At one time, Americans preferred their whiskey to be rye, a spicy, herbal spirit made from a hardy cereal grain that traditionally imparted a pronounced, some might even say bitter, taste of oak. Rye in fact was the basis of many famous, classic drinks, the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac among them.
Then bourbon soon came along, made from corn, sweeter and stronger, and it picked up momentum during Prohibition because it provided people a little more bang for their illicit buck. These days, whiskey of all kinds - whether single-malt, bourbon, rye or new experimentations - is a growing spirit of choice, whether for sipping or mixing, and Northern California is producing many of the best. Here's what to drink next.
Charbay Distillery and Winery: Based in Napa Valley with a distillery in Ukiah, Charbay has been making whiskey for awhile. But its latest contribution to the category is Hop Flavored Whiskey, a uniquely Northern Californian take on deliciousness. Within the lineup are several offerings, including R5, a whiskey distilled with Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA in both clear and aged versions. The clear is spicy-sweet with a showy taste of hops, while the aged, which spent 29 months in French oak, is darker and smoother, the hops more bitter than sweet, yet perfectly defined.
S Whiskey Lot 211A is made with Bear Republic's Big Bear Stout for a serious taste of orange caramel and vanilla spice, perfect for sipping. Charbay's greatest achievement however may be what it calls Whiskey Release III, a whiskey made with 20,000 gallons of Pilsner wherein hops were added just before distillation and once done, the concoction was aged six years in new American white oak and then another eight years in neutral containers. Striking the right balance between floral and spicy, it's a whiskey for committed aficionados and collectors, as only 224 cases were made, serious stuff. Visit charbay.com.
HelloCello & Prohibition Spirits: Beginning with a line of limoncellos, this Sonoma-based distillery launched a second wing of its business called Prohibition Spirits to capture the other great stuff it's been making, including Hooker's House Bourbon. Sourced from Kentucky, the bourbon is brought to California and then aged for a year in old Schug Winery barrels formerly used to age pinot noir. The barrels accentuate the spirit's natural tendency to taste of cherries, a sweetness that's entirely inviting and ready for mixing into a Manhattan. Visit shop.prohibition-spirits.com.
Moylan's/Stillwater Spirits: The same people behind Moylan's beer in Marin have been working with Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma to craft several whiskies, including a rye and a bourbon. The Moylan's Cask Strength Bourbon is aged for a couple years, giving it that smooth vanilla-caramel-coconut hint of sweetness endemic to great bourbon. The Moylan's American Rye is another beast altogether. Also aged two to three years, it's a sip for a more savory tongue, offering peppery spice and smoky oak. The budding distillery also has a Double-Barrel Cask Strength Single-Malt Whiskey (aged in both American white oak bourbon and beer barrels), American Cask Strength Single-Malt and American Single-Malt Whiskey to offer. Visit Facebook.com/MoylansDistilling.
Spirits Works Distillery: The newest entrant to the local distillery scene, based in Sebastopol's Barlow center, Spirits Works makes a Wheat Whiskey from organic wheat grown in California and a Rye Whiskey still aging in oak that will be released sometime in 2015. Everything is made on site. Grains are mixed with hot water to make a mash, which is then fermented and distilled. Batches are small enough to be given individual numbers and tracked. The distillery is getting very well known for its Sloe Gin, but consider its whiskies for sipping and mixing; they'll be famous soon, too. Visit spiritworksdistillery.com.
St. George Spirits: From the great minds behind Hangar One vodkas and St. George Absinthe Verte, among many other offerings, are a single-malt whiskey and a bourbon called Breaking & Entering. The Single-Malt Whiskey is made from roasting two-row barley, then smoking part of the barley that hasn't been roasted over beech and alder wood. Then the whiskey is aged in used Bourbon casks as well as several kinds of barrels, from French oak to those used for port and sherry. Each release of the whiskey is different from the one before, as the distillery blends each bottling from a range of barrels, some of them almost 14 years old, others as young as four. But in every lot (the current is Lot 13), expect a complex intermingling of layered nut and cinnamon-chocolate flavor amid a smooth sultriness.
The Breaking & Entering Bourbon, on the other hand, is pure Kentucky bourbon, not distilled but blended by St. George in Alameda. The goal is to produce a "super bourbon" from 400 barrels of the best of the best. It tastes of the most sublime cherry cola you've ever had. Visit stgeorgespirits.com.
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @vboone.