Traditional vacationers can have their sun-drenched beaches, hikes to iconic landmarks and waterfalls, and pilgrimages to ancient structures. For many spirits enthusiasts, their idea of R and R is touring a beloved distillery, contemplatively gazing at the bubbles rising to the top of a fermenter, admiring a shiny custom-built pot still, hearing about things like yeast strains and batch process, maybe petting the dog or cat, all the while taking in that exhilarating aroma of cooked mash. It’s also a chance to snag a distillery exclusive that can’t be found in the local liquor store or by clicking online.
Visiting the source of a favorite whiskey, gin, brandy, vodka, amaro, liqueur or other fermented product and meeting the creators is always a treat. Besides, some of the most coveted bottles (or at least ways to taste what’s in them) can only be experienced at the source. Here are a few of the choicest bottles from across the United States that can only be purchased on location.
When in Kentucky
You might not be aware, but until recently, Kentucky distilleries were forbidden under state law to sell gift shop exclusives, and even the rarest limited editions were required to also be released to state liquor stores. It wasn’t until 2022, thanks to efforts by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, that House Bill 500 was codified to expand distillery retail options. Because the law is so new, the majority of distilleries haven’t had time to adjust for on-site-only limited edition. So during the coming months, expect to see some precious gems at places like Buffalo Trace and other high profile destinations that aren’t mentioned here. A few Kentucky distilleries are already seizing the opportunity to sell proprietary exclusives, such as the below.
This Newport distillery offers several exclusives in their gift shop — where some bottles can even be custom etched — as well as rare limited releases like the profoundly excellent 2023 Kentucky Single Malt. One of the niftiest site-only offerings is Silver Grove bourbon, which is named for a vintage pre-Prohibition bottling from the 1910s that was originally produced in the neighboring town of Cincinnati, hometown of NR co-founder Jay Erisman. The New Riff Silver Grove Bottled-in-Bond is made from an atypical malty mash bill of 65% corn, 30% malted rye and 5% malted barley, with a label that pays tribute to the apothecary-esque style of the original. A portion of proceeds goes toward the Silver Grove Community Foundation for neighborhood development.
Hands down one of the most gorgeous distillery experiences on the planet is in Loretto, which is a little more than an hour’s drive from Louisville. Maker’s Mark is one of the original destination distilleries, thanks to its 1950s co-founder, Marjorie Samuels, who came up with its iconic red wax bottle top and envisioned artsy campus flourishes such as a circular stained glass window in the fermenting room. Her legacy continues with the Star Hill farm and nature preserve and its high-end farm-to-table dining venue, a dreamy glass installation by Dale Chihuly installed over sleeping barrels and a new (as of 2022) on-site bar at the visitor’s center with more breathtaking glass works by local Kentucky artisans.
Several types of tours can be booked by both whiskey enthusiasts and art lovers alike. Come for the bourbon, stay for outstanding meals and the chance to dip your own bottle in wax in the gift shop (also, don’t sleep on the chocolate truffles). Here, you can snag hard-to-find releases, including the phenomenal new Cellar Aged (the cave cellar is local) and the distillery-only Star Hill Farm “Nature Distilled” Private Select, aged using a combination of staves, including baked American pure, seared French cuvee, Maker’s Mark 46, roasted French mendiant and toasted French spice.
This brazenly brandy-focused Louisville spirits destination has an artsy orange and black-themed rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic that fits right into its hip Butchertown neighborhood. One-offs and collaborations with other boutique producers make any pitstop here worthwhile for rare bottle hunters, plus the labels alone are total showstoppers. Expect to find a rotating selection of limited run single barrel releases of American brandy (grape, apple, peach, pear) with fun finishes like Oloroso sherry, zinfandel, tequila barrel, Port, stout and even a brandy finished in High West rye barrels. They also release some exciting bottlings of barrel finished gins and, yes, they’ve even gotten into the whiskey game with brandy-finished MGP rye.
Preservation is an independent distillery in Bardstown that has been in operation since 1986 producing the Olde St. Nick brand. Visitors to one of the first successful post-Prohibition distilleries in the area — though it sounds like it, this is not a resurrected brand — can come away with two rare cask strength bottlings. Very Olde St. Nick Notorious O.S.N. is a 16-year-old selected from the distillery’s stash of vintage casks. Very Olde St. Nick Straight Outta Bardstown is a 9-year-old bottled at more than 130 proof (it varies by batch).
