When it comes to the American distilling industry, most people probably think about the abundance of whiskey flowing out of Kentucky, but these days, it's the American West that's making some of the most exciting spirits on the American market.
States like California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have had a small handful of distillers for decades, but the real boom in interest and production started about five years ago—and hasn't slowed down since. Now, in states like Oregon and Washington, the stats are inching towards featuring almost 100 distilleries per state. Some of the country's most well-established and innovative producers hail from these areas, but areas like Arizona and New Mexico are also starting to show progress when it comes to the number of distilleries present and the impressive work that's taking place within their walls.
As in other parts of the country, vodka and whiskey distillation are regular staples in the wheelhouse of most distilling operations; almost every small distiller I spoke with for this story to wanted me to check out their bourbon, single malt, or rye. But American gin is also on the rise in the West, and in some cases it's mind-bogglingly good, thanks to local ingredients, unconventional botanicals, and flavors that land entirely outside the London Dry box. It's exciting to see craft distillers hone in on local flavors to create truly unique expressions of their region.
After tasting over 41 spirits from distilleries around the Western part of the country—from Arizona all the way to Washington state—here are my favorites: 15 all-American spirits that represent the best work that's being done by distillers in that region today.
Frey Ranch Vodka
Quite possibly the first vodka I've ever wanted to sip neat, Frey Ranch's vodka ($32 for 750 mL) is downright creamy with an almost chewy texture, rich sweetness, and remarkable balance thanks to the mixture of four grains in the recipe—wheat, corn, barley and rye. No single grain stands out above the others; instead the mix yields a pleasant round sweetness. Frey Ranch is one of the few "estate" distilleries in the country: all of the ingredients are grown on site at the 1,2000-acre farm in Churchill County, Nevada. This bottling has only been out since last fall, and the distillery is working on a gin and bourbon to round out their portfolio soon.
St. George Spirits Terroir Gin
Choosing a favorite St. George spirit is like trying to pick a favorite child—they're all absolutely wonderful. Personally, I lean toward the evocative Terroir Gin ($35 for 750 mL and $10 for 200 mL). Flavored with Douglas fir, bay laurel, and coastal sage, the distillery has captured the flavors of the region to prove that just like a good wine, gin can express a sense of place. There's nothing subtle about this loud, proud California gin; it bursts with herbaceous botanicals like coriander and pine, mellowed out with soft moments of sage. It's beautiful in a martini.
Anchor Distilling Co. Junípero Gin
San Francisco's Anchor Distilling Junípero ($29.95 for 750 mL) is the superstar of the urban distillery's lineup. Originally released in 1996, the gin remains one of the best of the West, thanks to an intense bounty of fresh juniper and a bracingly dry finish—both attributes that help root the gin firmly within the London Dry style. A staple in cocktail bars across the West coast, thanks to its higher proof (at 98.6 proof, the flavors pop when mixed with other ingredients more so than your average 80 proof gin), it's clean, crisp, and bright with hints of grapefruit peel and hints of black pepper.
Ransom Spirits Old Tom Gin and Dry Gin
Ransom shook things up when they first released their spectacular Old Tom ($38 for 750 mL) gin made in conjunction with cocktail historian David Wondrich, but the Dry Gin ($27 for 750 mL) is equally as impressive (though surprisingly not discussed as often). Corn in the recipe adds an underlying creamy texture to the otherwise sharp gin, that subsequently explodes with cardamom, anise, and hops. Yes, I said hops. Willamette hops from the Northwest add aromatics to the gin, and marionberries come into play to add dark floral notes. Both gins are powerful spirits with big personalities. The award-winning Old Tom elevates a Tom Collins, and the dry gin plays well in a fresh Southside cocktail.
Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits Three Sheets Rum
Made from 100% sugar cane, this warm white rum ($30 for 750 mL) from San Diego's hybrid brewery/distillery blooms with creamy lavender and fresh lime flavors plus hints of coconut. The company also makes an aged and spiced version, but the unaged expression has the most spot-on balance and depth. It's a bit too sweet for a standard daiquiri, but the maraschino liqueur in a Hemingway Daiquiri adds a much-needed perk that helps balance out all those delicious sugars.
Clear Creek Distillery Pear Eau de Vie
Open a bottle of Clear Creek's Pear Eau de Vie ($44.95 for 750mL), and mountains of fresh pear smell so ripe and real, if you close your eyes you might not realize you're smelling alcohol at all. The clean eau de vie was the distillery's first spirit when they launched 30 years ago—long before most other distilleries were playing with craft distillation. It takes 30 pounds of of Bartlett pears grown in the Hood River Valley (about an hour away from the distillery) to make each bottle, and every step of the process, from crushing the pears to bottling, is all done in-house, helping them control the final flavor every step of the way. Soft floral elements and nudges of sweetness perk up the round fruit flavors with pristine elegance. Follow Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler's advice: try an ounce and a half of it with three-quarters ounce of fresh lemon, half an ounce of simple syrup, and top it off with club soda for a delicate aperitif.
