It’s been just over a year since I last took a 50-state spirits tour, and the craft-distilling scene has only continued to grow. Hundreds of scrappy brands are churning out booze of all kinds across the country, and, often, the best part of exploring is getting to taste the weird stuff: the limited editions, regional specialties and one-off flights of fancy that taste like nothing else in the world.
With that in mind, here’s a survey of the strangest spirit made in every state in the Union. From an obscure root-flavored liqueur native to Hawaii to a maple-syrup spirit distilled in Maine, there are all kinds of unusual flavors to be found here.
John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey ($43)
The first whiskey made legally in Alabama in a century, this spirit starts as malted barley that’s smoked with peach and pecan woods for a uniquely Southern-barbecue note. The John Emerald Distilling Company that creates it is a craft-spirits pioneer in the state, also making a gin, a vodka and two rums with ingredients local to small-town Opelika.
Fairbanks Sourdough Rum ($38)
Alaska has a long history with sourdough bread: Early settlers earned the nickname “sourdoughs” because they used to carry sourdough starter with them at all times to keep it warm. This rum from Ursa Major Distilling takes that to heart by fermenting turbinado sugar using a 60-year-old sourdough starter, which contains yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol, as well as bacteria that contribute some of the funkier flavors typical of cachaça. (The yeast that makes bread rise is the same as the yeast that makes booze, after all). It’s also the only rum distilled in The Last Frontier.
Sonora Silver ($42)
Like any other fruit, the prickly pears that grow on cacti in the Arizona desert can be made into alcohol. This unique spirit by Tucson’s Three Wells Distilling combines prickly pear and sugar cane, distilling the pair into something that’s sort of a hybrid between rum and eau de vie. Try it in a Daiquiri, Margarita or even a Sidecar.
Rock Town Sorghum Bourbon ($40)
Bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, but the other part of the mashbill—called the “flavor grain”—can legally be just about anything. Little Rock’s Rock Town Distillery celebrates that with its Flavor Grain Series of bourbons that highlight the importance of these other grains. This edition uses 30 percent Arkansas-grown red sorghum, which contributes sweet molasses or rum-like notes.
Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey ($79)
There’s no shortage of innovative craft distillers in California making some pretty out-there spirits, but the flavor of this whiskey from Charbay in the Napa Valley is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s made by distilling the super-hoppy Racer 5 IPA from Sonoma County’s Bear Republic Brewing Co., and the citrusy, vegetal notes of the beer come through loud and clear in the finished whiskey. Definitely a drink for lovers of West Coast hops.
Golden Moon Ex Gratia ($56)
Based on a description of a spirit found in an executioner’s notebook from the 1580s, Ex Gratia is Golden Moon Distillery’s take on genepi, an herbal and floral liqueur that originated in the European Alps. It’s made using a wide variety of exotic plants and flowers for a massively complex flavor.
Wild Moon Birch Liqueur ($22)
The name of Hartford Flavor gives away the company’s penchant for flavored liqueurs: The Wild Moon line includes six different varieties. Of those, this one is the most uniquely New England, with root-beer-like flavor and an aroma straight out of a walk in the Northeastern woods. It goes especially nicely with whiskey; try it as the sweetener in an Old Fashioned.
Off the Hoof Scrapple Flavored Vodka ($20)
If you’re not from the Mid-Atlantic region, an explanation first: Scrapple is a sort of meatloaf-ish dish beloved from Pennsylvania to Virginia, made by cooking cornmeal with organ meats and other scraps left over from butchering a pig. Each batch of this vodka from Painted Stave Distilling in the town of Smyrna is distilled with 10 pounds of scrapple, fresh apples, herbs and spices. It’s undisputedly meaty-tasting, so a Bloody Mary is an obvious choice, but the distillers also recommend it with grapefruit juice and a pinch of salt in a cocktail called the (wait for it…) Salty Hog.
Wicked Dolphin Strawberry Rumshine ($24)
If you’re building a distillery on Florida’s coast, rum is an obvious choice, and Wicked Dolphin does indeed make a variety of rums. But it also bottles the more unique Rumshine, a 100-proof mix of the house spirit with fresh local fruit. The strawberry edition is especially impressive, with a deep tart sweetness and lovely crimson color that comes entirely from the fruit floating in the jar.
