The Most Innovative American Whiskeys of 2021
Metallica’s Blackened and WhistlePig’s semi-truck-aged RoadStock are among the most innovative whiskeys of the year.
We covered several of our favorite categories in the world of American whiskies in the past week. Starting with our favorite ryes of 2021 and moving onto what we consider the best in American single malts and double-barrel finishes.
Today we bring you the best in innovation — meaning distillers and artisans who are looking to expand the thinking of what exactly constitutes a whiskey, and elevating the craft to new levels. If you’re looking for something truly singular to bring to that special New Year’s Eve or holiday dinner party pick up one of these, you’ll be the toast of the evening.
Basil Hayden Toast
The newest permanent expression to join the Basil Hayden portfolio, Basil Hayden Toast innovates in two ways: first it’s made of an entirely new mash bill, replacing traditional rye grain with American grown brown rice. And next a secondary toasted barrel is used to add notes of caramelized sugar and toasted wood.
After aging in the toasted barrels, 8th-generation Beam family distiller Freddie Noe takes the toasted brown rice bourbon and blends it back with more brown rice bourbon (rested in level 4 char barrels) to craft a whiskey twist with complex flavors grounded in sweet vanilla and rich roasted notes. $45 / 40% ABV
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Baijiu
Sure this one’s a bit outside the box, but we’re always looking for distillers who are eager to innovate in an often too traditional industry — especially when that distiller is Buffalo Trace, unquestionably one of America’s finest.
Few casual drinkers in the west realize the largest selling spirit in on Earth is baijiu, China’s national drink — centuries old and accounting for nearly 1/3 of the booze sold worldwide every year. So Buffalo Trace decided to blend its expertise in whiskey making with elements of baijiu — notably its main ingredient, sorghum, and another popular baijiu ingredient, peas.
After aging the distillate for 11 years in three separate casks — uncharred, charred and toasted white oak — the spirits are married together and bottled at 90 proof. Part of their aptly named Experimental Collection where the famed Kentucky distillery plays with thousands of variables in recipes, mash bills, barrel toasts and chars, aging woods, etc. the collection underscores the thriving creativity behind Buffalo Trace.
Launched in 2006, Baijiu is the 24th release in the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection series and offers something truly unique, combining a viscous mouthfeel quite unlike anything we’ve ever tried across spirits, the sorghum offering toasted rice and confection sugar notes with reassuring hints of chocolate and stone fruit.
This one’s for the bourbon heads looking to try something way outside their wheel house, yet still recognizable in profile. Sold only in 375ml bottles at $47 SRP, this one’s already going for quadruple digits online. $1,000 / 45% ABV
Woodford Reserve 2021 ‘Chocolate Malt Whisper’ Bourbon + ‘Five-Malt Stouted Mash’ Master’s Collection
What’s planted Woodford Reserve on the global whiskey map more than anything is Master Distiller Chris Morris’ innovation in all aspects of whiskey making. When they released their Wheat Whiskey in 2019 Woodford Reserve became the only brand to offer all four approved grain styles. Their Master’s Collection from that year, Chocolate Malted Rye Bourbon, was a thing of glory. Turns out the latest in their limited-edition Distillery Series was a direct result of that expression.
Chocolate Malt Whisper was unintentionally born when flavor notes from that Malted Rye “carried over into the distillate of the next batch of bourbon,” Morris explains. “Sometimes unforeseen developments occur in the distillery that result in great flavors… This is one of those cases.” As the name suggests this happy accident features notes of dark chocolate, a touch of vanilla, roasted cocoa and some cherry.
As this Distillery Series can only be bought at the Versailles, Kentucky shop another experimental but slightly more available Woodford Reserve option is their Five-Malt Stouted Mash — the 17th edition of their limited-edition Master’s Collection. As Morris aimed to craft a whiskey with flavors similar to a classic heavy-style beer, think of this as richer and darkly robust expression of their Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey. $300 / 45.2% ABV
Blackened x Willett ‘Masters of Whiskey Vol. 1’ Rye
When word came out Metallica was going to release a whiskey, it’s fair to say many were skeptical the stadium-filling metal act might be pulling a celebrity cash grab. Then those same people tried their inaugural Blackened bourbon — developed in collaboration with the late whiskey legend Dave Pickerell — and were silenced like Metallica’s early Bay Area music critics.
This year saw two firsts for the Blackened brand: 1. Its first rye; 2. The debut expression from its upcoming “Masters of Whiskey Series,” for which Metallica’s American Whiskey brand and Master Distiller and Blender Rob Dietrich will collaborate with other renowned whiskey makers to “re-imagine craft whiskey and create more complex expressions.”
The inaugural Masters of Whiskey Series expression here sees Blackened partner with the esteemed Willett Distillery to take their barrels — which finished Willett Kentucky Straight Rye Finished in Madeira Casks — for up to 14 weeks. That’s when Blackened’s proprietary ‘Black Noise’ sonic-enhancement process is employed: an 11-track playlist (handpicked by Dietrich and sequenced by drummer Lars Ulrich) is blasted in the rickhouse, the low hertz frequencies visibly shaking the finishing barrels to create greater interaction between the whiskey and the wood.
They claim this process extracts more flavors and colors from the barrels, but does it work? We can’t say but the results wail for themselves. $150 / 54.8%
We earlier recommended WhistlePig’s annual LTO ‘The Boss Hog VIII: LapuLapu’s Pacific’ as a superb rye offering, but its steep pricetag (at least $600) can unfortunately act as a barrier to the Vermont distillery’s juice. As a more affordable but also very special taste of WhistlePig, find their limited edition RoadStock — a rye that traveled 6,000 miles in their Rolling Rickhouse semi-truck.
