Craft whiskey distillers face a difficult marketplace. The big boys are able to make very good whiskey at very good prices thanks to the massive economy of scale they're able to achieve, paired with decades, or even centuries, of experience.
Therefore, even excellent craft whiskey is often priced out of consumers' consideration when directly competing against major brands. Shoppers have to be willing to take a chance and spend more, meanwhile not always knowing the quality of what they're purchasing. So, as opposed to other affordable whiskey stories, this one for craft whiskey has a higher price cut off of $50, and that cost must be for a full-size 750ml bottle, rather than the 375ml bottles that certain brands sell.
All of this before even broaching the tricky business of defining "craft" whiskey. For these purposes, a craft whiskey producer must distill every last drop of what goes into the bottle—no sourcing or independent bottling. Rather than defining "craft" based on the number of bottles a company releases annually, we're just not including the major brands, and any other producer who does their own distilling is in play. The only caveat is that the brand must be at least partially distributed on a national basis, so that consumers can nab a bottle from an accessible online retailer.
Is this a comprehensive collection? No way. With a minimum of 750 "micro distilleries" operating in the United States according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), and potentially more than 1,000, this is simply a list of some of the most notable. Below, the top affordable American craft whiskeys on the market.
Best Affordable American Craft Whiskeys
1) Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye (80 proof), $39.99: While Catoctin Creek produces gin and brandy, and has released limited editions such as their Kings Mountain single malt (distilled from a beer made by Heritage Brewing), it's their rye whiskey that runs the Purcellville, Virginia distillery's show. Distinctive for being a rare 100 percent rye whiskey, the liquor showcases a light, spicy grain and oak profile. Catoctin Creek is also certified organic and kosher.
2) Colkegan Single Malt (92 proof), $48.99: Sante Fe Spirits offers a lineup of different products which, for whiskey fans, is topped by their Colkegan single malt. The New Mexico distiller makes use of mesquite to smoke its malted barley, and this yields a uniquely smoky, southwestern barbecue-flavored whiskey. By using only 30 percent mesquite-smoked barley, the resulting taste is unmistakable, but yet it's not overwhelming, either.
3) Copper Fox Rye Whiskey (90 proof), $45.99: Virginia's Copper Fox Distillery has one of the more unique setups in the American whiskey scene. The company performs its own floor malting—the traditional Scottish process of turning barley into malted barley—and then smokes its barley with applewood and cherrywood. That barley goes to their Wasmund's single malt, but is also roughly one third of the mash bill of the distillery's rye whiskey. They further age their whiskey, along with those wood chips, in barrels. The result is an unsurprisingly fruity, smoky and malty profile.
4) Corsair Triple Smoke Whiskey (80 proof), $39.99: Corsair, with operations in both Tennessee and Kentucky, is one of the granddaddy's of the experimental American craft distillery scene, and their Triple Smoke is likely the most renowned release. It's a single malt, but the expression includes barley smoked by three different fuel sources: peat, cherrywood, and beechwood. The spirit's profile therefore runs the gamut from smoky to fruity, dry to sweet. From hopped whiskey to quinoa whiskey, and dozens of others, the experiments never stop for Corsair's Darek Bell.
5) Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey (90 proof), $44.99: Dad's Hat—distilled by Pennsylvania's Mountain Laurel Spirits—is made in a traditional Pennsylvania or Monongahela rye style, which essentially means there's no corn in the mash bill. The spirit's three-grain profiles includes a high rye content at 80 percent, along with 15 percent malted barley, and a unique touch of 5 percent malted rye. It's aged briefly and in small barrels, but manages to display well-rounded maturity with a spicy, fruity, and herbal profile.
