of the band’s seminal debut album B.R.M.C.—an early 2000s sonic gem. Motor Oil, as their new whiskey is dubbed, marries a trio of Few’s browns: bourbon finished in rum barrels; bourbon finished in vermouth wood; and a mesquite-smoked wheat whiskey. Expect grassy and sweet notes from the rum barrel; herbaceous, bitter and vegetal notes from the vermouth, and of course bold mesquite from the heavy smoke for this one. Few Spirits x BRMC Motor Oil Whiskey comes bottled at a high-octane 101-proof (50.5% ABV). $60
Dave Schmier’s latest venture in the spirits world Proof and Wood just released their latest blend of rare whiskeys: Seasons 2021. It was supposed to be released last year, but given the current cluster of supply chain issues Seasons 2021 just saw the light of day this year—with only 1,000 bottles packaged in a gift box for $200.
The limited edition bottle begins with an extra aged Tennessee Bourbon from 2003 that has evolved over 72 seasons in the barrel. Then Schmier blends in a 2007 American Light Whiskey and 2015 Bourbon (75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley), both distilled in Indiana. Lastly comes a 2013 Kentucky 99% Corn Whiskey. The latter’s and the bourbon’s sweetness are intended to counterpoint the mustiness of the aged Tennessee Bourbon, while the American Light Whiskey adds spice, cinnamon and fruity notes to the algorithm.
“These four 18 year-old barrels had amazing savory deep flavors and spicy cinnamon and cigar notes, but was certainly leaning towards the edge of being overly woody,” explains Schmier of his Seasons 2021. “While it was tempting to bottle them as single barrels, ultimately blending these ancient barrels with some younger and sweeter whiskeys created a whiskey that is better than the sum of its parts.”
As Proof and Wood source and bottle their American whiskeys, their name comes from the two aspects they have control over via aging. As such Proof and Wood was bestowed with the “American Icons of Whiskey 2022—Independent Bottler” award by American Whiskey Magazine. $190
Elevating the concept of “single barrel” to the next level, Russell’s Reserve is now not only sharing single barrels but also highlighting and labeling the exact rickhouse and location on their Lawrenceburg campus where the whiskey was aged. Fittingly for their inaugural edition Wild Turkey’s renown Master Distiller Eddie Russell chose warehouse Camp Nelson C, long sought after by the nerdiest of whiskey enthusiasts for its unique aging properties. Apparently the seven-story wood and tin structure’s airy design and location on top of a hill by the Kentucky River lend Camp C an ideal bourbon climate.
The fact that Wild Turkey’s beloved rickhouse—built in 1946—was razed last year only makes this small batch bourbon release all the more coveted. Perfect for the inaugural limited edition annual release. Russell’s Reserve Bourbon Single Rickhouse Series: Camp Nelson C was sourced from 72 barrels hand-picked from the center cut of Camp Nelson C’s third and fourth floors, and will retail for $250 (112.4 proof). $595
So much good whiskey is spilling from the snowy peaks of Colorado you have to question if it’s become the Kentucky of the Rockies. Distillery 291, Stranahan’s, Laws, Blackhat…the list goes on and on. You can now add Fort Collins’ Old Elk to the list. Only founded in 2013 Old Elk Bourbon made a brilliant move by bringing Master Distiller Greg Metze and his four-plus decades of experience (including 38 years in Lawrenceburg, Indiana’s MGP) into the fold. Now they’re rewarding him with a Master’s Blend Series of limited edition releases.
Their Master’s Blend Series Double Wheat combines two of Old Elk’s most awarded wheated whiskeys: Old Elk Straight Wheat Whiskey (71.5% Wheat / 25% Corn / 3.5% Barley) + Old Elk Straight Wheated Bourbon. The bourbon is aged 6 years, the wheat whiskey aged between 6-8. Blended together, the marriage creates a beautiful, creamy whiskey, combining the smoothness of a wheated whiskey with indulgent layers of a sweet honey rum cake. $80
The holidays are that wonderful time of the year when Wild Turkey blesses the whiskey world with the latest addition in their halo “Master’s Keep” series. Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Unforgotten harkens back to a fortuitous mistake made well over a decade ago. In 2010 a crew worker accidentally contaminated a barrel of valuable mature bourbon with a batch of young rye, but the resulting juice turned out to be so delicious Wild Turkey released the alchemy as an LTO under the “Forgiven” label.