Lazy Guy Lotoko Spirits ($35)
Kennesaw’s Lazy Guy Distillery usually makes whiskey, but when a supplier reached out to say it had a bunch of cassava starch (AKA tapioca) and nothing to do with it, master distiller Mark Allen was intrigued. He did some research and discovered lotoko, a moonshine made from cassava in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fruity and nutty spirit that resulted is, as far as Allen knows, the only lotoko ever made in the US. It’s a true one-of-a-kind bottling, available only at the distillery and only until the current batch runs out.
Maui ‘Okolehao ($38)
The starchy root of the ti plant has been a staple of the Polynesian diet for centuries, and ancient Hawaiian natives also fermented it into a beer-like beverage. After European sailors brought distillation to the island, the Hawaiians began distilling that into the rum-like ‘okolehao. Today, Hawaii’s oldest craft distillery, Haleakala Distillers, carries on the tradition with this liqueur made from ti root.
Up North Barrel Finished Honey Spirits ($26)
This unique spirit shares many of the mellow vanilla-and-oak notes of a bourbon, but don’t call it whiskey: It’s distilled from honey and not grain. Just outside of Coeur d’Alene, Up North Distillery turns local honey into high-alcohol mead before distilling and aging in a former bourbon barrel.
R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Bësk ($35)
Chicago is home to a large Swedish community, and an extremely bitter herbal liqueur from that country called malört bësk (it’s Swedish for “wormwood brandy”) is an unexpectedly popular drink in the Windy City. Local distillery Letherbee makes this version of the favorite, and it’s certainly not for everyone: The distillery itself calls it “violently bitter.” But if you can handle all the grapefruit, wormwood and gentian in this concoction, you’ll find it a lovely digestif.
Songbird Flora Liqueur ($25)
A sip of this boozy treat is like a walk through a botanic garden in full bloom. It’s made by innovative distiller Cardinal Spirits with raspberries, elderflower, jasmine and hibiscus, and sweetened with agave nectar for a complex but light-bodied spirit that can pair with just about anything you throw at it. Plus, the label is gorgeous.
Stone Fence Apple Cider Whiskey ($18)
Normally, distillers cut their whiskey down to bottling proof by simply adding water. Instead, this bottling uses fresh cider from a local orchard, creating a pre-bottled version of the Stone Fence, a cocktail combining aged spirits of any kind with cider that’s been popular since the early 1800s. The Mississippi River Distilling Company also found a fun local connection: The Stone Fence was allegedly the favorite cocktail of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was born in its hometown of Le Claire.
Reunion Straight Rye Whiskey ($42)
Rye whiskey is almost always made from a mashbill that includes barley, corn and other grains, whose sweeter and mellower flavors help to reign in rye’s spiciness. Union Horse Distilling eschews that moderating influence for this whiskey, which is made from 100 percent rye grain. As you might expect, it’s powerfully spicy, but years in American oak lend it nice butterscotch and caramel notes.
Copper & Kings 3 Marlenas Tequila Barrel Aged Apple Brandy ($40 for 375 mL)
Iconoclastic new Louisville distillery Copper & Kings is really making a statement by producing brandy right in the heart of bourbon country. And this limited edition is especially off the wall, aging apple brandy in ex-tequila barrels. The extremely complex spirit has notes of grassy agave, whiskey-like oak and tart fruit. (In truth, 3 Marlenas is not technically distilled in Kentucky—the brand is using a mix of brandies distilled elsewhere while its own stocks sit in barrels—but it was aged and bottled there).
Toulouse Red Absinthe Rouge ($60)
Atelier Vie is dedicated to creating spirits that fit the tastes of its New Orleans home, so absinthe was an obvious choice. In 2012, Toulouse Red became the first Crescent City-distilled absinthe in the century since the “green fairy” was banned in the US. It’s distilled with all the traditional licorice-y herbs, but what makes it extra-strange is the crimson color, which comes from a post-distillation infusion with additional botanicals, including hibiscus.
