Finding bourbons off the beaten path is easier than you might think. With just a little research, you can find exceptional bourbons that have a smaller price tag than brands with more name recognition. There are 73 distilleries in Kentucky, with four or five of them garnering 90 percent of public interest. Countrywide, there are 2,000 distilleries (and you have at least one in your home state). Getting to know the bourbons off the beaten path in your area can be a fun hobby for you and your friends.
Put together a bourbon sampler of lesser-known bourbons at your home bar. Use a few decanters and high-quality tumblers for a blind taste test with some of your favorite bourbons and a few new ones from this list, or from your area. Taste without expectations, and you might find that you prefer these to your go-to bourbons. You’ll also get practice honing your palate.
You may be wondering….
What’s considered a bourbon off the beaten path? These are bourbons not produced by the handful of bourbon families dominating the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky and the broader bourbon market. They are the bourbons less distributed and less known, without corporate ownership or a hundred-year history that begins before Prohibition.
This list highlights those distilleries and the exceptional products they produce. Bourbons off the beaten path may lack the refinement of their established competitors, but they’re still worth tasting, now and in the future.
Why Are Unknown Bourbons Overlooked?
Bourbon roundups focus on the same distilleries, all on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, that produce new or limited releases. There’s a good reason for this.
Creating a quality bourbon takes more than just passion. Successful bourbon brands get that way because they’ve perfected their recipe and their aging and blending processes through multiple generations. By comparison, the craft distillery movement only began in earnest a decade ago, and many new producers haven’t had the time or experience to perfect their distillates.
Also, most craft distilleries don’t release a bourbon they distill themselves the first time around. This is because bourbon must be aged in barrels, although some bourbons on this list defy that standard. Small brands get around the requirement by sourcing aged spirits and bottling it under their own label while their own products age.
Another way distilleries grow into the bourbon market is by producing gin, vodka, and rum while their bourbon ages. They can bottle and sell clear spirits as soon as they’re distilled because they don’t require aging. These bourbons off the beaten path have set themselves apart with the quality and consistency you end up within your glass. They’re emerging as brands to watch while they continue to perfect their bourbon-making process.
Bourbons Off the Beaten Path, but Still Instafamous
Plenty of bourbon drinkers on Instagram reach for the lesser-known bottles, eager to find the next big thing. We can’t help but agree with them about these ten bourbons that are off the beaten path. Give these accounts a follow to learn more about lesser-known spirits.
1) Stillhouse Black Bourbon
You don’t get much more off the beaten path. Forgoing the ubiquitous glass bottle, Black Bourbon comes in a square metal can. It’s a recent release from Stillhouse, aged in oak barrels and then “rested” with roasted coffee beans for added flavor. Too young for straight sipping, it’s still an interesting addition to a home bar.
@flat_vinyl_and_whiskey Enjoys Stillhouse
“Awhile back I stumbled upon this little can on a trip to California. Snatched up one and brought it home. I took one sip and this joined the ranks of my favorites. This Black Bourbon is nice and smokey! “
2) Smooth Ambler Contradiction Bourbon
The West Virginia distillery blends 27 percent of their own two-year distillate with 73 percent sourced 9-year bourbon from Midwest Grain Supplier. Between the two mash bills, there are four grains: corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley. Bottled at 100 proof, it’s enthusiastic in the glass with plenty of youthful-tasting notes and spice from the rye.
Contradiction Impressed @whiskeygraeme
“ Well, I actually could not be happier with my purchase. I really am surprised and think it’s an amazing bottle…Always nice to get a surprise when grabbing a bottle you don’t know anything about or have any expectations of.”
3) Watershed Bourbon
Out of Ohio, the Watershed distillery commits itself to the long game of producing high-quality spirits. Watershed ages for four years, with a grain bill of corn, wheat, rye, barley and spelt. It’s a malty bourbon with plenty of earthiness on the nose. For Scotch drinkers, this bourbon is a perfect introduction to American whiskey.
Watershed Gets Local Cred from @cbus.bourbon_review
“It’s no secret I love my cbus, and Watershed proudly screams Columbus. This is a very young (2.5 years), but unique bourbon with a lot of potential, and I can’t wait until their 4+ year bourbon starts to hit the shelves.”
