When you think of “light whiskey,” perhaps diet culture or a soft hue comes to mind – especially if you’re new to the category.

You’re right about its’ vivid golden color. However, there’s nothing remotely “light” in proof or complexity with this style of whiskey. During the 1960s, the popularity of bourbon and rye subsided, and vodka, gin, and imported whisky became the rage among American imbibers. “Many think the ‘light’ in light whiskey has to do with calories. Light whiskey was curated to compete with vodka, gin, and ‘lighter’ whiskeys from Europe,” says Martin Janousek, co-founder of Bespoken Spirits.

As a result, in 1968, the U.S. federal government created the “light whiskey” category to rival foreign competition and cater to the public’s craving for a softer palate. But ultimately, the category never really found much traction. By the early 1980s, light whiskey’s small flame of success was snuffed almost as quickly as it arrived. So, would this bygone spirit become merely an afterthought in America’s rich whiskey history?


In recent years, there’s been a light whiskey revival, piquing the curiosity of bartenders and whiskey lovers alike. So, what’s the qualifier for light whiskey? Janousek adds, “The ‘light’ in light whiskey does not refer to the proof or calories but rather that it is distilled to high ABVs to remove the congeners that lead to a lighter taste and less burn on the palate.” So, light whiskey must be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% ABV) but less than 190 proof (95% ABV), which would classify it as a neutral grain spirit, essentially a vodka. Traditionally, these whiskeys age in used oak barrels or uncharred new casks. Nevertheless, some distilleries capture light whiskey flavor profiles through the maturation process – sans barrels.

Only time will tell if light whiskey’s allure will continue to rise, but for now, we’ll ride the wave. Here are a few company’s making quality light whiskey right now.

10th Street Distillers California Coast Whisky

Vitals: 84 Proof (42% ABV); $40

Two California-made single malts are combined with two light whiskies from an old Seagram distillery in Indiana. The result? California Coast Whisky. The whiskey has a subtle sweet raisin bread nose, a silky mouthfeel of caramel-covered red apple and vanilla, and a pinch of peat. My only wish for this sumptuous pour is a lengthier finish. This light whiskey also makes for the best base in a highball!

“When people taste the California Coast [Whisky], they say it’s reminiscent of a nice summer day drink. It’s not a heavy drink like when you sit down on a cold winter night and enjoy a dram,” states Virag Saksena, co-founder and distiller at 10th Street Distillery. “When you distill a whiskey at such a higher proof point, you get a whiskey that has a much lighter flavor profile, and that allows us to create something easier to drink with approachable flavors.”

Learn More About 10th Street Distillery

Penelope Bourbon Light American Whiskey

Vitals: 128.4 Proof (64.2% ABV); $80

This 13-year-old light whiskey is bottled at cask strength and has a limited release of 31 barrels. As the first of its kind in a series spotlighting a collection of light whiskey barrels, Penelope Bourbon Light American Whiskey was distilled from corn (99% corn mash bill) at MGP in 2008. It’s aged in second-fill oak barrels, resulting in a memorable tasting experience riddled with the aroma of caramelized bananas, a delicious butterscotch-drizzled taste, and a spicy, lingering finish.

Learn More About Penelope Bourbon

Bespoken American Light Whiskey

Vitals: 100 Proof (50% ABV); $49

Bespoken American Light Whiskey is distilled elsewhere but aged at Bespoken’s facilities. “What we call ‘craft maturation’ allows a hand-selected cultivar of Bespoken flavors to erupt within each bottle while using less wood, water, and energy than any whiskey ever has before,” Janousek adds. “Sustainability is at the forefront of what we do. Our process uses less than 3% of the wood, 1% of the energy, and a fraction of the water required by traditional barrel aging.

Simply put, we don’t use barrels, and we also don’t lose 20% of our product to evaporation.” Bespoken American Light Whiskey is a flavorful combo of zesty orange-meets-honey on the nose, followed by a pop of cinnamon and dark chocolate on the palate, with a quick tap of heat on the finish.

Learn More About Bespoken American Whiskey

Austin Light Whiskey 101

Vitals: 101 Proof (50.5% ABV); $45

This award-winning Texas grain-to-glass light whiskey doesn’t disappoint. Ever. Austin 101 is crafted with pure local water, non-GMO Texas white corn, red winter wheat from the Texas panhandle, and Texas-grown barley malted in Fort Worth. Using steam distillation, Austin 101 is made in a three-story high customized column still to create a premium light whiskey. Hints of warm caramel, slightly sweet banana chips, and honeycomb shine through on the palate with the perfect touch of nutty notes. This flavorsome pour finishes with a pinch of sugar cane and spice.

Learn More About Austin Whiskey 101

“Many think the ‘light’ in light whiskey has to do with calories. Light whiskey was curated to compete with vodka, gin, and ‘lighter’ whiskeys from Europe.”

— Martin Janousek, co-founder of Bespoken Spirits

Gabrielle Nicole Pharms is an award-winning journalist covering the world of travel and spirits. Bylines include Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Imbibe, Bourbon Plus, UPROXX, VinePair, and more. Gabrielle was most recently a tasting judge for the 2021 Texas Whiskey Festival. She prefers her whiskey neat, and her electronic music loud. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @gabbynikki.