Knotted Maple ($36)
There are a fair number of bottles sweetened or flavored with maple, but this, made by the appropriately named Tree Spirits, is one of a very few actually distilled from pure maple syrup. It’s quite similar to rum, but with hints of maple, of course, as well as brandy-like fruit notes.
Charles Street Apple Brandy ($35)
Take a bunch of apples, crush ‘em for juice, then smoke the leftover peels and seeds with cherry and oak. Next, pour the juice back over the smoked apple, let it ferment, and distill into brandy. That’s how you get this one-of-a-kind specialty of the (inaptly named) Baltimore Whiskey Company. It’s also distilled at very low proof, a method inspired by mezcal that lets even more smoky flavor through the still than could make it at the traditional higher proof.
Lawley’s Dark New England Spirit ($35)
This is essentially a rum, but the Man won’t let Boston Harbor Distillery call it that. Why not? It’s distilled from maple syrup as well as molasses, and rum must originate from 100 percent sugar cane. Don’t let that stop you from using this remarkably sweet spirit in a tiki drink or other tropical libations.
Spunkin Punkin Pumpkin Spice ($30)
Bier Distillery just outside Grand Rapids might have created the most autumnal spirit possible with this concoction. It’s a whiskey distilled from malted barley, then redistilled with fresh pumpkin and a blend of spices. Because of this, it acquires very different flavors than an infusion: There’s almost no sweetness, with nice vegetal notes and of course lots of spice.
Bent Anchor Poitin ($28)
When Bent Brewstillery owner Bartley Blume heard that his friends at The Anchor, a Minneapolis favorite fish-and-chip shop, were paying somebody to collect and compost their potato peelings, he decided save them a little dough by taking them himself, and fermenting and distilling them into this version of Irish-style moonshine.
Hoodoo Chicory Liqueur ($35)
Chicory is a plant in the dandelion family whose roasted and ground roots have been used as a coffee substitute in New Orleans and the surrounding region since the Civil War. Jackson’s Cathead Distillery takes the tradition a step further with this creative chicory spirit, which ages in bourbon barrels for two months and is sweetened with Louisiana cane sugar. It’s earthy and fruity and like a coffee liqueur—but not quite the same.
Downhome Sweetwater Pumpkin Cheesecake Vodka ($20)
This sounds like the kind of flavor a giant global conglomerate might come up with, but it comes from Crown Valley, a combination brewery, winery and distillery in the tiny Mississippi River town of Ste. Genevieve. It tastes surprisingly like its namesake, with tangy dairy notes and nice pumpkin and spice.
Whistling Andy Coconut Hibiscus Rum ($28)
Neither sugar cane, nor coconut, nor hibiscus will grow in its home of northwest Montana, but Whistling Andy makes this excellent concoction of all three anyway. It’s distilled from blackstrap molasses and raw cane sugar sourced from Colombia, then infused with hibiscus and coconut milk. It’s a rich and tropical rum, and one that makes a very tasty Daiquiri.
Brickway Cinnamon Whisky ($20)
Brickway is a combination brewery and distillery that’s Omaha’s first since Prohibition. It makes a 100-percent-barley whiskey that’s available as a barrel-aged single malt, a clear white whisky and this spirit, which simply steeps the white whisky with cinnamon shavings for a week. No artificial flavors, no sugar, just cinnamon whisky, like it says on the label.
Las Vegas Distillery Sprye Whiskey ($75)
You’ll forgive Las Vegas Distillery for actually being located in Henderson when you taste its products. The distillery—Nevada’s first since Prohibition—makes whiskies from a long list of unusual grains, and I could have picked any one for this list. (I went with this one because I like puns). Sprye is made from a mix of rye and spelt, making it both spicy and sweet.
Von Humboldt’s Natur Wasser Tamarind Cordial ($40)
Inspired by Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, who used tamarind to purify water on his expedition to Latin America at the turn of the 19th century, this cordial from Tamworth Distilling combines the tart seedpod with brown sugar, lemon and house-distilled spirit for a sweet-tangy-nutty treat. It was created in collaboration with Andrea Wulf, who wrote the fascinating Von Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature.
