Whiskey-only bars, tasting flights and $100-plus pours are more common than ever, but to become a real whiskey connoisseur you need to learn the liquor making process from the inside. We rounded up the country’s top 10 whiskey distilleries where you can tour the facilities, learn about mashbills and barrel woods and discover what gives your favorite label its distinct flavor, whether its rye or single malt, blended or bourbon.
1. George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill, Mount Vernon, Va. Our first president likely wet his whistle on some of the whiskey his own distillery produced after its founding in 1797. Restored and reopened in 2006, it now bottles an un-aged white Rye whiskey and a barrel-aged (in charred American oak) whiskey using historically accurate techniques. (For example, it hand-chop logs for wood stoves that heat the stills). Demand outstrips supply here — spirits are on sale just twice a year, with only a few hundred bottles to each batch. Tour the 18th-century distillery year-round.
Stay: The distillery is an easy 16-mile drive from the nation’s capital, and a stay at the luxurious and intimate Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Jefferson Hotel Washington, D.C. will give you a stylish place to retreat to where you can sample even more fine liquors at the cozy Quill bar.
2. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, Lynchburg, Tenn. This Tennessee sippin’ whiskey has been made with the same iron-free cave spring water that Jack Daniel used when he bought his first still at age 13. As one of the oldest registered distilleries — he licensed it in 1866 — it’s also one of the most prolific, with four styles that include the famous Old No. 7 black-labeled bottle. Free tours head out daily every half hour from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, and they take you on an hour-long walk through the nine-acre grounds.
Stay: Experience Southern hospitality at its finest at Five-Star Hermitage Hotel in historic downtown Nashville, 75 miles northwest of the distillery and in the center of the city’s music scene. The hotel can arrange for a private luxury car to transport you to and from Jack Daniel’s.
3. St. George Spirits, Alameda, Calif. Originally founded as an eau de vie (fruit brandy) distillery 30 years ago, St. George now produces two whiskey labels at its location in a former airplane hangar near San Francisco. See the huge collection of copper pots and aging barrels during free tours offered on weekends. In the tasting room, sample St. George Single Malt whiskey, made from roasted and smoked barley spirits, and the well-known Breaking & Entering Bourbon, blended and aged onsite from a selection of Kentucky bourbons.
Stay: The distillery is a quick cab ride across San Francisco Bay from The St. Regis San Francisco. Decorated in sleek creams and dark woods, the Five-Star hotel has contemporary art installations that echo the vibrant museum and shopping districts just beyond its doors.
4. Woodinville Whiskey Co., Woodinville, Wash. This distillery is one of the few bourbon bottlers outside of Kentucky. Its one-ton copper still was engineered in Germany before being hand-assembled in the distillery, and it pumps out rye whiskey for two different styles — the un-aged Headlong White Dog Whiskey and the Microbarreled Bourbon Whiskey aged in American oak barrels. No reservations are needed for free tours at 4 p.m. Friday to Sunday, and the tasting room offers free tastings from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday.
Stay: About 20 miles southwest of Woodinville is downtown Seattle’s The Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The Four-Star hotel has unique 1920’s Italian Renaissance architecture and top-notch service just a stroll away from Pike Place Market.
5. High West Distillery & Saloon, Park City, Utah. You can practically ski right into the tasting rooms in the restored mining-era home in Old Town Park City, located just blocks from some of Park City Resort’s ski runs. A 250-gallon copper pot is visible from the street through floor-to-ceiling windows, and here you can learn how whiskey is made in small batches before sampling a few of the 12 labels offered, including a barrel-aged Manhattan called The 36th Vote (in honor of Utah’s role in repealing Prohibition). Whiskeys run the gamut from 12-year old barrel-aged ryes to un-aged western oat “silver whiskeys.” Free afternoon tours are available daily by reservation.
Stay: The Five-Star Stein Eriksen Lodge is two miles away in the luxury resort community of Deer Valley. The clubby-classic wood décor, majestic fireplaces, heated sidewalks and outdoor activities keep the mountain magic alive year round.
6. Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Ky. All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbons: A trip to Buffalo Trace in Kentucky’s Bourbon County will help you decode this riddle once and for all (hint: bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn). Its century-old warehouses are open for free hourly tours Monday through Saturday, winding through the reportedly haunted distillery and barrel-aging facility before finishing up with tastes of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and chocolate bourbon balls. Take it up a notch (but be prepared to pay) with tastes of aged Pappy Van Winkle or George T. Stagg, also bottled here.
Stay: The 90-room 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville doubles as a contemporary art museum and cultural center in the heart of the historic downtown, about 55 miles west of Buffalo Trace.
7. Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Ky. One of the smallest and oldest working bourbon distilleries in the country (the facility is a National Historic Landmark), Woodford Reserve handcrafts a few different bourbon labels, most notably its Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Double Oaked. Choose from tours that focus alternately on the bourbon-making process, site landmarks or the general distillery workings — they all end with a taste of the beloved brown spirit. Passionate consumers can work with a distiller to select entire barrels, purchasing personalized microbatches that can be bottled and brought home when mature.
Stay: Combine a visit to Woodford Reserve with one to Buffalo Trace (about 11 miles north) for a fun, whiskey-filled day trip. Be sure to try 21c Museum Hotel’s restaurant, Proof on Main.
8. Balcones Distillery, Waco, Texas If the idea of whiskey made from 100 percent roasted blue corn intrigues you, visit the Balcones Distillery and try to decipher its super-secret method of smoking liquid whiskey. Founder and head distiller Chip Tate’s crafted and installed the copper still onsite in 2009, and a factory tour gets you an up-close look at every step of the double distillation and aging process. Round off your tour with a sampling of lightly aged Baby Blue and the rich True Blue corn whiskey in the barrel-lined tasting room.
Stay: Book a suite at the Four-Star Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, about 100 miles north of the distillery, to mimic the measured pace of Balcones’ deliberate methodology. Located in a charming residential neighborhood along a winding, wooded creek, the hotel boasts elegant Italianate architecture and a gracious, welcoming staff.
9. RoughStock Distillery, Bozemon, Mont. This distillery uses local water from mountain-fed streams and Montana-grown wheat, barley and corn to produce its five labels, including un-aged sweet corn white whiskey and a barley whiskey bottled at cask strength (undiluted after barrel aging). Tours of Roughstock are half-day volunteer “bottling parties,” where visitors are put to work filling and labeling bottles before hitting the tasting room. Plan ahead, as the working tours are only offered three Saturdays a month.
Stay: Make a day trip to the distillery from the ultimate glamping destination, The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Mont., a hilly retreat on the Blackfoot River that offers upscale safari-style tent camping from May though September.
10. Tuthilltown Spirits, Gardiner, New York. As one of very few whiskey distilleries in the state, Tuthilltown made a splash when it produced New York’s first bourbon in 2006 — Hudson Baby Bourbon, a 100 percent corn, single-grain spirit that’s aged in oak barrels. Here you can taste five different labels including an aged rye, a white dog whiskey and a four-grain bourbon. Visit the 220-year-old gristmill on Friday through Sunday for tours to see batches labeled by hand, or visit in fall when harvest season sends distillerymen out into nearby rye fields.
Stay: Nestled in the Catskills, Emerson Resort & Spa in Mount Tremper — 35 miles north of Tuthilltown — is a country retreat that puts visitors in the center of a thriving summer art festival scene.
One to watch: WhistlePig Farm, Shoreham, Vt. While not yet an actual distillery, this restored Vermont farm is where hand-selected whiskey blends become WhistlePig Straight Rye under the direction of master distiller Dave Pickerell (he honed his craft at Maker’s Mark). WhistlePig Farm is growing high-quality grain for future blends and storing both oak and used bourbon barrels full of 100 percent rye spirits — aged for 10 years before bottling — for its 100 proof rye. Tours are scheduled to start up this fall.
Stay: The countryside takes a starring role during a stay at Five-Star Twin Farms in Barnard, Vt., with secluded private cabins decorated in different themes, from Moroccan to Scandinavian. From here, it’s a picturesque 60-mile drive on bucolic mountain roads to WhistlePig Farm.
Photos courtesy of Jack Daniel Distillery, Woodinville Whiskey Co. and Woodford Reserve.