Forget images of gruff, gun-toting cowboys throwing back inelegant shots of bourbon in saloons. Bourbon has become a gentleman’s game, just as easily be imbibed by those in tuxedos or skinny jeans. Yes, today, young affluent professionals are competing amongst their friends for who can find the most obscure craft bourbons. Hipster bourbon bars are sprouting up from San Francisco to L.A., while artisan distillers all across California are making names for themselves in an industry where names like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey once reigned supreme. Who said bourbon had to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky? Certainly not Californians!
What’s the reason behind the bourbon boom? In part, it is the product of regulation—or lack thereof. “One of the driving forces behind the current boom was state legislation passed during the last decade that distinguished between these sizes,” said TIME. “Prior to 2003 in New York, for example, there was only a Class A distillers license, which allows a business to produce as much hard stuff as they like for a fee of $50,800. Today, there is a Class A-1 license, which allows distillers to annually produce up to 35,000 gallons for $1,450. That kind of discount can make all the difference for a startup trying to open its doors.”
When it comes to small-batch bourbon, passion has always been the No. 1 ingredient. Limited inventory (plus limited funds) may have superseded widespread knowledge. But that is changing.
“A little more than two decades ago, there was no such thing as small-batch bourbon. And yet, it existed all the same,” said Robb Report. “The problem was that no one had yet coined a term that adequately described all those incredibly rich limited-production bourbons that were being made by some of America’s best distillers.
California Born and Bred Bourbons
For a few select California purveyors of small-batch bourbon, this has meant not just being able to do what they love, but also to make a living at it too. Are you an aspiring connoisseur of bourbon and want to discover some of the best local batches? Here’s a taste of the Golden State’s top craft distillers we could find.
Santa Barbara, CA.
With four generations of experience in the distilled spirits business (read: bootlegging during Prohibition), Ian Cutler had a legacy to live up to. The result is Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, Santa Barbara’s first (and only) craft distillery. A showcase for craft spirits using fresh local ingredients, Cutler’s is located in an area of Santa Barbara called the “Funk Zone,” home to some of the Central Coast’s best wineries, restaurants, bars, and breweries. The featured product: Cutler’s 33 Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged for 6 years, and blended on site.
Cyrus Noble Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
San Francisco, CA.
Cyrus Noble Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey is a 90-proof straight bourbon that is aged for five years in “new American white oak barrel casks” in Nelson County, Kentucky. Using the family’s proprietary mashbill recipe (dating back to 1872, when the real Cyrus Noble began blending at the Freiberg-Workum distillery in Lynchberg, Ohio) and craft distilling in small batches in San Francisco yields a bourbon that has been garnering attention and accolades. Their Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey won Triple Gold Medal Awards in the 2012 Micro Liquor Awards, the world’s first spirits competition for small brands selling under 50,000 9-liter cases annually.
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon
San Francisco, CA.
An Award-winning (Gold Medal, WSWA Spirits Competition, 2011, Double Gold Medal at The Fifty Best Tasting Competition in 2012) hand-crafted Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Hirsch’s Small Batch Reserve is aged between four and six years old. Hirsch’s Small Batch Reserve is distilled at Anchor Distilling Company in San Francisco, which was started by Fritz Maytag, a leading force behind the craft beer movement.
St. George Spirits
Calling itself “America’s Original Craft Distillery,” St. George Spirits has been a staple since 1982 in Alameda. The company’s Breaking & Entering (B&E) Bourbon uses Kentucky barrels to blend their spirits in their Alameda distillery, resulting in a finished product that caused GQ Magazine to say, “Forget Kentucky; California is the new pilgrimage.”
Hooker’s House Bourbon
Hooker’s House Bourbon and Rye Whiskey is aged for seven years in Kentucky and then transferred into Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir barrels–a double-barreling process that is said to “give the smoky bourbon a delightful, delicate taste of apricot and cherries.”
Bottled by Prohibition Spirits, Sonoma’s first and only micro-distillery since prohibition, Hooker’s is named after Joseph Hooker, a civil war general and ladies man of sorts (some say this may be the origin of the word “hooker.”
Which small-batch bourbon do you have your eye on? Did we leave any of your favorites out of our list? Let us know in the comments!