Now Master Distiller Eddie Russell returns to the generous Forgiven well, except this time he’s opting for much more mature versions of each whiskey—blending a 13-year-old bourbon with ryes aged 8 and 9 years. The marriage is then matured for a second time in rye casks stashed in Wild Turkey’s pre-prohibition Rickhouse B—the favorite of Eddie’s father and former Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell.
The extra-aged, high proof (52.5% ABV) Forgiven variation features a similar but evolved flavor profile, the aged ryes adding notes of honey, black pepper and baking spice to the mature bourbon’s themes of caramel, figs and oak earned from 13 years in wood. $500
In a very short while Frey Ranch Distillery established themselves as leaders in the grain-to-glass movement, as 100% of all the ingredients used in their whiskeys were grown, harvested, milled, distilled and malted on their Fallon, Nevada family farm. Now they’re releasing two new expressions in their experimental “Malted Grain Series,” both with 100% malted grains.
Using the same mash bill as in their flagship four-grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Quad Malt Bourbon Whiskey changes things up by malting each of the four grains—not just the barley. The bourbon is aged precisely for 5 years and 10 months, and then bottled at 90 proof. And 100% Malted Corn Bourbon similarly malts 100% of its grain—this one being the farm’s famous heirloom corn that is a cornerstone of Co-Founder Colby Frey’s bourbons. It too is aged for exactly 5 years and 10 months, except 100% Malted Corn Bourbon is bottled with a bit more punch at 110 proof.
“Malt is a crucial ingredient in most whiskeys, though traditionally it’s only 10-15 percent of the mash bill,” explains Colby. “We wanted to find out what would happen if we malted all the grains for these new releases, and we’re thrilled with the complex flavor profiles that were developed as a result.” They consider these distillery-only releases as a thank to their rabid supporters. $45
While we’ve always enjoyed the story behind Jefferson’s Ocean expression—stashed in the Ocearch research ship, crossing the equator twice while hitting 25 ports on 5 different continents—we of course wondered how much affect these transatlantic journeys would actually have on the given spirit. Then Jeffersons were kind enough to supply us with both the Oceans and the clean-source Kentucky bourbon that Oceans began with, yet never experienced the same journey.
The results were surprising, as indeed the months of temperature swings, profound climate changes and violent at-sea-sloshing of wood and whiskey were impactful in the finished product. It’s one of the reasons why Jefferson’s Ocean isn’t just a great story, it’s a great whiskey.
Now for Fall 2022 Jefferson’s reveals the latest in their Ocean Family series: Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea New York Limited Edition—essentially the OG Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon simply cut to 98-proof using the famed New York water credited with crafting superior bagels, pizza crust and whiskey like Widow Jane’s. The soft, salty water streaming in from the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains help mold Jefferson’s traditional caramel and cinnamon bourbon notes with hints of nutmeg, creme brulee and yes, even a slightly salty finish.
For the latest in Jefferson’s Ocean family, “Ocean Aged at Sea” New York traversed the North Sea, Europe, the Atlantic Seaboard and even the Panama Canal. Favored at NYC on-premise accounts, you can still find Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea New York Limited Edition for $99 across the USA. $100
This one gets extra stars for its creativity, as the crew from Redemption opted to incorporate the rare French sur lie winemaking process into whiskey. In French, the lie are the dead yeast cells that come as a byproduct of fermentation, and can also include skins, seeds and stems. So sur lie means the wine is allowed to stay in contact with its lees during the aging process.
As the wine ages the lees further decompose, releasing sugars and proteins that affect a wine’s profile, with certain unique aromas, notes and even mouthfeel signature to the sur lie style. Well Redemption has taken those same processes and used them in whiskey, claiming they are the first to do so. Redemption Sur Lee Straight Rye Whiskey starts with Redemption’s pre-Prohibition 95% rye mash bill, but then adds some of the jetsam “whiskey lees” into the barrels while it ages.