Cooper River Single Run Series Whiskey ($70)
Launched just two years ago, Camden’s Cooper River Distillers started off with a set of rums but last year launched the Single Run Series, a set of whiskies distilled from local craft beers and aged on various types of wood. The current edition was made from Tuckahoe Porter and aged in American oak. It offers the same kinds of dark chocolate and smoky notes as the beer itself, with lots of sweetness from the barrel.
Santa Fe Spirits Atapiño Liqueur ($30 for 375 mL)
For this taste of the Southwest, Santa Fe Spirits packs barrels with locally roasted pine nuts and fills them with its unaged single malt whisky for a couple months, then sweetens the result with sugar and ponderosa pine resin hand-harvested in the mountains above Santa Fe. It’s an absolutely unique spirit that could only be made here—and it’s only available at the distillery tasting room.
Nahmias et Fils Mahia ($37)
For more than a century in its native Morocco, the Nahmias family made mahia, the country’s national spirit distilled from figs. And now, with his company Nahmias et Fils, master distiller David Nahmias has brought the tradition to the Hudson Valley, distilling this spirit using a family recipe from 1900. More than six pounds of figs go into each bottle, which has a light, floral and fruity flavor, not completely unlike pisco.
The Brothers Vilgalys Zaphod Liqueur ($21 for 375 mL)
The Brothers Vigalys started off making kupnikas, an old-school Lithuanian spiced-honey liqueur, but since then it’s branched out into much less traditional territory. Zaphod is one of four new complex liqueurs released last year, and it’s flavored with a mix of starfruit, guava, mint, sage, lemongrass and peppercorns. The tropical sweet-and-savory combo is perfect for a light and summery drink, or just mixed with a nice crisp sparkling wine.
Maple River Aronia Brandy ($13 for 375 mL)
As far as I can tell, North Dakota has just two legal distilleries operating, but there’s a long list of one-of-a-kind spirits coming out of the state thanks to Maple River Distillery, a brandy and cordial specialist that focuses on North Dakota’s native plants. This one is made from aronia, also called chokeberry (not to be confused with chokecherry, which Maple River also distills into brandy). The tart and astringent fruit makes for a refreshingly dry spirit.
Portside Hopped Rum ($25)
I guess it makes sense that at some point Cleveland brewery/distillery Portside would play around with putting hops into its spirits as well as its beers. A number of distilleries have experimented with making hopped whiskies, but what makes this spirit really different is that it’s a rum. Steeped with fresh Centennial and Cascade hops, it acquires pine and grapefruit notes that play well with rum’s inherent funk.
DARK Coffee Liqueur ($22)
With a gin made using green tea from a local shop and this spirit, flavored with Kona coffee from a local artisanal roaster, Prairie Wolf Spirits sounds like the kind of distillery you might find in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—not the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Yet here we are, and here’s this delicious liqueur from Oklahoma with a pure coffee flavor enhanced with sugar, molasses and vanilla.
Clear Creek Douglas Fir Brandy ($50 for 375 mL)
One of the first modern craft distilleries, Clear Creek has been making a variety of European-style brandies since 1985. Styled after an obscure Alsatian brandy called eau de vie de bourgeons de sapin, which is distilled from pine buds, this spirit ferments and distills the buds of Oregon’s state tree, the Douglas fir. (It also steeps the liquid in more buds afterward, giving it a pale green color.) The result tastes like fresh-cut Christmas trees and a springtime walk in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
Landlocked Spiced & Oaked ($49)
Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey calls this spirit “a Western Pennsylvania interpretation of rum.” Landlocked’s not a rum, as it’s distilled from local buckwheat honey, but this version is infused with orange peel, cocoa, vanilla and cinnamon before being aged for two years in a whiskey barrel. It’s ideal for cold weather, with its comforting spice and flavors of minerally honey, maple and molasses.
True Born Gin The Belgian Wheat Act ($30)
Given that it’s often made with botanicals like orange peel and coriander, Belgian wheat beer actually shares a lot in common with gin. Sons of Liberty took that similarity literally for this gin, distilling a Belgian wheat into spirit that it then infuses with classic gin botanicals. The result is a lot like a genever, though with some interesting Belgian-beer funk. It’s the first in a planned series of gins made from craft beer styles.
