For a spirit that is so universally loved, whiskey isn’t exactly simple or straightforward. The complex flavors and aromas that live in your glass after a good pour are a direct result of the ingredients that go into them — the grains, the char from the barrel, even the water. But for the most part, despite the varying processes and flavor profiles that exist across the world of whiskey, this spirit is generally made with the same ingredients. Rye, corn, and malt barley dominate nearly every mash bill you’ll see from a distillery, in the U.S. and beyond.
But there are some distilleries, small and large alike, that are using alternative grains to shake up the traditional flavor profiles of these age-old spirits. You’ll still find rye, corn, and malt in these whiskeys, but the addition of grains like quinoa and brown rice really make a difference in a whiskey’s flavor profile. The next time you’re at the liquor store, pick up one of these five bottles, and try the difference for yourself.
KOVAL Organic Millet Whiskey
Millet is used in Africa to brew beer and liquor in Nepal, but in Illinois, KOVAL distillery is using one of the world’s most popular grains to distill whiskey. The 80-proof spirit is the first of its kind, and is also distilled using a certified organic process according to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. The resulting whiskey is earthy and full of smoke on the nose, with only a hint of sweetness on the finish. It’s especially sippable with a big cube of ice to round out the edges.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Collection
The standard Jim Beam White Label may not be your choice for an everyday drinking whiskey, but the Kentucky distillery has plenty of craft-style options that are certainly worth a drink. The Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Collection is an assortment of bourbon whiskeys that use a variety of alternative grains, like brown rice, red wheat, barley, and triticale. Each grain adds a distinct set of flavor characteristics to the whiskeys, creating an easy sipper that is unlike any other bourbon. Beam must have foreseen the alternative grain trend coming down the pipe — these whiskeys are bottled at 11 years old.
Corsair Quinoa Whiskey
Quinoa is one of the trendiest grains in the food world, and Tennesee’s Corsair Distillery has managed to find a delicious way to capitalize on this beleagured food craze. The mash bill features mostly malted barley like a scotch, but a heavy sprinkling of quinoa adds a big dose of toasted, nutty flavors. Whiskey made from quinoa is a “love it or hate it” type of spirit, but if you’re into the funky, unfamiliar flavor, you’re going to love Corsair’s expression.
Bernheim Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey
Wheat has been a popular flavor in whiskey for a while, thanks to its significant presence in Pappy Van Winkle, everyone’s favorite pricey whiskey of the moment. Wheat whiskey is softer and less aggressive than even the most mellow bourbon, with plenty of toffee, caramel, and vanilla notes. If you can’t afford to pick up a bottle of Pappy every time you need a stiff drink, a bottle of Bernheim Kentucky Straight Wheat is an excellent, reasonably priced alternative.
Quarter Acre Sorghum Whiskey
Sorghum is a sweet grain often used to, well, sweeten things, and this Tennessee-distilled whiskey has a maple syrup flavor that is really excellent in an Old Fashioned. At only 80 proof, High Wire Distilling’s Quarter Acre Sorghum Whiskey is also easy to sip, with prominent vanilla flavors and plenty of smoke. The recipe is inspired by a famed sorghum cake, so plan to sip this one after a big dinner and call it dessert.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor, a home cook, and a big fan of weird whiskeys of all kinds. Tweet her your favorites @aemccarthy.