In the United States, we are truly #blessed because there are well over 1,000 distilleries in active operation. That means thousands of people from all backgrounds are pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into crafting spirits for us, the average drinkers, to enjoy. With so many distilleries, we are sure of one thing: the U.S. makes some damn delicious potent potables.
Those potables are the reason why The Manual created our first-ever Spirit Awards in 2018 and why we are back this year with our second edition of The Manual Spirit Awards. We want to raise a glass to the people who bust their butts so we can have a good time, and make sure they are recognized for their efforts. The Manual Spirit Awards highlight the best craft liquor made in America.
For this year’s awards, we’re looking at eight categories: Bourbon, Single Malt Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Gin, Vodka, Unaged Rum, Aged Rum, and Liqueur. These categories, we feel, represent the widest swath of American-made spirits. We spent months tasting candidates across the country, from large craft distilleries to mom-and-pop operations discovered during our travels. From those, we narrowed it down to three finalists in each category. Did we try every spirit produced in 2019? No, not by a long shot, sadly. But we promise we tried our very best.
The winners were chosen via a blind tasting, during which they were judged on aroma, palate, and finish. Our focus on smaller craft producers in the U.S. allowed us to highlight spirits that you may not have tried yet. What you will find in The Manual Spirit Awards is a spirited look at the best booze produced in the United States. Are you going to agree with us every time? Probably not. These selections are based on how our panel tasted on a particular day at a particular time. But that is the joy of a spirit. One day, it might taste one way; the next, it may give the drinker an entirely new experience. Cheers to your next drink and to American craft spirits.
Garrison Brothers Distillery Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey
If you ever wanted to pretend you were John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, drinking this whiskey is a good place to start. Although 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, we found (for the second year in a row) our winner outside the Bluegrass State. Located about an hour west of Austin is the tiny community of Hye, Texas (population: 214). It is here in Hye that Texas’ first legal bourbon whiskey was produced. Garrison Brothers Distillery Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey is great as a sipper over a cube (which seems even more necessary under the blazing Texas sun) but it’s also wonderful in a number of cocktails.
Learn more about the Best Bourbon made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Best Single Malt Whiskey
Balcones Distilling Texas Single Malt Whisky
When they say everything’s bigger in Texas, they’re not just talking about hats — they mean whiskeys, too. With so much attention on single malt whiskies from other countries, we love that American producers are finally getting a stage to show off on. What impressed us most about Balcones Distilling Texas Single Malt Whisky was the body. It was full and silky smooth with loads of flavor from the beginning to long after we swallowed. The slight smoky notes complement the malt flavors for a well-rounded whiskey.
Learn more about the Best Single Malt Whiskey made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Best Rye Whiskey
KO Distilling Bare Knuckle Single Barrel Rye
In order to be considered a rye whiskey, the spirit’s mash bill must be at least 51% rye. Bare Knuckle Single Barrel Rye is made with 100% rye sourced from Virginia farms. The rye spice stands out, but this whiskey has plenty of other sweet notes to balance out the profile. Layers of flavors reveal themselves over time (especially with a little bit of water added to really open it up). The whiskey belies its age as well, tasting older than the (roughly) year and a half it is.
Learn more about the Best Rye Whiskey made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry Gin
New York City, New York
A blast of juniper and fresh citrus with an undercurrent of spice and other botanicals make for an utterly mixable gin. Thanks to the botanical bouquet and the distillation method, Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry Gin is, if it had to be reduced to one word, vibrant. If we had three words, it’s “really freaking vibrant.” From the first sip to last, you know for sure that this is a gin that’s been lovingly made to ensure that each of the flavors gets some play in the nose or on the palate.
Learn more about the Best Gin made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Ocean Organic Vodka
Pure, easy-drinking, and certified organic, this vodka is going to have you saying, “Aloha!” and waxing up your surfboard in no time. Ocean Organic Vodka exemplifies a solid, true vodka, which is why it’s the winner for this category. It is easily sippable and doesn’t have an alcohol burn that lesser vodkas tend to have. Made from organic sugarcane and desalinated water drawn from 3,000 feet below the Kona coast, it has the slightest bit of sweetness, creating a smooth spirit.
Learn more about the Best Vodka made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Best Unaged Rum (White Rum)
Iron Fish Distillery Michigan White Rum
A little floral, a little tropical, this white rum from Michigan works great in everything from daiquiris to mojitos and more. Michigan White Rum manages to capture the joy of the Caribbean from (nearly) the shores of Lake Michigan. The addition of honey created another layer of intricacy, adding what we registered as floral notes. These gave a nice counterpoint to the classic nature of the spirit.
Learn more about the Best Unaged Rum, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Best Aged Rum
Boston Harbor Distillery Lawley’s Small Batch Rum
Vanilla, oak, caramel, and hints of rye spice – you don’t need much more than this aged rum to want to crave the high seas. We enjoyed Lawley’s Small Batch Dark Rum for the balance of sweet, tropical flavors with the spice and oak dryness from the rye barrels. It makes for a great sipping rum and a wonderful base for any number of cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned, where an aged rum can work as a substitution.
Learn more about the Best Aged Rum made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Townsend’s Distillery Bluebird Alpine Liqueur
Like standing on top of a mountain with the sun shining down, sipping this liqueur will fill you up with joy as pure as the driven snow. In our inaugural year of the Best Liqueur category in the Spirit Awards, our winner, Townshend’s Distillery’s Bluebird Alpine Liqueur, is a prime example of how much flavor can be packed into a spirit. Bittersweet, it’s meant to be a West Coast take on traditional alpine liqueurs, which were consumed before meals, after meals, or whenever those in the Alps felt like a little pick-me-up.
Learn more about the Best Liqueur made in America, how to enjoy it in a cocktail, and the category’s runners-up here.
Written by Sam Slaughter
Copy editing by Nicole Raney and Jeremy Abrams
Photography by Riley Young and Dan Baker
Video by Riley Young
Art direction and page layout by Genevieve Poblano
Creative team: Will Hawkins and Chris Raymond
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