As with wines the barrels are then periodically rotated to keep the lees interacting with the whiskey, adding nutting notes of nutmeg and almond. Perhaps where its felt most is in mouthfeel, however, as the chemical interaction pleasantly softens Redemption’s profile. Redemption “Sur Lee” Straight Rye comes bottled at 47% (94 proof) with a $60 SRP. $55
This one’s a full flavor bomb, the type of whiskey you pour in your glass when you want to substitute a dessert to finish your day. The third bottle in the Rabbit Hole Founder’s Collection series, Raceking initially came out last year and is making a repeat for late 2022. The explosion of flavor comes from its recipe: a five-grain mashbill (70% Corn / 13% Rye / 10% Malted Rye / 4% Chocolate Malted Wheat / 3% Chocolate Malted Barley), featuring chocolate malted wheat sourced from Germany and chocolate malted barley from the UK, the juice all aged in founder Kaveh Zamanian’s signature wood-fired, toasted and charred new American Oak barrels.
The concept behind Raceking’s unique mash bill is to explore how malting organically expands the spectrum of flavors in whiskey, obviously focusing on the cacao hues; Zamanian then insists on cask strength to really bring out the influence of these double chocolate-malted grains. Other strong notes of hazelnut, tobacco and brown sugar round things out. Only 1,335 bottles of Raceking Founder’s Collection 2022 will be bottled, packaged in a sturdy linen-lined, sequentially-numbered and gold embossed burnt orange box for $395. $800
America’s #1 ultra-premium Rye Whiskey distiller teams up with the crew at Traeger Grills for their latest LTO collab: WhistlePig SmokeStock Wood Fired Whiskey.
The Vermont luxury rye specialists age their brown in American Oak No. 3 char barrels, and then proceed to slow smoke the whiskey two times to really infuse the savory smoke from a solid campfire session: first with Traeger’s all-natural Apple BBQ wood, then again during the proofing process. Imagined as the ultimate flavor combo to celebrate this summer’s pool party scene, and hopefully taken deep into football tailgate season. If it’s not clear, WhistlePig SmokeStock’s powerful flavor mashup—from the rye to the deep smoke—is all about the BBQ. Note its 43% ABV (86 proof). $70
Broken Barrel Whiskey founder Seth Benhaim deeply believes in the maxim that the barrel is the greatest influence on a spirit’s final flavor profile, no matter how much care you invest in distilling, copper usage, and ingredients. So he elevates the concept to the next level by putting their barrels into their whiskey. Meaning Broken Barrel take staves from used barrels and dump them into the whiskey as it ages to see how these affect the final flavor.
Broken Barrel now feature a quartet of bottles for their Core Range: Heresy Rye (2019 SFWSC Gold Medal winner) plus a trio of bourbons: Small Batch, California Oak and Cask Strength. Third-generation Master Distiller Jacob Call distills his spirit at the historic Owensboro Distilling Co., \and then Benhaim uses his trademark “Oak Bill”— essentially a recipe of staves he throws in the barrels—to dial in flavors. For instance for his 2020 SFWSC Gold Medal winning California Oak the “Chief Barrel Breaker” dumps Central Coast Cabernet casks into his bourbon.
One of the best LTOs is dubbed Little Oak. It starts with Broken Barrel’s Heresy Rye, whose mashbill (95% Rye / 5% Malted Barley) is complimented by Benhaim’s “Oak Bill” (40% ex-bourbon / 40% French oak / 20% Sherry staves) for 2-3 years of aging at their HQ in downtown Los Angeles. What separates Little Oak is a second re-barreling for 10 months in a 15-gallon barrel to further age and imbue the rye whiskey with robust oak character and flavors up front and center. $48
Saxtons River Distillery does things a bit differently. When they make a Maple Rye they don’t add a second aging in barrels that previously held maple syrup, as many labels do. Instead the Vermont-based distillers take pure maple syrup “tapped fresh from Vermont trees” and blend it directly into their small batch hand-crafted rye. The result is a whiskey with the extra sweetness of real maple syrup, radiating all its unique and delicious flavor notes.
Founder Christian Stromberg proudly claims to utilize his Lithuanian heritage and family traditions in the making of his spirits (bourbon, rye and gin), although as an engineer he’s innovated a vacuum distilling process (perhaps similar to Arcane’s) that adds to Saxtons Distillery’s unique profiles.
Beyond his Sapling Vermont Maple Rye they offer a Maple Bourbon and a Double Barrel Bourbon, which blends the Maple Bourbon with straight American Bourbon to create a higher proof, more whiskey-leaning bourbon with just a hint of maple syrup goodness. A second maturation in American oak delivers Sapling Double Barrel Bourbon a balanced, smooth, maple bourbon made for sipping. $45
Follow Contributing Spirits Editor Nicolas Stecher on Instagram at @nickstecher and @boozeoftheday.