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American whiskey is exciting, and it keeps getting better. From brands that have been around for decades to the many craft distilleries firing up stills across the country, there is a great selection of whiskey produced in the U.S.
American whiskey styles typically stick with bourbon, rye whiskey, and blends, though there are some experimental whiskeys worth checking out. Some of these recommendations are old favorites, a few are new finds, and others are limited releases to look forward to each year. Whether you're going to sip them straight or want to mix up great whiskey cocktails, all are sure to tantalize your taste buds and offer a glimpse into what's happening in the American whiskey scene.
Read on to see our top picks for the best American whiskeys on the market.
Best Bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
By law, bourbon must be made in the U.S. and it’s called America’s Native Spirit. There are many well-known names in bourbon, and it’s fun to explore all the different brands. One that receives acclaim from whiskey drinkers of all tastes is Elijah Craig Small Batch. It’s a perfect representation of this whiskey style and is reasonably priced so it can become a regular in anyone’s liquor cabinet.
Named for a reverend who was also among the pioneering bourbon distillers, it is produced by Heaven Hill Distillery in the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon country. This 94-proof whiskey is aged between eight and 12 years. It is impeccably smooth and holds delicious notes of vanilla and caramel with a woody spice. The long finish is toasty and perfectly sweet, which brings you back for another sip. As impressive as it is straight, Elijah Craig also makes some fine bourbon cocktails.
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Mint, nutmeg, smoke
Best Budget: Old Forester 86 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
While premium whiskey can burn a hole in your wallet, cheap whiskey can char your taste buds and throat. When you’re looking for value whiskeys, it’s important to choose wisely. One sound choice is the flagship bottle from Old Forester Bourbon. While the Kentucky distillery has a portfolio filled with great high-priced bourbons, this 86-proof expression is budget-friendly and reliable.
Not only is this the most popular bottle of Old Forester, but it’s also the oldest. It has not changed since it was introduced in 1870 and even survived Prohibition, which temporarily shut down or completely wiped out many distilleries. It has a classic bourbon character with a big punch that softens into an oaky sweetness and finishes off with a blend of spice and vanilla. It’s mixable and casual, and simply a nice everyday whiskey.
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Oak, spice, vanilla
Best Rye: Bulleit 95 Rye Whiskey
Bulleit is called "Frontier Whiskey," and it does have a rustic charm. At 17 percent, the Kentucky distillery’s bourbon has more rye than most bourbons would dare to include in their mash bill. While that’s a nice whiskey, when you really want the spice of a straight rye whiskey, Bulleit Rye is the bottle to pick up.
This whiskey is distilled from a mash bill that is 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley. Bottled at 90 proof (45 percent alcohol by volume), it’s stronger than the average whiskey, and that also makes it more flavorful. Rye is a spicy grain, a fact made apparent at the beginning of each sip. That leads into subtly sweet vanilla and honey notes before finishing off with a crisp, long bouquet of flavors. It’s priced competitively with other premium whiskeys, which makes it an ideal choice for classic rye whiskey cocktails, like the famous Sazerac.
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Wood, toffee, apricot
Best Tennessee: George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey
There are two large distillers that produce the majority of Tennessee whiskey. While Jack Daniels is the most famous, George Dickel produces some whiskeys worth noting as well. At the top of the distillery’s portfolio is the Barrel Select expression, and it is a wonder to behold.
Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon, though it’s unique in that it uses the Lincoln County Process of charcoal mellowing the whiskey. For each small batch of Barrel Select, individual barrels of ten- to 12-year-old whiskeys are chosen from the distillery’s stockpile. These “best-of-the-best” whiskeys are then blended to create a smooth, rich, 86-proof whiskey with notes of vanilla, spice, and that signature charcoal taste that makes it uniquely Tennessee whiskey. Not unreasonably priced considering its prestige, this is a great value among sipping whiskeys.
Region: Tennessee | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Almond, baking spice, saline
Best Single Malt: McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey
Small batch whiskeys are interesting to explore because each distiller puts their own twist on tradition. A great model of that comes from Hood River Distillers in Oregon, and they offer a shining example of single malt whiskey. In fact, they were among the first craft distilleries in the U.S. to take on the challenge.
McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt Whiskey is a pot-stilled whiskey made of peat malted barley imported from Scotland. It has a great smoky flavor reminiscent of the scotches from the island of Islay, but cannot be called scotch, because it’s made in the U.S. Aging the whiskey in Oregon oak casks imparts warm honey and buttery notes that make it friendly to all palates. Enjoy this one as-is, but also give it a shot with sweet vermouth in the Rob Roy cocktail.
Region: Oregon | ABV: 42.5% | Tasting Notes: Warm honey, peat, dried fruit
Best Blended: TX Blended Whiskey
Distilling good whiskey takes skill and craftsmanship; blending good whiskey takes an artist’s touch. Famous among Irish, Scotch, and Canadian whiskeys, master blenders must transform multiple types of whiskeys of various flavor profiles into one cohesive beverage that drinkers will enjoy. Then, they have to do it again and again to replicate that taste in every subsequent bottle. It is far more difficult than consumers think, so when you get a taste of something like TX Blended Whiskey, there is a chance to respect the artistry.
