If you’re searching for the best bourbons on the market, you’re likely to see expressions from the big brands first. Sazerac, for instance, has seven distilleries under its shingle. One of them, Buffalo Trace, has spawned 20 brands under that single distilling umbrella — from Eagle Rare to Pappy Van Winkle to Blanton’s. Then you have Campari, Pernod Ricard, Diageo, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Casa Cuervo, and, of course, Beam Suntory (which distills too many whiskeys to list here). Even seemingly small lines are often owned and operated by industry titans.
Yet with the growth of the whiskey market, small-time, local, and fully independent bourbon distilleries have also had a chance to thrive. The craft bourbon scene is all about shining a light on local terroir and ingredients and taking the time to make something as unique and inventive as it is delicious. These are brands that carve their own lane — often by focusing on the hyper-local grain-to-glass experience.
The ten bottles below represent ten (currently) independent distilleries around America making some seriously tasty bourbon. Not every bottle on this list is available nationwide, to do so they’d likely have to sign a distribution deal with a big company. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find them if you search high and low — they might ship to specialty stores near you or use a delivery service. Whatever it takes, trust us — these expressions are worth the effort.
Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Kentuck Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond
Distillery: Wilderness Trail Distillery, Danville, KY
Average Price: $65
This award-winning bourbon hits a lot of popular notes that make bourbon special. The juice is aged in toasted oak that’s then heavily charred. It’s bottled-in-bond. It has a high wheat mash bill (24 percent) which is making a roaring comeback. And the barrels are moved around the rickhouses as they age, adding extra depth to the process.
Since this is a single barrel expression, there will be variation. The bottle I tasted had a sense of bananas cooked in butter and brown sugar next to a hint of dark spice next to wood. A caramel sweetness dominated the palate as a sharper black pepper spice mingled with a hint of orchard fruits and a kick of vanilla. A sense of dried wheat lingered on the end as the sip slowly faded out.
This stuff keeps winning awards, meaning the price isn’t going to get any lower.
Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Woodinville Whiskey Co., Woodinville, WA
Average Price: $35
This Washington state whiskey was named the whiskey of the year by the American Distilling Insitute. The grain-to-glass experience focuses on local grains with corn, rye, and barely all sourced from a single family-run farm in Washington. The distillate is made in-house at their Woodinville distillery and then trucked over the Cascade Mountains to age in the harsher Eastern Washington climate inside toasted and heavily charred oak.
Oak carries notes of burnt sugars, rich vanilla, and creamy pudding. The spices build-out to a Christmas spice mix as a note of dark chocolate powder brings about a soft mouthfeel and clean bitterness that’s accented by the vanilla and caramel. The sip lingers nicely and sort of walks back through all the notes as it nears its close, leaving you with warmth from the spice.
This makes a killer Manhattan or Old Fashioned or even a sipper, especially at this price point.
FEW Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: FEW Spirits Distillery, Evanston, IL
Average Price: $50
This is another locally sourced grain-to-glass experience. This expression also can’t seems to stop winning awards. The high-rye mash bill brings about a whiskey that leans closer to the classics from Kentucky while still feeling bespoke.
Apple orchards, caramel, and rich vanilla mingle with a nose of ground dark spices. Stone fruit arrives to support the slight tart apple as the caramel sweetness and vanilla dominate alongside a clear rush of dark spices. As the sip fades, the fruit is what lasts longest.
This is a great cocktail base.
Cedar Ridge Iowa Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery, Swisher, IA
Average Price: $40
This grain-to-glass operation in Iowa utilizes the oceans of corn grown around their distillery. The mash bill is 74 percent locally-grown corn with small amounts of rye and malted barley supporting. From there, great attention is paid to the aging so that the final product feels both familiar and fresh.
Christmas cake bulging with dried fruit, spices, and molasses greet you alongside a hint of that Iowa corn. The vanilla, caramel, and fruit are there but the fruit has an almost savory aspect that then veers toward slightly acidic. There’s a nuttiness on the end that’s supported by the Christmas cake spices.
A decent sipper for $40 and works well in wintry cocktails.
Garrison Brothers Small Batch Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Garrison Brothers Distillery, Hye, TX
Average Price: $85
Garrison Brothers are creating some of the finest whiskey on the high-end of the market. Their Small Batch Bourbon is a “corn-to-cork” experience that utilizes a sweet mash (meaning each batch is new, unlike sour mashing). The recipe of food-grade corn, red and winter wheat, and malted barley is the first step to greatness. The next step is the aging in the hot Texas sun, which accelerates the transfer of sugars from barrel to booze.