Collectibles at High Altitudes
One of the premier producers of American single malt is located in the shadow of the Colorado Rockies in Denver. Over the years, they’ve built an astonishingly loyal cult following of ASM enthusiasts from near and far. These Strana-fans are so devout that hundreds of them line up each year on the first Saturday of December to buy the annual Snowflake bottling, which can only be purchased on that day and immediately sells out by late morning. Each bottle is numbered, and people have begun camping out for the lowest bottle number earlier each year, by days, not hours (and it gets cold in Denver at night). The Snowflake line is quite the all-night party, with local bands and food trucks on-site the night before, and a community of whiskey lovers who meet and support one another every year, even as they compete for that top spot. The distillery makes the experience well worthwhile as the line finally snakes to the front, with warming treats at the ready. But even if you visit at other times of the year, there are different limited edition cask-finish releases to take home.
This state-of-the-art Park City distillery adds to the legacy of a surprisingly colorful history of Utah whiskey makers dating back hundreds of years. Book a tour of the facility and learn about the whiskey and the local history, then stay for drinks at the old West-style saloon and/or prix-fixe whiskey pairing dinner at its Nelson Cottage restaurant. No dice finding the 10 Year Anniversary Midwinter Nights Dram Encore in the wild? You might luck out if you visit, and you can find other super limited editions such the famous Bourye, 16 and 21 Year Rocky Mountain Ryes, Campfire Rye Cognac Finish, and other visitors-only treasures. Local weather conditions are always a factor in the winter months, so definitely plan accordingly, book ahead and check for seasonal closing dates.
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Other Distilleries Bottle Hunters Should Have on Their Radar
If you’re a whiskey lover planning a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, the charming Nelson’s Greenbrier distillery is a must for American whiskey enthusiasts. It was founded by brothers Charlie and Andy Nelson and continues a family legacy — a real one, not some made up brand story — of local whiskey making and independent bottling. A few of the bottle shop exclusives include a cask strength version of their flagship Tennessee whiskey, the widely sought after Belle Meade Honey Cask, Black Belle/Nelson Brothers Black Brier imperial stout finish, Nelson Brothers 15 Year Rye and several single barrels. Also, look for a Nelson Brother Calvados finish this year.
On the east coast, whiskey industry veterans Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski have opened a tasting room in their Vergennes, Vermont, headquarters where they bottle whiskeys from top independent American distilleries across the country. The company, which was named the 2023 World Whisky Awards Global Icon of the Year, deals almost exclusively with unique single cask bottlings. These are limited to just a few hundred bottles per release, so by definition, anything tasted and/or purchased at the facility will be a rare opportunity for spirits travelers. A rotating menu of tasting flights ranging from $10 to $25 are available, including tiers that feature some drams that are otherwise sold out in the marketplace. There is even a choose-your-own-adventure tasting package.
While you’re in Vermont, it’s worth making the trip to Montpelier to visit this facility, which is home to its award-winning Barr Hill gin and vodka, made using raw honey from its own apiary and bee conservation center. Not only is the visit rewarded with iconic New England scenery, buzzy education and top-notch hooch, but this year they are offering a chance to purchase Barr Hill Sherry Barrel Tom Cat Gin, part of its on-site-only Distillery Selection Series.
This independent grain-to-bottle distillery produces its own whiskey, gin, vodka and orchard fruit liqueurs (personally, I am huge fan of the Pit-Spitter Rye) and has two locations open to visitors — one in Three Oaks, Michigan, and the other in Valparaiso, Indiana. They have several exclusives on offer, including a 6 Year Farm Rye, bourbon cream and limited edition advent calendars during the holidays. The Valparaiso location has more seasonal one-offs, including Popcorn Bourbon (the town was home to Orville Redenbacher), Popcorn Bourbon Cream and Peppermint Schnapps. Visit the website to learn more about each individual tasting room location.
This distillery located in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the early disruptors in the 2000s American craft spirits movement. They very much live up to their name with a dedication to balancing flavor profiles in products that showcase specialized ingredients and well honed production techniques. Their Jimmy Red Bourbon is based on the corn variety it’s named for and is exceptionally well structured to show off that grain. The distillery is currently selling limited edition Jimmy Red Single Cask Double Oak and a single barrel cask strength.
If wide open space is more your thing, head to Fallon, Nevada, to visit this sprawling farm distillery run by husband and wife team Ashley and Colby Frey, where every product is made using what’s growing in the surrounding fields. While the bourbon and rye are easier to find in the general marketplace, special one-off bottlings made from other grain distillates can only be tasted and obtained on-site, including the Single Grain Series 100% Oat. The distillery is also one of the few places to snag their first American Single Malt — this is a planned annual release that will vary with each bottling, and this one’s a winner right out of the gate — made with malted barley, a portion of which is smoked, and aged 6 to 7 years.
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