4) Koval Bourbon
Out of the first legal distillery in Chicago since prohibition, corn, and millet comprise Koval’s sparse grain bill. They’re also ruthless distillers, only allowing the impurity-free “heart” of the distillate into the barrel. Worth sampling for the soft millet mouthfeel.
@no_bad_whiskey Lets Followers in on a Secret
“…I love the controversy. This bottle here is controversy at it’s [sic]core. A bourbon made of Corn and Millet… in Chicago. That I love. In addition to controversial, this is one of those secret bottles that people don’t often pick up on.…. This is a fine fine fine whiskey…”
5) King’s County Straight Bourbon
Out of New York City, the bare-bones packaging hits on a certain medicinal aesthetic that makes this bottle an attractive addition to any home bar. It sports an unexpected grain bill as well; mostly corn with 20 percent English malted barley.
@whiskyjons Picked an Exceptional Favorite
“Great find at my local liquor store. @kingscountydistillery is my favorite bourbon. And this peated bourbon is no different. I am going to have trouble making sure I don’t drink this in one week.”
6) Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea
Jefferson’s sources their product, and their headquarters are in the heart of Louisville. They’ve earned a spot on this list because of their ongoing experimentation to create interesting and exceptional products. Jefferson’s Ocean ages in barrels on ships that cross the equator up to four times, and visit over thirty ports on five continents. This is the bottle to reach for right after saying “Hey, you want to taste something cool?”
@thewhiskeybond Knows How to Pair Jefferson’s Ocean
“The first expression I ever tried from @jeffersonsbourbon was the Ocean Aged at Sea ? and still to this day it remains one of my favorites. The salty smooth caramel flavors that come alive when cracking into this bottle never seem to get old. A perfect dram after a long day spent on the beach. Cheers friends “
7) Oregon Maple Hill Bourbon
In Oregon, Stein grows their own grain, and puts out several impressive aged products, like a 5-year-old bourbon and rye. Maple Hill doesn’t carry an age statement but puts forth strong barrel characteristics, perfect for drinkers who like a broad-shouldered bourbon in their glass.
@ferdabourbon Likes a Fiery Bourbon
“Doing some tastings of bottles I needed to pop finally. First up this Black Maple Hill! Starts of fruit-forward and ends with a nice little afterburn for 95 proof. Cheers!”
8) Michter’s US 1 Straight Bourbon
Every bottle is small-batch, aged about 8 years, and over 90 proof. The distillery is in Kentucky, but the Michter’s team sets themselves apart. Their master distiller, Pam Heilmann, is the first woman to serve as a master distiller for a Kentucky distillery.
@bourbonculture is a Longtime Michter’s Fan
“A year ago today, I woke up early and drove all the way from Indianapolis to Louisville to be there when Michter’s Fort Nelson location first opened their doors to the public…Their products are always at the top of my list for “must-have” because they’re so unique and well made. Here’s to many more years of success…”
9) Hudson Baby Bourbon
This for those who love a corn-heavy mash bill. It’s 100 percent New York grown corn, aged in new American oak barrels, with heavy bass music played through the warehouse at night. The distillery, Tuthilltown Spirits, began as a grain farm before turning micro-distillery with an apple vodka. Their product line is ever-growing with unique spirits.
@whiskeysalonjork Knows Quality
“…For this whiskey, there are only used raw materials from the direct surroundings of the distillery. This shows the connection to New York and makes the Hudson Baby Bourbon a 100% New Yorker…The Baby Bourbon is aged in small charred oak barrels, but only for about 3 months – hence the name “Baby Whiskey”…How we find great whiskey!”
10) Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon
This is a proud Texas mash bill: roasted blue corn, Texas wheat, Texas rye, and malted barley. The Balcones distillery just passed their 10-year anniversary and they have an impressive line of products. The 2-year bourbon has promise and the Balcones limited releases are worth a taste.
High Praise from @tank_da
“Texas is killing it, another awesome distillery. Awesome flavor, smooth and cheap. This weeks sleepy time assist.”
Final Tasting Notes
Next time you’re reaching for your old standbys in the bourbon aisle, investigate some labels with which you’re not as familiar. Even if their products lack the refinement of their corporate counterparts, some bottles may surprise you. Keep promising bottles for a few years. Once you find a product with a promise, you’ll appreciate having a vertical on your home bar.
What’s your favorite local bourbon in your area? Let us know in the comments!