6) Dry Fly Washington Wheat Whiskey (80 proof), $39.99: Welcome to the world of wheat whiskey, Washington Wheat Whiskey that is, from Washington's Dry Fly Distilling. The distillery is one of several to also appear in Eater's list of 10 distilleries to watch in 10 years, and co-owners Kent Fleischmann and Don Poffenroth produce a whole range of spirits beyond whiskey. For the money, the wheat is where it's at, and this one is made from a 100 percent wheat mash bill, well-aged for three years in full-size barrels. The result is reminiscent of a soft, sweet wheated bourbon, with some oak, spice, and buttery biscuit for good measure.
7) FEW Spirits Bourbon (93 proof), $49.99: Illinois' FEW Spirits produces a lineup of whiskeys—including rye, single malt, and this bourbon, which is perhaps the most highly touted of the bunch. Ranging from spicy to sweet, with a fruity kick, FEW's bourbon works easily on its own or in a cocktail. And last month, founder and distiller Paul Hletko was elected president of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA).
8) Hudson Baby Bourbon (92 proof), $49.99: Tuthilltown Spirits makes an array of whiskeys under the Hudson brand. While the Upstate New York distillery's whiskeys were long only available in 375ml bottles, there are now sold in full 750s, which makes their Baby Bourbon more enticing at this price point. The whiskey is distilled from 100 percent corn mash bill, which makes it a corn whiskey as well as a bourbon, and to no surprise, corn is the dominant note, along with oak and vanillins.
9) Koval Four Grain Whiskey (94 proof), $49.99: Chicago's Koval is known for playing around with unique types of grain either as standalone whiskeys, or as components to a mash bill. Case in point is this, their Four Grain Whiskey, with oat added to the mix of malted barley, rye, and wheat. It's a single barrel release, offering dry wood, along with herbal and grainy notes, plus a background sweetness to smooth things out.
10) New York Distilling Co. Ragtime Rye (90 proof), $44.99: It was a long march for Allen Katz's NY Distilling to release their staple Ragtime Rye. Aged in full-size 53-gallon barrels, Katz patiently allowed the rye to come of age, releasing other products in the interim, such as a barrel-aged gin from the same mash bill. Ragtime is three and a half years old, and is predominately spicy, with touches of black pepper, caramel, and oak.
11) Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey (94 proof), $39.99: Note that it's rare to find Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey for $40, as a bottle usually retails for closer to $60, and wouldn't otherwise make the cut for this piece. If available with this price tag though, it's a must. While not marketed as such, Stranahan's is an American single malt whiskey that's distilled in Colorado, and it offers an oaky profile, with vanilla, some spice and pepper, and notes of brown sugar and chocolate.
12) Wigle Pennsylvania Monongahela Rye Whiskey (84 proof), $45.00: Pittsburgh's Wigle Whiskey produces a diverse and innovative lineup of spirits, from barrel-aged genevers to bourbons and ryes, and flavored whiskeys which are actually worth your time. Many come in at or under the $50 barrier, the trick is simply snagging one before it's sold out. For now, grab a bottle of the Pennsylvania-style rye, made from an organic mash bill including rye, wheat, and malted barley. It's a big, bold and spicy offering.
13) Willett Family Estate 3 Year Rye (112 proof), $44.99: Willett distillery has a cult following in the American whiskey scene, and their 3 year old single cask rye is a great reason why. It's a cask strength whiskey, which is blended from two different ryes: one a high rye, with 74 percent rye in the mash bill, and one just at the rye legal limit with 51 percent rye in the mash bill. This expression is big and bold, spicy and medicinal, but still perfectly sippable, especially on the rocks as the weather warms. While Willett has long been a bottler, their Family Estate ryes are distilled in house at Bardstown, Kentucky, and there's much more on the way.
14) Wyoming Whiskey Bourbon (88 proof), $36.99: Wyoming Whiskey makes one of the top bourbons outside of Kentucky, and it's one of the best kept bourbon secrets anywhere across the country. The wheated bourboon is aged for over five years in full-size barrels, making it one of the more mature craft bourbons out there, with a rich, sweet profile offering caramel and char. This one is priced to move but it's flying under the radar.
Editor: Kat Odell