New Riff Distilling only released its first batch of bourbon last fall, but it’s already making an international impression: The distillery’s single barrel bourbon won Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Now in its 19th year, the competition is the largest of its kind in the world. Over the weekend, more than 40 judges put over 3,000 spirits to the test, and captain judge Fred Minnick gave Forbes readers a look into how the competition played out. His take for 2019? Bourbon dominated.
Based on a series of blind tastings, judges can award spirits with Bronze, Silver or Gold medal distinctions. If an entire panel of judges deems the liquor Gold-worthy, it is awarded the distinction of Double Gold and goes on to compete for the best in its category. Such was the case for New Riff’s single barrel bourbon, which was in the running for Best Single Barrel against the likes of Buffalo Trace distillery’s Elmer T. Lee and E.H. Taylor. The final results will be published in April, but it already looks like we have something of a hometown hero on our hands.
Minnick, who has judged the San Francisco World Spirits Competition since 2012, is a bourbon aficionado. A wine and spirits journalist, he’s the editor in chief of Bourbon + magazine and the author of seven books, including Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey and Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker. He was formerly the lead American whiskey critic for Whiskey Advocate, writes frequent whiskey reviews for Forbes and has written about spirits for an array of publications, including The New York Times. Simply put, the man knows his bourbon, and New Riff has made its impression.
“If New Riff is not on your radar, you need to follow them. They’re one of the most exciting new distilleries in the world,” he writes.
It’s astounding praise for a distillery whose bourbon has been on the shelves for less than six months.
Before it could ever see the light of day, New Riff’s first batch of bourbon spent four years aging in charred oak barrels. It was first sold at the distillery Aug. 1 and all 2,100 bottles sold out before the day’s end. A month later, 2,000 people gathered on the Purple People Bridge for “The World’s Largest Bourbon Toast” to celebrate the official release of the bourbon on the market.
New Riff’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — which the distillery emphasizes for its notes of vanilla, oak, rye spices and dark fruits — is unique in part due to the distillery’s water source. By accident, New Riff discovered a viable water source that was a perfect fit for the distillery under land that owner Ken Lewis had already owned for years. Aided by the limestone of the surrounding hills, the water is filled with minerals that are vital to the production process and has a natural temperature of 58 degrees year-round, an enviable condition that other distilleries have to work hard at achieving through refrigeration. The consistent water source helps give the bourbon the distinct flavor profile that impressed the judges at the World Spirits Competition.
To be sold in stores, every bottle needs to taste the same. But it’s New Riff’s single barrels that really stand out. As the name suggests, every 53-gallon barrel is unique, branching out from the bourbon’s central identity to create a one-of-a-kind spirit. Most distilleries allow restaurants and retailers to purchase their own special barrels, but New Riff allows for individuals to come tour the distillery, taste a few single-barrels and handpick a batch of the award-winning bourbon to take home.