Produced by Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, it took two years for the team to come up with the right combination for their 82-proof blend. It is wonderfully complex. The nose is filled with vanilla, oak, and pear, while the palate has a delicious honey, banana, and caramel profile. It’s smooth but bold and will not get covered up by any mixer, making it an ideal whiskey cocktail foundation.
Region: Texas | ABV: 41% | Tasting Notes: Honey, banana, caramel
Best Flavored: Leopold Bros. New York Apple Whiskey
For much of the latter 20th century, flavored whiskeys left a lot to be desired. Often filled with unnatural flavors and coloring agents, many were also sweetened, producing more of a liqueur than a true whiskey. Craft distilleries are returning to the old-fashioned ways and are producing fabulously flavored whiskeys. A leader among them is the Denver, Colorado distillery of Leopold Bros.
The New York Apple Whiskey is a full-proof blast from the past that is well-crafted. Using the distillery’s base whiskey, tart apples from New York State are juiced and blended into the whiskey, then aged in former bourbon barrels. The result is a small batch of apple whiskey with delicious oak, vanilla, and raisin notes. It’s the perfect choice when you’re exploring recipes in old bartending guides that so often feature apple whiskey.
Region: Denver | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Oak, vanilla, raisin
Best for Sipping: Wild Turkey Longbranch Bourbon Whiskey
Whether you’re a whiskey enthusiast or just learning to love the dark spirit, Wild Turkey Longbranch is one you’ll want to experience. Designed to be extra smooth, it’s perfect straight or on the rocks, and could easily become a regular fixture in your favorite whiskey glass.
Playing off the great Kentucky straight bourbons that Wild Turkey is known for, this unique whiskey is a collaboration between master distiller Eddie Russell and Matthew McConaughey. It’s the finish that makes it special: the eight-year-old whiskey is filtered through both oak and Texas mesquite charcoal to give it a smooth, rounded edge. It’s a whiskey that will appeal to anyone and is available at the average price for premium whiskey, which makes it a great value, too.
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Nutmeg, oak, smoke
What to Look for in American Whiskeys
While American whiskey all falls under one broader category, within the country, styles can vary wildly. One of the best ways to grasp the final flavor profile of a spirit is the mashbill. Higher corn content will give a sweeter profile, while more rye in the mashbill will result in a big burst of spice. Wheat will round out all of the above and soften any harsh flavors. Learn more about the various whiskey styles in our comprehensive guide.
Consider the age statement on the bottle: the time between the whiskey is poured into the barrel to the time it is removed and bottled. The longer a spirit spends sleeping in wood, the more the wood will coax out flavors that aren’t immediately present after the distillation process. With American whiskey, an age statement isn’t always required—it’s only required for liquid under four years old—but that hasn’t stopped a number of producers from releasing excellent aged whiskeys. Lucky Seven offers excellent 12-year-old Kentucky bourbon, while Widow Jane’s 10-year-old Brooklyn whiskey is aged in rare casks.
The American whiskey category is already incredibly diverse before you consider words like "single barrel," "bottled-in-bond," and "cask strength." Typically, the whiskey you find on your shelves will be diluted with pure water to lower the proof—whiskey right out of the cask is fiery. A bottle labeled "cask-strength" is bottled at the same ABV that it came out of the barrel at. "Single barrel" whiskeys come from just one barrel.
"Bottled-in-bond" is a rigorous label to achieve. The spirit must be made by one distiller at one distillery in a single season. It must be then aged for at least four years and bottled at precisely 100 proof (50 percent ABV). Beyond these, look for special cask finishes, limited releases, and other unique offerings from your favorite distilleries.
How is American whiskey made?
The United States legally requires all American whiskey to be a product of a fermented mash of grain. From there, American whiskeys are typically made by blending corn, rye, wheat, or barley, distilling the mixture, and aging it in charred oak barrels. The spirit must be distilled to less than 95 percent ABV, bottled at a minimum of 40 percent ABV, and “possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey.”
Beyond that, each style of American whiskey has its unique characteristics and laws. Bourbon whiskey must be at least 51 percent corn (learn more about bourbon here) and aged in new oak, while Tennessee is essentially bourbon made in Tennessee that undergoes the Lincoln County Process.
What is the difference between Irish and American whiskey?
Let’s start with the obvious difference: one is made in Ireland and the other in America. Besides that, the main difference is the ingredients. Irish whiskey is primarily made with a base of barley, while American whiskey can be made with rye, wheat, corn, or barley. American whiskey is aged for at least two years, while Irish whiskey sits for at least three.
What is American blended whiskey?
American blended whiskey is slightly different from other blended whiskeys across the world. Under the country’s rules, "blended whiskey" must contain at least 20 percent straight whiskey, though the remaining liquid can be either whiskey or neutral spirits, such as vodka.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Colleen Graham is a food and beverage writer with over a decade of experience writing about cocktails, beer, and wine. She is the author of two books—“Rosé Made Me Do It” and “Tequila: Cocktails With a Kick.” She has toured a number of whiskey distilleries to get a first-hand look behind the scenes and talked to experts who craft great whiskey.
Kate Dingwall, who updated this article, is a freelance writer whose work focuses on food, drinks, and travel. She is based in Toronto and holds a Wine & Spirits Education Trust Level III qualification.