Bartender Picks: The Best Craft Distillers


We're seeing more and more small-scale distillers popping up around the country (and the world!)—but of course, not every newbie with a pot still is making delicious booze quite yet. With so many new products out there, it can be hard to tell which bottles are worth picking up. Bartenders get a chance to taste all sorts of spirits, so we asked for their tips on the craft distillers that are really making great stuff.

Here are their picks for the best small distilleries and specific bottles to seek out.

Michael Lay of Faith & Flower in Los Angeles.

"Lost Spirits in Salinas, CA. They make badass old-school rum that is absolutely stunning. They've also produced an absinthe from Spain called Obsello that was beautiful and worth throwing down for if you're lucky enough to find it." —Michael Lay (Faith & Flower)

"Westland Distillery is hitting it out of the park. It's a small-batch single malt whisky distillery based in downtown Seattle. They use only copper pot stills and local products to produce their malts. Keep an eye out for their newer expression, their Peated Malt, which is made from a local Pale Malt and a mash that's been peated up to 55 ppm. Also, if you find a bottle of their Deacon Seat (their flagship expression) snatch it up. Quantities are very limited." —Jamie Buckman (Bookstore Bar & Café)

"St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. Their single malt is bright and peachy, and their gins are some of my favorites, especially the aromatic Terroir, where they feature botanicals found on Mt. Tamalpais." —Trent Simpson (La Urbana)

"Maine's Cold River. Their gin has great weight and perfect balance of herbs and spices for stirred cocktails. It is my choice for a Negroni or an Alaska." —Young Won (Rialto)

"The Del Maguey line of Mezcals—each one is distilled by a separate small pot distiller throughout Oaxaca and each represents its own little remote enclave." —Terence Lewis ( Barbuzzo, et al.)

"Hudson Whiskey; all of their products are amazing and locally sourced. The rye makes a perfect Manhattan." —Don Galvano (Pub and Kitchen)

Kevin Diedrich of Gaspar Brasserie in SF.

"I'm in love with Spirit Works Distillery's Gin and Sloe Gin. The latter is absolutely amazing and is the closest to what I think a Sloe Gin should actually taste like." —Kevin Diedrich (Gaspar Brasserie)

"In Chicago, Koval makes a bunch of really interesting whiskeys that are all organic and kosher. Some highlights for me are their spelt whiskey (who distills spelt?!?) that has these lovely sweet cocoa notes. And an oat whiskey that you'll want to drink for breakfast instead of eating your Quakers." —Josh Berner (Poste Moderne Brasserie)

"I like Ron del Barrilito from Puerto Rico. They produce two very old-world style rums labelled 2 Star and 3 Star that drink more like cognacs than typical rums." —Jon Harris (Firefly)

"I just heard that the brewery 3 Floyds plans on distilling as part of their upcoming expansion. If it's anything like the beer they're making, I'm in. Dark Lord Whiskey?! There's no way that's going to suck." —Dan Rook (South Water Kitchen)

"FEW in Evanston has been doing some really neat stuff. Their barrel aged gin is a revelation, and they've just put out a Malört that tastes unlike any I've had—bitter but smoky, with citrus and rosemary." —Dan Andruss (312 Chicago)

"Lost Spirits out of Monterey County, California. Their attention to detail is insane. They also aren't afraid to try something like an Agave Brandy (Ode to Jalisco) or a Single Malt with California Island Peat aged in sherry-seasoned Hungarian oak (Ouroboros). Their Navy Style Rum goes great on the rocks, and the heat of the Navy Strength proof doesn't take away from the caramel and banana flavors." —David Kinsey (Sycamore Den)

Allyson Harding of Boca in Cincinnati.

"Watershed Distillery out of Columbus, Ohio. It's homegrown and made very well. Watershed Four Peel Gin and The Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin are great." —Allyson Harding (Boca)

"Germain Robin out of Mendocino, CA makes some phenomenal cognac-style brandies (their XO is wonderful), and North Shore out of Lake Bluff will make an outstanding aquavit and absinthe verde." —Chris Burkett (Cusp Dining & Drinks)

"Siembra Azul tequila sets the bar for quality and integrity, not only in taste, but also through their commitment to upholding the tradition of tequila making. Everything I know about tequila came from their efforts to educate our community." —Claire Sprouse (The Square)

"Leopold Brothers is the best small batch distillery in Colorado, if not in the entire country. Each spirit and liqueur uses the traditional methods of distillation and focuses on locally sourced ingredients. Additionally they make an incredible Navy strength gin that I always have in stock at my home bar." —Jon Feuersanger (Second Home Kitchen + Bar)

"Two James Spirits in Detroit, MI. I love their Grass Widow Bourbon. If you get a chance to go to their tasting room, they have a apple brandy and absinthe they've been working on, both currently only available at the distillery." —Shane McGrath (The Oakland Art Novelty Co.)

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Michael Lazar of Hog and Rocks in SF.

"Smooth Ambler. Love their intent, honesty, and patience. The 10-year rye (which they did not make themselves) is a great whiskey." —Michael Lazar (Hog and Rocks)

"Greenhook Ginsmiths is producing one of my favorite gins anywhere. Their flagship is a beautifully balanced gin, not overly reliant on juniper nor lemon, and works great with cocktails or straight. Their beach-plum liqueur is decadent paired with champagne." —Dan Bronson (Crescent & Vine)

"New York Distilling Co. The Chief Gowanus "Holland Gin" is one of my favorites. It's actually made from rye whiskey and the same type of hops used in the Netherlands over 200 years ago to make gin!" —Jason Lakow (Amali)

"Ransom Spirits from Sheridan, OR. Ransom Old Tom Gin is one of my all time favorite bottles—just perfect for classic cocktails. They also produce The Emerald 1865, an American-made Irish-style whiskey created from an ancient mash bill.." —Chino Lee (Departure Restaurant)

"Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey comes out of the Green Mountains of Vermont. It has an amazing drinkability. It's my go-to whenever I see it on a back bar." —Phil Wills (Dog Haus Biergarten)

"New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn. They make Perry's Tot and Dorothy Parker Gin. It doesn't hurt that there is a great bar attached to the distillery. As you are in the bar having a cocktail, you look over and, through a glass barrier, you can see your gin in the distillation process." —Juan Sevilla (Soho House West Hollywood)

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Sam Scholl of Sweetwater Tavern & Grille in Chicago.

"Letherbee Distillers! It was started by a local Chicago bartender, which is great for our city's cocktail scene. I enjoy both their Original Label gin as well as their Fall 2013 Autumnal Gin." —Sam Scholl (Sweetwater Tavern & Grille)

"Finger Lakes Distilling makes a phenomenal rye [in their 'McKenzie' line] that I'm in love with! I'm also a fan of Copper Fox Rye from Virginia. They're still fairly small and not widely distributed, so you rarely see any press on them. It's like watching your kids grow up as you see their market share expand and word of mouth build up the anticipation for these brands." —Brian Means (Dirty Habit)

"Located in Nashville, Darek Bell and Andrew Webber of Corsair are making really awesome and innovative spirits. One of my favorites is the Triple Smoke Whiskey. They use malted barley, fraction it, and smoke each part using a different fuel—cherry wood, peat, and beechwood—and then pot-distill it and barrel it in new charred oak. My absolute favorite is their Rasputin. They brew a traditional Russian imperial stout, and when they distill it, they pass the whiskey vapors through hops. It ends up a being spicy, floral, malty and complex hopped whiskey." —Riley Perrin (The Patterson House)

"Willett is a great small-batch whiskey distillery, especially their Willett Pot Still Reserve. The name Willett comes from John David Willett (born in 1841) who was a master distiller for the Moore, Willett, Frenke Distillery in Louisville; the son, Thompson Willett, carried on the tradition. So they have been around for generations, and not a lot of people know this about this brand. " —Jessica Stafford (Flour & Barley)

Dave Porcaro of Bigarola Wood Fired Grill in Ann Arbor.

"Journeyman—my absolute favorite—is right here in Michigan. Their Bilberry Blackhearts gin can make a gin drinker out of even the most diehard of vodka people, not to mention the clean, smooth, crisp finish of their Red Arrow wheat vodka... and the Rye White whiskey is a magnificent bouquet of tropical aromatics and smooth sweet grain flavors; when I mix with it people have no idea they are drinking rye dog." —Dave Porcaro (Bigalora Wood Fired Grill)

"Privateer is a great rum out of Ipswich, MA. They have two incarnations, silver and amber, both of which are quite tasty. Plus, every bottle's label has a code that indicates the barrels that the blend came from and on the website, there are tasting notes for each individual barrel." —Elizabeth Powell (Liberty Bar)

"Mezcal El Silencio. This beautiful agave distillate falls into the "luxury" category and blends three different agaves in Espadin, Mexicano, & Tobaziche while dialing back the proof, so you can truly sip this Mezcal or pair it with food." —Marcos Tello (Liquid Assets)

"Leopold Brothers. I am a big fan of their absinthe. They distill all of the botanicals separately and blend after. It's a time-consuming process, but produces a truly superior product." —Ben Anderson (The Corner Office)

"Templeton Rye. Started around 1920 during Prohibition, it was Al Capone's favorite and was funneled to Chicago, New York and San Francisco. After Prohibition ended, it was made illegally in small batches for loyal patrons and was finally made legally for the first time ever in 2006. Fun Fact: I have a bottle signed from the last relative of Capone in my collection. " —Paul Sauter (Mercadito Chicago)