The world of craft whiskey has quickly been growing across the American whiskey landscape. However 2020 seemed to deliver an explosion of well rounded craft whiskey into the spotlight. While some of the spotlight can be attributed to the fact that COVID forced people to start exploring new whiskeys during lockdown, the most notable reason is that craft is beginning to be seen in a different light. This year of all years we were impressed with the wide array of fantastic whiskeys created by craft whiskey distilleries from all around the country. Many contenders were considered, but none stood out as much as these three whiskeys.
With a seemingly endless supply of craft distilleries and enough whiskey brands to make anyone’s head spin and bank account gasp for its last breath, this leads many craft distilleries stuck with the same problem - how does their product even get noticed in this sea of seemingly infinite new American whiskeys? Many have the same answer: Do something different. But experimentation with whiskey isn’t so easy. Whiskey takes years to mature, so learning what works and what doesn’t is something that cannot happen overnight. Even against these odds, Chattanooga Whiskey Company has emerged as not only a successful whiskey distillery capable of making a fantastic product, but also a distillery capable of seeing experiments through to a point at which the result is a whiskey that’s both delicious and memorable.
Chattanooga impressed us in the past with their Whiskey 91, Whiskey 111 Cask, and more recently their first ever single barrel. But what stands out the most this year is their newest product, Chattanooga Whiskey 99 Rye. The company started development of it in 2015 and its first iteration was released as part of their Experimental Collection as Batch 007 “Tennessee Rye Malt.” A specific and more complex process is deployed to create 99 Rye, which includes processes meant to highlight the rye malt and a lower barrel proof of 115 before entering 53 gallon char #4 barrels for at least 3 years. What results is a rye that’s exploding with character and balks the traditional rye flavor profile, causing you to question what a rye should taste like. But it’s not necessarily about being different just for the sake of being different, with Chattanooga it feels more like it’s about forging new paths that were destined to be found.
Kings County literally took us by surprise in 2020. Despite being located in our home state, we had never tasted their whiskey. When a private barrel was offered to our Single Barrel Club we decided to put the distillery through the paces. As we tasted through their portfolio of whiskeys and learning more about how Kings Country creates their whiskey, we left with one thought: color us impressed. It was difficult to narrow down their lineup to just one whiskey to highlight, but it was their barrel proof bourbon that ended up on everyone’s list. An off-the-grain open air fermentation, copper pot stills lower barrel entry proof, and forgoing rye for more malted barley has resulted in an incredibly nuanced whiskey, yet at the same time extremely flavorful too. Kings County isn’t yet another wait-and-see craft distillery, as they’ve already arrived.Equal parts challenging and unique, Kings County Barrel Proof Bourbon is a joy to drink.
We’ve been introduced to hundreds of new craft distilleries this year and we’ve noticed an elevated level of quality we haven’t seen in the past. Despite this, many still just can’t break the barrier of acceptability that’s characterized by a general feeling that goes a little something like this: Sure this is getting better...but we’d love to see what it tastes like in a few years. In this sea of improving craft whiskeys, a few broke the proverbial mold of inescapable average-ness. Old 55 Single Barrel Bourbon Bottled in Bond is one of those bourbons. It not only impressed us with its label, a Bottled in Bond originating from a young distillery, it also impressed with its unusually sweet, developed, unique tasting flavor profile. A small family owned and operated distillery in Newtown, Indiana, this bourbon is made from a somewhat unusual two grain corn-wheat mashbill. It goes into #3 char 30-gallon barrels at a lower than usual 112.5 proof, and it’s aged underground in the once elementary school now turned distillery’s cellar beneath what was once the gymnasium. Without question, this is one of the best bourbons we’ve tasted from such a young distillery, rivaling what larger distilleries are putting out at higher ages.