The Best Southern Spirits That Aren’t Whiskey

DJ Glisson II, Firefly Imageworks
DJ Glisson II, Firefly Imageworks

The southern U.S. is known the world over for its whiskey—and rightfully so. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, in 2017, American whiskey, which includes bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskeys, generated more than $3.4 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone. (Add to that hundreds of millions of dollars made from exports and you’ll find the American whiskey market is a force to be reckoned with.) A whopping 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, so it’s easy to get hung up on whiskey when you think about Southern distilling. The reality, however, is that there's so much more coming out of the enterprising region than good whiskey, from crisp, clean gin rivalling that of London’s best distilleries to brandies and rums that give traditionalists something new to consider. Of course, you don’t have to be anti-whiskey to enjoy these spirits, you just have to know a good thing when you see it. Here, seven wonderful Southern spirits that successfully buck tradition.

Next to whiskey, vodka is one of the most well known and contentious spirits on the market. Distilleries like Cathead, which is based in Jackson, Mississippi, are helping pull the category out of a deep, dark hole by making spirits that taste good even when they’re not drowned in sweet fruit juices. While Cathead’s traditional vodka is a great neutral option, the distillery’s real star is the honeysuckle-flavored vodka—it’s especially delightful if your childhood was spent plucking fresh honeysuckle flowers from the vine. The flavor is barely there, but the delicate and floral hints you do get are lovely when sipping this spirit over ice.

Like whiskey, brandy is also steeped in American tradition. Though you’re more likely to see fruit brandies made in the U.S. now, on occasion you’ll come across an impressive aged brandy like this offering from Louisville, Kentucky. Upon tasting you’ll get plenty of notes similar to the state’s famous whiskey, but that’s because 90 percent of the brandies blended to make this particular spirit are aged in former bourbon barrels. Underneath those familiar notes, you’ll find an impressively silky mouthfeel and a smattering of vanilla and caramel flavors. Try it in a Sidecar along with the distillery’s own orange curaçao for an interesting take on a classic.

Based in Charleston, South Carolina, High Wire Distilling’s Hat Trick gin is not what you might expect from an average gin: It’s light, citrusy and floral with a touch of cedar. Though it won’t stand out like a London Dry in classic cocktails, this gin works remarkably well in ultra-simple cocktails that allow its flavors to shine, like an Old Fashioned with a dash of orange bitters. If you’d like a little more oomph in your glass, go for the distillery’s Southern Amaro that’s infused with regional ingredients like Charleston black tea, mint and Dancy tangerine. Ultra rich on the nose, this amaro is faintly reminiscent of the region’s famous sweet tea.

Just as Southerners took what they knew about whiskey and made it their own centuries ago, the region is now doing the same with gin—and Virginia’s Catoctin Creek makes a solid contribution with its Watershed Gin. Distilled from rye grain and flavored with a hush-hush blend of herbs and spices, this gin makes a rich and zesty addition to Gin & Tonics or Gimlets. And if you’re able to get your hands on a bottle of the distillery’s special edition Old Tom Style Watershed gins aged in the distillery’s peach or pear brandy barrels, don’t hesitate as it makes a delightful Old Fashioned.

When considering rum, warm Caribbean beaches and Piña Coladas probably come to mind before Belmont, North Carolina. But that’s where Muddy River Distillery makes its lineup of rums, from a classic silver to spiced and coconut. But the Queen Charlotte’s Reserve steals the show, aged for one year in new American white oak barrels. With notes of oak and vanilla and a touch of heat, this rum is easy to sip whichever way you please.

Alabama is known more for its white barbecue sauce than its distilling scene, but don’t let that deter you from trying the wares at Redmont Distilling, based in Birmingham. The distillery offers two core spirits—a vodka distilled from corn and a gin infused with an arsenal of botanicals including cotton, the state’s most famous cash crop. The vodka is as easy to drink on its own as it is in cocktails, so be sure to pick up a bottle to mix a delightfully Southern Martini.

Though this Music City-based distillery has three whiskeys on its roster, the creativity of its team shines in its other offerings, including a gin, a sorghum spirit cheekily named Naked Biscuit and a particularly appealing spiced honey liqueur. Sweetened with a blend of sugar cane and honey, this well-rounded liqueur is also infused with a blend of ginger, lemon peel, cardamom and cinnamon. Try it on the rocks, in a Hot Toddy or alongside your favorite Southern bourbon or rye in a Whiskey Sour.