High Wire Southern Amaro Liqueur ($36)
Though amaro is native to Italy, Charleston’s High Wire Distilling managed to translate the concept to the Lowcounty. This bittersweet digestif uses all sorts of regional specialty ingredients, from mint and S.C.-grown black tea to Dancy tangerines and yaupon holly. It’s a deeply complex addition to a fancy Mint Julep, among many other options.
Sturgis Shine ($28)
The name might make you think it’s a cheap, gimmicky novelty for motorcycle-riding tourists, but Black Hills Dakota Distillery has crafted a unique and unusual product with this spirit. It’s distilled from a mix of South Dakota barley and honey. The honey adds some rum-like sweetness that softens the assertiveness of most white whiskies.
Corsair Grainiac 9-Grain Bourbon ($55)
With its long list of spirits experiments, it’s hard to pick just one spirit from Corsair, which has now expanded into two distilleries in Nashville (with a third just over the border in Bowling Green, Ky.) Grainiac captures distiller Darek Bell’s whole philosophy of using atypical grains to make whiskey: It’s distilled from nine different grains, including corn, barley and rye as well as spelt, quinoa, buckwheat and more.
What would happen if you baked up a fig crumble for dessert and then fermented and distilled it? You’d pretty much get this spirit from Balcones Distilling, which is made from a mix of Mission figs, Texas wildflower honey and turbinado sugar, and then aged in oak for a year. It’s a little bit like rum, a little bit like brandy and mostly like something you’ve never tasted before.
High West Valley Tan Utah Whiskey ($50)
Park City’s High West Distillery is widely known for a variety of whiskies, some distilled in Utah and others sourced from other distilleries while the house-made juice ages. This distillery-exclusive bottling, though, is pure Utah, made from wheat grown in-state (as well as oats and malted barley) and based on mashbills secretly distilled by 19th-century Mormons that they called “valley tan.”
Only spirits distilled in a specific part of Mexico can be called tequila, but that hasn’t stopped a few American distillers from experimenting with agave anyway. This unique bottling from Appalachian Gap is one of them, named in honor of the monarch butterfly, which migrates from Vermont to Mexico each winter. It’s made from an 80/20 mix of agave nectar from Jalisco and maple syrup from Vermont for a subtle grassy tequila-esque flavor.
Øster Vit ($36.50)
Aquavit isn’t that weird of a spirit, but this one from Richmond’s James River Distillery is different. It steeps alcohol with the traditional caraway seed, fennel and orange peel—along with local Rappahannock oyster shells. It’s got a hint of briny flavor that’s a welcome addition to traditional gin cocktails.
Old Ballard Strawberry-Rhubarb Brandy ($35 for 375 mL)
Each spring, Seattle’s Old Ballard Liquor Co. makes a bounce—an old-timey tart fruit liqueur—from fresh local strawberries and rhubarb. This spirit is what happened when they ran the bounce through the still, creating a clear, 120-proof brandy that’s powerfully fruity but not at all tart and with just a hint of sweetness.
Bloomery SweetShine Cremma Lemma ($24)
Started by a pair of limoncello-loving West Virginians on a 12-acre farm in Charles Town, Bloomery SweetShine distills a variety of fruity cordials, made from estate-grown lemons and other ingredients. Cremma Lemma is what they call a “moonshine milkshake,” a creamy and lemony liqueur. Store it in the fridge for a rich and indulgent dessert shot.
Yerlo is a traditional spirit distilled from rice by the Hmong people of Southeast Asia. Lo Artisan Distillery owner Po Lo learned about the liquor from his mother and set out to recreate it in his hometown of Sturgeon Bay, perched on a narrow peninsula in Lake Michigan. The rice ferments slowly over months before distillation, which leads to a lot of floral, earthy and funky complexity in the finished product, a little something like baijiu. (And like baijiu, it’s powerfully strong: 120-proof!)
Koltiska Original Liqueur ($28)
For five generations and more than a century, the Koltiskas have been making a tasty liqueur according to a secret family recipe in the city of Sheridan. In 2001, three members of the family founded a distillery to bring this special liquor to the masses. The recipe remains a closely guarded secret, but it’s sweet and spicy, and goes well with tequila.