Germain-Robin Brandy Single Barrel Pinot Noir Brandy
I adored Germain-Robin's apple brandy when I sampled it for a list of favorite apple brandies last fall, but the distillery knocked my socks off with the Pinot Noir Brandy ($150 for 750 mL), a single barrel spirit made from Pinot Noir grapes grown at California's Roederer Estate. Because of its lofty price point, this isn't for mixing. Instead, sip it with an ice cube to grasp the full impact of its maturity. After 13 years in Limousin oak barrels, dry wood braces against leather and date flavors with nutmeg and cinnamon spicing up the blend. This one is worth saving your pennies for.
Leopold Bros. Highland Fernet
This Colorado distillery offers a serious array of flavored whiskies and liqueurs, but I'll forever be enamored with their Highland Fernet ($33.99 for 750 mL). It bears some similarity to the classic Fernet Branca (in the sense that it's brimming with bitter herbs and spices) but Leopold strays from the traditional framework by introducing ingredients that are not typically found in the category as well. Cocoa nibs, rose petals, honeysuckle, and spearmint make the spirit a supple and slightly sweet sipper that's more friendly (and less bitter) than other styles of Fernet. It's beautifully aromatic and complex, making for a delightfully minty, chocolate fueled after-dinner treat.
House Spirits Distillery Krogstad Festlig Aquavit
You might be familiar with House Spirits Distillery's Aviation Gin, but they also make this exciting oddball: a re-creation of the Scandinavian liquor known as aquavit. Krogstad Festlig Aquavit ($26.95 for 750 mL) is made like a gin, with a base spirit infused with a set of botanicals, but the flavors are more savory and slightly peppery, dominated by the use of caraway and anise in the recipe. Bartenders around the country have run amok playing with the spirit in delicious cocktails. Try mixing up The Trident, an aromatic mixture of Cynar, aquavit, sherry, and peach bitters.
Westland Distillery Sherry Wood Single Malt Whiskey
Five different malts join forces to create a rich base for a spectacular whiskey from Seattle's Westland Distillery. The Sherry Wood Single Malt Whiskey ($69.99 for 750 mL), as the name suggests, is aged in very old Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks for over two years before hitting the bottle. It has a grainy, oatmeal and almond-like base, layered with soft chocolate-covered cherry flavors (presumably from the sweet sherry still etched into the barrels) that seem to go on for days. It's strikingly big-bodied and deep. File under: one of the best American craft whiskies, period.
Charbay Distillers R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey
Originally known for their vodkas (and they still taste great, folks), Charbay has really pushed the boundaries with successful experiments like the memorable R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey ($75 for 750 mL). Distilled from Bear Racer 5 IPA, the whiskey is a unlike any other. You get a punch of big dry hops, supported by woody tannins from the time spent in the barrel, but with less vanilla and more cinnamon than one might expect. It might sound like an odd combo, but trust me, it's a special occasion sipper that tastes quite delicious on a few rocks.
Dry Fly Distillery Triticale Whiskey
Spokane, Washington's Dry Fly Distilling also has a few whiskey tricks in its wheelhouse. In addition to their standard bourbon and wheat releases, the company is experimenting with lesser-known grains like Triticale, a rye/wheat hybrid created by scientists in Scotland in the 19th century. Using Triticale as the primary grain in this whiskey ($49.95 for 750mL) creates a flavor that starts with sweet raisins and cedar and ends with an edgy rye spice. This stuff tastes nothing like your average bourbon or rye.
Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey
A few distilleries around the country are working on making an American equivalent to a solid Scotch, and Santa Fe Spirits is doing it right. Their Colkegan Single Malt ($50 for 750 mL) uses just a light dusting of mesquite-smoked two-row barley in the recipe (30% of the mash bill to be exact), backed with 70% regular barley. This light smoke gives the whiskey a subtle Southwestern flavor that walks a fine line between traditional Scotch and American whiskey. It mellows for at least two years in both new American white oak and used bourbon barrels, adding further complexity and roundness. It's too pretty to mix; sip this one neat or slightly diluted.
Woodinville Whiskey Co. Rye
This rye hails from a strictly small-batch operation in Woodinville, Washington. The "microbarreled" rye whiskey ($49.95 for 750 mL) is made from 100% rye grains and rapid-aged in 8 gallon barrels. This technique doesn't work for everyone, but Woodinville manages to ace the job. Black pepper leads the flavor, followed by tobacco and woody grains. It's slightly hot at 92 proof, so diluting is a must if you prefer to sip your whiskey, but it's great for mixing, adding an delicious loud whiskey punch in a bold whiskey sour.
Note: All spirits provided as tasting samples for review consideration.