America's Coolest Distilleries
While working at a New York hedge fund, Bridget Firtle noticed an uptick in craft spirits and was inspired to get in on the trend. Pouring her life savings into making rum might not have been the wisest financial investment, but it was a passionate one. Two years and one smooth rum later, the founder of The Noble Experiment hasn’t looked back.
Across America, entrepreneurs like Firtle are jumping on the craft-distillery wagon, trading their day jobs for the fulfilling—if sometimes backbreaking—work of making small-batch spirits. When the American Distilling Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting craft distilling, was founded in 2003, there were only 69 licensed craft distillers. In just 10 years, that number has jumped to 400, and the organization expects it to reach up to 800 by 2015.
While the backstories of these cool distilleries vary wildly, all are driven by a passion for their products. And since most of the owners can’t wait to share that passion with the public, tours of their distilleries aren’t just informative—they’re inspiring.
Your guide at Woody Creek Distillers, near Aspen, CO, will explain how staffers are so obsessive about ingredients that they grow their own heirloom potatoes for their vodka. At Bull Run Distilling, in Portland, OR, you’ll learn that they produce rum not because it’s a moneymaker, but as a tribute to Portland’s first commercially produced spirit.
Of course, there’s nothing like firsthand experience, and that comes with the tastings. At Middle West distillery in Ohio, tours end with a sampling of three varieties of vodka as well as bourbon and white whiskeys and the OYO whiskey—which also turns up in the whiskey and pecan flavor of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
Such tastings may have you plotting your own escape from the 9-to-5 so that you, too, can get a piece of the craft-distillery action. Or maybe that’s just the whiskey talking.
Bull Run Distilling, Portland, OR
When cofounders Lee Medoff and Patrick Bernards partnered to build the distillery of their dreams, they had two goals: to keep the operation as local as possible and to, as Bernards puts it, “go big out of the gate.” They source barley from the southeast corner of Oregon and water from the Bull Run watershed, and the whiskey is finished in barrels made from new Oregon oak. They also designed their own stills and had them built locally. As for going big, those stills are 800 gallons each, tied for the largest west of the Rockies.
Tours: By appointment or by chance; free; bullrundistillery.com.
High West Distillery & Saloon, Park City, UT
High West has the distinction of being the only ski-in gastro-distillery in the world. Park your gear on the racks outside, and step into the historic building—a 1914 Victorian house joined with a former stable—for a Rocky Mountain Rye paired with stick-to-your-ribs food, including what many claim is the best burger in town. Tours take you through a labyrinth of rooms downstairs, where the beaker flasks, bubbling vats of rye, and 250-gallon copper give the place a mad-scientist vibe.
Tours: By appointment; free; highwest.com.
The Noble Experiment, Brooklyn, NY
Bridget Firtle already stands out as a woman in the male-dominated world of distillation. But it’s her character that really impresses. Determined to follow her dream, Firtle quit her job at a New York hedge fund and moved in with her parents to build her distillery from scratch. After enduring city inspections, fixing an exploding boiler, and working like mad to build up inventory, she personally visited every bar, restaurant, and liquor store that she hoped would carry her first product: Owney’s NYC Rum. The payoff? One sip of the smooth spirit, and buyers were scrambling to fill out order forms.
Tours: Saturday at 4 p.m.; $10; tnenyc.com.
Middle West Spirits, Columbus, OH
Just three years after its 2010 commercial launch, Middle West’s OYO (pronounced o-why-o) whiskey has become an industry darling. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams uses it for a whiskey and pecan flavor, and Tavern Vinegar Company and Rockmill Brewery extract its essence by aging their vinegar and ale in the used oak barrels. But perhaps the best way to enjoy OYO is during the post-tour tasting, along with the bourbon whiskey, the white whiskey, and the three varieties of vodka.
Tours: 6 p.m. every Friday, plus Gallery Hop Saturdays; reservations required; $15; middlewestspirits.com.
Bully Boy Distillery, Boston
The backstory of this Boston distillery reads like the beginning of a Hardy Boys novel: brothers Will and Dave Willis discovered a vault in their childhood farmhouse basement and, inside, a collection of homemade spirits dating back to Prohibition. Inspired by the family history—if not the spirits themselves, which were unbearably harsh—they launched Bully Boy in an old warehouse in 2010. Their whiskeys, rums, and vodka are infinitely smooth, bearing zero resemblance to their predecessors.
Tours: Wednesday and Saturday, by appointment; $10; bullyboydistillers.com.
