For decades, most American whiskey was made by a handful of distilleries according to the same process: Mash up a bunch of corn and rye, ferment it, distill it, and age it in new oak barrels. In the past few years, though, more than 200 craft distillers have popped up, and some of the best are refusing to follow Big Whiskey tradition. Loosely known as "alt whiskey" distillers, they're ditching corn and rye mash bills for lesser-known grains like millet, smoking those grains over cherrywood and mesquite, and doing their aging in barrels that once held wine, sherry, and even beer. Their best efforts are familiar but striking, and the whiskey world is taking notice. "I don't want to make just another Kentucky bourbon," says Darek Bell, of Nashville's Corsair Artisan distillery, who has won awards with his alt whiskeys, including one distilled from quinoa. "I'm looking for unique and unusual," Bell says.
Experimentation like Bell's proves that American small-batch distillers are becoming confident in their skills in the same way craft beer brewers did a generation ago. Down at Balcones, a distillery in Waco, Texas, master distiller Chip Tate has won accolades for Brimstone, a corn whiskey smoked over scrub oak – basically, a Lone Star version of a peated single-malt scotch. "We're trying to add something new to what's already been done – not to change it, but to add to it," Tate says. While the category is small, that may change soon: MGP Ingredients, which has an enormous distillery in Indiana that makes whiskey for big brands such as Bulleit and Redemption, is considering creating quinoa- and oat-based whiskeys. Even so, the small craft distillers will press onward. "We're looking for flavors that sound new but could be classic," Tate says. "If success is to do what Maker's Mark has done, then who cares?" Here are five worth sipping.
Corsair Quinoa Whiskey
From: Tennessee ($45)
The guys at Corsair discovered that this recently trendy grain – actually a South American staple that's been around for 3,000 years – makes an extremely sippable whiskey with more of a spicy, rye-like character than the sweeter edge of bourbon.
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco