Small-batch whiskeys worth extra effort, price

From the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s, when Americans had had enough of rising whiskey taxes, to the famed whiskey runners of Prohibition (think Al Capone), whiskey’s played a big part in American culture. Whiskey and America were meant to be together, it seems, and in America, whiskey is most commonly associated with Tennessee and Kentucky. But while those Southern states still dominate the brown spirits category, others have begun to produce and distribute their own takes on this quintessentially American spirit. And these unique small-batch spirits are finding an audience among connoisseurs worldwide.

California, unofficial home of America’s wine industry, offers two very fine examples of distillers producing small-batch whiskeys that are hard to find but a treat to drink. Old Potrero is a 100 percent rye whiskey made by San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. The company offers two versions, both distilled in a small copper pot still. The 18th-century style is aged in lightly toasted oak barrels, consistent with 18th-century whiskey-making practices; the 19th-century style is aged longer in charred oak barrels, again consistent with the whiskey-making practices of that century. The charred oak adds a deeper color and flavor to the 19th-century style, which is a sweet-smelling whiskey with distinctive character and a luscious taste. A sip reveals a hearty roundness of rye and vanilla that leaves a lasting impression on the finish.

Domaine Charbay, located in Napa Valley, distills several classic spirits, including a double-barrel whiskey that is double distilled. This whiskey commands premium pricing, but it’s a treat for the whiskey-lover. Only a limited number of cases are produced each year, so the search for a bottle can be an exhausting one. Though this is the only whiskey mentioned here not produced by a brewery, it’s also the only one flavored with hops, which give it a light floral aroma combined with a taste of chewy honey and oak. It’s slightly bitter, but a pleasing bitter like a very fine IPA.

Out of Oregon comes McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey, with a mash made by Widmer Brothers Brewery and distilled by the Clear Creek Distillery. McCarthy’s uses imported peat-malted Scottish barley to create an American take on Scottish Islay whiskey. The result of its three-year aging in air-dried Oregon oak barrels is a peaty-, smoky- and creamy-smelling whiskey with a dense, wet-wood taste and a nice touch of smoked fruits on the finish.

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey teams with Colorado’s Flying Dog Brewery to produce its own spirit. This is the only whiskey distilled in Colorado, and it uses ingredients directly from the Rocky Mountains. Another unique aspect of Stranahan’s is that, right on the label, the distiller tags each bottle with what artist and song he was listening to when he bottled the finished product – head distiller Jake Norris hopes this will inspire customers to play the same song while enjoying a sip, his effort to “share a moment” with the consumer, according to the company. On my bottle, he was listening to Jim Reeves’ Four Walls. The product is 94 proof but is smooth and crisp with a distinctive malty finish.

These unique spirits are by no means “everyday whiskeys.” Finding them requires special trips to a favorite liquor store or an online order, but they’re worth the extra effort. Unlike Tennessee whiskey, which is filtered though charcoal, and bourbon, which by law must be predominantly corn, these whiskeys carry a unique appeal that reaches connoisseurs worldwide. Their price tags reflect this, but as they’re comparable to a premium single-barrel bourbon, they’re worth the extra here, too. Their taste puts them in a class of their own – and gives one a new appreciation for the American fascination with whiskey.