There’s a lot going on from notes of tart apples to wildflowers, fresh honeycombs, worn leather, green grass, and a hint of cinnamon. The palate digs into spiced cakes, creamy puddings, lemon candy, and burnt orange zest. Notes of walnuts, caramel, and a return of the apple combine for a caramel apple feel on the end with a very distant wisp of smoke.
If you can find this for less than $100, buy two. Drink one and save the other for a special occasion.
Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Wyoming Whiskey, Kirby, WY
Average Price: $50
This wheated bourbon is another grain-to-glass experience from a much-lauded distillery. All the grains are sourced with 100 miles of the distillery. The craftsmanship of the juice is evident from the first sip.
There’s a subtleness to the vanilla bean and caramel that leans towards both floral and creamy notes. Those florals carry through with a sense of a thick pudding spiked with sharp cinnamon and vanilla and a browned butter feel. The sweetness edges towards toffee as the vanilla and spice slowly fade, leaving a single whisper of fresh mint at the very end (especially when you add water).
This is an easy sipper all around, especially with a drop or two of water or a single rock.
Peerless Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $65
Peerless started out by creating damn-near perfect rye. Then, last year, they branched out into bourbon and hit it out of the park again. The juice is made from a sweet mash, aged to perfection, and bottled at cask strength with no manipulation.
This is an instant classic. There’s a clear sense of bourbon vanilla and caramel with an oakiness upfront. Those notes are supported by a chili pepper spiciness, orchard fruit, dark spices, and a hint of mint. The sip lingers just long enough to remind you that you’re drinking vanilla and caramel-forward bourbon.
This is another sipper that can work wonders in a simple cocktail like a Manhattan.
Belle Meade Cask Strength Reserve Bourbon
ABV: 55 to 60%
Distillery: Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, TN (sourced from MGP Indiana)
Average Price: $55
This hallmark expression from Nelson Green Brier’s Belle Meade bourbon line is worth the hunt. The juice is a blend of seven to eleven-year-old high-rye bourbons that are sourced from only seven barrels per bottling. Since the batches are so small, the cask strength will vary slightly but that just means this is the pure juice from the barrel with no fussing.
Tart apples dripping in salty caramel mingle with mild spice next to candied fruit and a hint of roasted peanuts. There’s a rush of red and sweet fruits that leads toward a cinnamon candy heat, washed down with a crisp vanilla-heavy cream soda next to wood, corn, pepper, and earthy nuts. Hints of pepper next to cherry and cinnamon linger as the bourbon slowly fades.
This shows how sourced juice can become anything with masterful aging and finishing techniques. Sip it, mix it, enjoy it.
Kings County Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon
Distillery: Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn, NY
Average Price: $55 (half bottle)
This little Brooklyn distillery puts out some much sought after (and expensive) bottles. Their well-crafted whiskeys are generally sold in half bottles, which would be annoying if the juice in those bottles weren’t so damn refined. The mash bill is a unique 80 percent corn that’s fully supported by malted barley which is then aged in small-format oak for four years.
This is another classic bourbon that revels in refinement. The notes of vanilla, brown sugar caramel, and oak are balanced. The palate dances between those notes and hints of fruit, dark chocolate, fatty nuts, and corn pudding. The sip fades out for just the right length of time — enough for you to reminisce about all those flavor notes.
A full-sized bottle of this stuff would cost $110 if they made them. That’s a lot of money for a bottle of bourbon. Still, this works wonders as a sipper for a special occasion (or as a gift).
Balcones Texas Blue Corn Straight Bourbon Whisky
Distillery: Balcones Distilling, Waco, TX
Average Price: $70
This is the most unique bottle on the list and worth the search (and money). Texas blue corn is used to create a truly Texan bourbon. The juice is aged in the Waco rickhouse, under the hot Texas sun, allowing the sugars from the wood to really imbue themselves into the bourbon.
Salted butter melting on freshly baked cornbread mingles with fresh tobacco, mint, and powdered white pepper. The sip then takes a left turn into Red Hots, orange marmalade, and fire-roasted marshmallow territory with black tea bitterness cutting through. The pepper and corn return on the finish as this one takes its time to say goodbye.
This one definitely works as a cocktail base but really opens up in a highball or on the rocks.