Now you’d be forgiven for wondering what would possess a denizen of the Bluegrass to look to the Empire State for bourbon. But don’t be too hasty in writing off the bourbon coming out of New York these days- much of it is of excellent quality and some of it is downright unique.
It’s a commonly uttered bit of misinformation that bourbon must be made here in the Commonwealth, yet such a stipulation would disqualify a lot of great bourbons- more than you might think. Among those would be the fantastic bottlings coming from New York, whose reputation for craft and attention to detail is well-earned, but whose application of these qualities to bourbon has recently been displayed in some fine whiskies that give some of our homegrown spirits a run for their money.
One such compelling distillery is Hillrock Estate. Headed by former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell, Hillrock uses a technique called solera, borrowed from spirits like Madeira and Sherry, to age their bourbon. By drawing off only part of a barrel’s contents and replacing it with fresh bourbon, the whole is left to age in this manner, imparting complexity to every generation of the product. This is also among the few farm-to-bottle distillers around, giving a unique sense of place to this bourbon. Tea leaves, burned sugar, bread and jam can be identified in this delicious bourbon, which runs about $75.
Tuthilltown Spirits Farm Distillery got their start in 2005 with an apple-based vodka and now makes a range of excellent whiskies. While a bit expensive (somewhere around $45 for 375ml), their Baby Bourbon has qualities to recommend it. Made unusually with a 100% corn mashbill, the result is predominantly vanilla and fresh corn, without many of the more nuanced notes that come with age, yet it manages to be quite good at being a young whiskey, having spent around 18 months in a small oak cask. Though it doesn’t really fit the mold of the whiskies made around here, for some it may be worth a sampling. I enjoyed it.
A good number of these bourbons skew young, as you would expect from a newer distiller. One such brash relative newcomer is Kings County Distillery. Hailing from Brooklyn since 2010, Kings County also distills their product in Brooklyn- a step not always taken by newer brands. Because of this, you won’t see the sort of mature bottles put out by more established distillers, but then there’s a nice brawling quality to a young whiskey anyhow. This is definitely a work-in-progress, but you get the sense there’s real possibility- the rudiments of a nice bourbon are here, but sub-four years of aging don’t bring them out. Despite this, there’s a nice hint of ground cinnamon and chocolate joining the fiery bite of white dog, and the illicit-looking packaging might get some onboard with a purchase, about $40 for 375ml.
A similar experience can be had with Black Dirt Distillery Bourbon. Made in upstate New York from grains grown in the fertile soil of an ancient glacial lake, this is another whiskey that shows real promise. Alongside the sweet corn you expect from such a young whiskey- minimum of four years aged- there are some interesting citrus and creosote flavors that invite another sip. It can be had for around $45 a bottle.
So there, turncoat- try some newfangled New York whiskey if you must. So long as you come back to our great state at the end of the day, we’ll just consider it a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats sort of thing.