Bourbon has a litany of rules that define it. It must be made from at least 51% corn. It must be aged in new, charred oak. It must be higher than 40% ABV and lower than 80%. There are several other standards as defined by U.S. regulations.
One rule that does not apply to bourbon is that it must be made in Kentucky. This is often misunderstood—even vehemently argued—by drinkers who haven’t yet learned the rules, but the fact is that bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, and only in the United States. While Kentucky has been bourbon’s spiritual home for centuries—and remains the leader in bourbon production by a country mile—there are now stellar bourbons coming from every state in the Union. These are some of the best bourbons that are made outside Kentucky.
Beyond The Bluegrass State: Top Bourbons Made Outside Kentucky
George Dickel 13 year old Bottled in Bond Tennessee Whiskey (Distilled in Fall 2005)—94 points, $36
To cut off your first question: yes, Tennessee whiskey is bourbon. Charcoal-filtering before aging softens the edges of this mature whiskey, made at Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. and offered at a remarkable price. A strong peanut aroma leads to a palate heavy on fruit, with notes of marmalade and apples, backed by burnt sugar, toffee, and chocolate-covered almonds. The finish is dry and lightly spicy. This bourbon—errr, Tennessee whiskey—was such a standout, it was named our Whisky of the Year in 2019.
Remus Repeal Reserve Straight Bourbon (Series II)—92 points, $85
Outside of Kentucky and Tennessee, the bulk of bourbon is being produced at Indiana’s MGP Distillery. While most of that liquid ends up being sold to other producers, the company has started to keep some behind, bottling it under the George Remus label. An annual limited release, Remus Repeal Reserve features a different mix of various well-aged, high-rye bourbons each year. The 2018 batch offers a strong nose of caramel and butterscotch with smoky earthiness and an oak-driven palate, while 2019’s Series III release (90 points) has aromas of sassafras, chewing tobacco, and baked apple, with maple syrup, spice, and orchard fruit flavors.
Driftless Glen Bourbon—90 points, $46
This Wisconsin distillery produces all sorts of spirits, but their youthful bourbon is particularly stellar. Aged for a minimum of two years, the nose offers citrus peel, cinnamon, chili powder, and more herbal and earthy notes like dill and freshly-cut grass. The palate is a bit heavy on the cracked corn and very oaky, with hints of berries, walnuts, and chocolate, and it finishes long and silky.
Oppidan Four Grain Straight (Batch 001)—88 points, $35
While bourbon’s mashbill must be a majority corn, the other grains can consist of pretty much anything else. Oppidan Spirits in Illinois opts for an atypical four-grain mashbill, adding 14% wheat, 9% rye, and 9% malted barley. Another youthful offering at only two years old, the nose offers steel-cut oatmeal and vanilla, with notes of strawberry and bubble gum. On the palate, a graininess comes through, with sweetness from the wheat and baking spices from the rye. The finish injects cinnamon, espresso, and drying oak.
Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Blend of Straight Bourbons—88 points, $45
Purple Wine & Spirits bottles this blend of 4 to 12 year old bourbons, which includes liquid sourced from various states, as well as some made at the company’s own Sonoma County distillery. The herbal nose offers spearmint, tea, and leather, while the palate is sweeter, with toasted coconut, honeydew, vanilla, brown sugar, and peaches and cream. The finish brings in oak with a rich mocha note.
Treaty Oak Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon—87 points, $50
This wheated Texas bourbon is made from local heirloom grains in the state’s Hill Country, whose hot, arid climate naturally accelerates maturation. The nose offers sweet corn, bubblegum, bananas, and fresh flowers. The palate leans toward stone fruit and melon, with herbal and spicy notes—parsley, star anise, and white pepper. You’d swear there are some botanicals in there, but, no—as with all bourbons, the flavors come only from the grain, yeast, barrel, and time.