A delicious and literal exercise in ‘Dynamic Aging,’ the whiskey inside underwent extreme climate and altitude changes crisscrossing America twice in five different barrels: WhistlePig’s own, Jordan Winery’s Cabernet/Merlot blend and three different Firestone Walker barrels (Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, Helldorado & Parabola). Well worth finding and adding to your cabinet. $50 / 44% ABV
Journeyman Field Rye
Like Texas, Colorado, Washington and a couple other states have accomplished, Michigan is also looking to establish itself as a distilling capital of America. Three Oak, Michigan’s Journeyman Distillery aims to add to the Wolverine State’s sheen with their handcrafted, organic, kosher and locally sourced grain spirits.
Produced in a former buggy whip and corset factory, the Welter family’s flagship product, Last Feather Rye, is one of the few wheat-heavy rye whiskies on the market and is the base spirit for what we think is Journeyman’s most interesting expression — a collaboration with Chicago’s Field Museum.
“I was a big fan and thought it would be an amazing opportunity to work with an American icon,” says Bill Welter about his inspiration to collaborate with the world famous natural history museum. So Welter started with his family’s Last Feather Rye, poured it in stainless steel, then dropped in black mission figs to soak for 90 days.
While the initial collab started with only 500 bottles (sold at Journeyman and Field Museum exclusively), its word-of-mouth success assured Journeyman Field Rye is now an ongoing concern. The world’s oldest all natural sweetener adds a beautiful purple hue to the whiskey, and a nuanced, well-balanced ripe plum body. $60 / 45% ABV
Rabbit Hole Founder’s Collection Raceking
The third bottle in the Rabbit Hole Founder’s Collection series, Raceking is a five-grain, double chocolate malt bourbon using chocolate wheat from Germany and chocolate barley imported from the UK, then aged in Founder and Master Distiller Kaveh Zamanian’s famed wood-fire, toasted and charred new American Oak barrels.
Bottled at cask strength, Raceking offers a rush of dark chocolate, brown sugar and toasted multigrain bread. An homage to Kentucky’s most famous sport, Raceking is a Triple Crown stud — only 1,365 of this Founder’s Collection will be bottled and sold at SRP of $295. $1,000 / 54.6% ABV
Frey Ranch Distillery 100% Oat and 100% Wheat Whiskey
We are in the Golden Era of American field-to-glass distilleries, whereupon a family farm grows all the grains which they then distill and age in an old barn somewhere (usually both on property). Such is the case with Colby and Ashley Frey whose roots in northern Nevada farming reach all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century.
In 2006 the Freys began distilling all the corn, winter cereal rye, winter wheat and two-row barley they grew on their 1,500 acre farm in Fallon, and last year started selling their bourbon and then a Bottled-In-Bond Rye to the world (well, mostly Nevada at first).
The quality was eyebrow raising for such a young distillery, but their success inspired the 5th-generation farmers to continue growing their offerings and for 2021 have released a duo of Distillery Exclusive ‘Ground-to-Glass’ expressions, the first from Frey Ranch’s new Single Grain Series: 100% Oat and 100% Wheat Whiskey.
As with all their previous offerings, all the non-GMO grains are sustainably grown, malted and aged on-site — this duo for six-and-a-half years each. Oat and Winter Wheat are just the beginning in their Single Grain Series, however, as currently there are a dozen unique whiskeys aging in their barrels near Lake Tahoe.
While these 100% Oat (1,000 bottles) and 100% Wheat (2,500 bottles) whiskies are harder to source being sold exclusively on property, we highly recommend their slightly easier to find Bourbon to dip your toe into the Frey Ranch soil. $49 Oat / $59 Wheat / 50% ABV
Designer Dram Custom Whiskey Maker
“We started Designer Dram with the goal of allowing anyone to create a unique bottle of whiskey for their palate,” explains Designer Dram Founder (and whiskey fanatic) Chintan Dhanji. “We did this because we recognized that the only approach to create a custom whiskey before our product was to create your own barrel of whiskey, a process which would cost upwards to $5,000 and take over 5 years if aged well.”
Designer Dram’s flagship product allows whiskey nerds to create their very own fully customized bottle of whiskey, complete with unique label, in 3 easy steps: 1. Select your barrels; 2. Select ABV (alcohol content); 3. Create your custom label.
You can mix your own blend to your exact specifications using Designer Dram’s five unique, high-age barrels sourced from Indiana’s MGP Distillery: Pure bourbon (99% Corn, 1% Malted Barley); Rye Bourbon (75% Corn, 21% Rye, 4% Malted Barley); Wheated Bourbon (51% Corn, 45% Wheat, 4% Malted Barley); Barley Rye (51% Rye, 49% Malted Barley) and Pure Rye (95% Rye, 5% Malted Barley).
Their online whiskey builder allows clients to create more than 20,000 unique whiskey combinations. One way is to get their Experience Box sampler mailed to you and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew your own creation at home — or if you want a simpler option, just enter your preferred flavors in their palate test or your favorite whiskey recipe into their mash bill creator to obtain a barrel recommendation.
The last step is choosing among 29 label designs — but their team can also include logos and special requests as needed. Nothing is automated, the label is designed from scratch. Designer Dram is for that next-level whiskey aficionado who wants to test his Master Blender mettle. $209 Designer Dram Experience Box (includes 5 barrel samples, crystal copita and graduated cylinder, + Redemption of customized 750ml whiskey bottle)