Woody Creek Distillers, Basalt, CO
This brand-new distillery could coast by on location alone—it’s in the picture-perfect Roaring Fork Valley, about 15 miles west of Aspen. But even without the gorgeous Colorado scenery, people would flock to the tasting room to sample the vodka. Made from heirloom potatoes grown seven miles away, it’s so clean that most folks prefer to drink it straight rather than taint it with any sugary mixings. If you want to add adventure to your visit, book the Whiskey River tour with Blazing Adventures, where you’ll end a half-day rafting trip with a tasting at the distillery.
Tours: By appointment; $8; woodycreekdistillers.com.
St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA
Riffing on its location within an old airplane hanger, this distillery offers a Basic Training Tour, complete with dog tags at the end. You’ll learn about St. George’s philosophy that a spirit should capture the essence of the core material, whether that’s juniper, wheat, or barley. The tasting illustrates the results: gin, absinthe, rum, whiskey, and eau de vie that are breaking new ground with their flavor profiles. Pack a picnic so you’ll have an excuse to sit at the tables outside, where you can soak up views of the San Francisco skyline.
Tours: Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.; $15; stgeorgespirits.com.
Newport Distilling Co., Newport, RI
When the four friends who founded this distillery say they studied alcohol in college, they’re not talking frat parties and tailgating. They studied the science behind alcohol, later putting that knowledge to use by brewing beer and distilling Thomas Tew Rum—named after a 17th-century pirate who lived in Newport. The choice to make rum is also a local tribute: in the mid- to late-18th century, Newport was the rum capital of the world, with 22 distilleries.
Tours: 3 p.m., every day but Tuesday; $9 (plus tax); thomastewrums.com.
Koval Distillery, Chicago
Champion of all things local, Koval sources its grain from organic farms in the Midwest and its water from Lake Michigan. The 45-minute tours will give you a good foundation on distilling, but to really understand the process, sign up for one of the Whiskey Workshops. You’ll learn so much about the history and technical aspects of making spirits that by the time you get to the guided tasting, you’ll be rattling off tasting notes like the expert you (suddenly) are.
Tours: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, and by appointment; $10; koval-distillery.com.
Death’s Door Spirits, Washington Island, WI
While the name sounds ominous, Death’s Door is about as altruistic as it gets. Brothers Tom and Ken Koyen were instrumental in reinvigorating the farming community on Washington Island when they planted five acres of winter wheat in 2005. That field is still going strong enough to be the wheat source for all their spirits. Their lineup is simple: one gin, one vodka, one whiskey; but thanks to notes of locally grown herbs, the flavors are anything but.
Tours: Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at noon and 2 p.m.; $10; deathsdoorspirits.com.
Bainbridge Organic Distillers, Bainbridge Island, WA
The 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island makes the trip to this distillery feel like a mini-getaway. But the father-son owners were drawn here for strictly business results: the salty quality of the maritime air and the access to water from deep island aquifers are both crucial to the character of their products. Washington State’s first distillery to produce organic spirits is best known for its Douglas fir gin. With notes of juniper and cardamom, it’s the spirit equivalent of a love letter to the Pacific Northwest.
Tours: May through September, every day from noon to 5 p.m.; free; bainbridgedistillers.com.
Balcones, Waco, TX
Since it began production in 2008, this Texas superstar has racked up some of the most prestigious accolades in the business. Whisky Magazine awarded it Craft Whisky Distillery of the Year, and the London-based Craft Distillers’ Alliance named it Best Craft Distillery in the U.S. and Best Global Distillery. As a result, Balcones recently upgraded to a 65,000-square-foot warehouse, nearly 30 times larger than its original space. Bigger in size, yes, but the craft mentality hasn’t changed: the team will still handwrite the batch number on each bottle of whisky they produce.
Tours: Monday through Friday, by appointment; $10; balconesdistilling.com.
Coppersea Distilling, Hudson Valley, NY
While many distillers are inspired by the old-school aspect of the trade, they happily take full advantage of modern technology when it comes to making spirits. Coppersea is a rare exception. Michael Kinstlick and his team strive to adhere to historic authenticity, eschewing too-new innovations like mechanical pumps for their stills. It would all be very gimmicky if their product were just okay, but one sip of the raw rye or eau de vie is all you need to appreciate that it’s worth every antiquated step.
Tours: By appointment; free; coppersea.com.
Corsair Distillery, Nashville, TN, and Bowling Green, KY
Kentucky bourbon is steeped in tradition, and distillers have to follow scores of rules if they want to use the name. The team at Corsair barely colors within the lines, following just enough rules to call their product bourbon. Our favorite example: bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn. Most producers use much more (even up to 80 percent), but Corsair uses exactly 51 percent, using the other 49 percent to introduce creative flavors like cherry-smoked barley. It's the kind of stunt that would be considered absurd if it didn't result in such a complex, fun-to-drink spirit.
Tours: Tuesday to Saturday in Tennessee and Friday to Saturday in Kentucky; $10; corsairartisan.com.