Bourbon is a drink with a rich history and a complex flavor profile, unmatched by any other spirit. While there is no single “correct” way to enjoy it, there are definitely ways to enhance your drinking experience. Skillful craftsmanship involved in the production of this Bourbon has resulted in a unique flavor and rich heritage, setting it apart from any other spirit in your liquor collection.
Kentucky, the state where Bourbon originated, is responsible for 95% of the world’s supply. Unlike other alcoholic beverages, a company cannot label its product as “Bourbon” unless it meets every requirement of the strict production process. This rigorous process guarantees a consistently smooth and high-quality drink every time.
- How is Bourbon made?
- 1. Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon
- 2. Knob Creek 9-Year-Old
- 3. Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-Year Family Reserve:
- 4. Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
- 5. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
- 6. Old Forester Classic 86 Proof Bourbon
- 7. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
- 8. 1792 Single Barrel Reserve
- 9. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea
- 10. Blanton’s Single Barrel
- 11. Maker’s Mark
- 12. Old Grand Dad 114 Proof
- 13. Jim Beam Black Extra Aged
- 14. Bulleit
- 15. Woodford Reserve Baccarat
- What’s the difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?
- Terminology: The terms to know when talking about Bourbon
How is Bourbon made?
To start the process of making Bourbon, the distiller first needs to determine the mash bill, which is the specific blend of grains used to create the whiskey.
For the whiskey to be considered Bourbon, it must contain at least 51% corn, while the remaining ingredients typically include a mix of rye, wheat, and malted barley. After the grains are coarsely ground and mixed with water, the mixture is heated to break down the grain structure, which produces fermentable sugars. Next, the mixture is pumped into a fermentation vat with yeast and, in some cases, a sour mash mix. The mash is then distilled, usually twice, to remove impurities and increase the alcohol content of the liquid.
The aging process is arguably the most important step in Bourbon production. For it to be considered “straight whiskey,” the spirit must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Whiskey that has not been aged for this long is known as “white dog” and has a sharp taste and a pale, almost clear color. To prepare the oak barrels, they are carefully selected and first stripped before being left to weather for six months. This process removes bitter tannins and allows for a smoother flavor profile once the mixture is added. The barrels are then charred to create a smoky environment that adds depth and complexity to the liquid, resulting in the rich and complex flavors of Bourbon.
You don’t have to break the bank to enjoy great Bourbon, as there are many lesser-known bottles that offer exceptional quality at surprising price points. However, with so many brands, distilleries, proofs, and ages to choose from, finding the perfect Bourbon can be daunting.
We have put together a meticulously curated list of the best Bourbons currently available on the market. From the smoothest sips to the most luxurious premium bottles and budget-friendly options, we have everything you need to know to make an informed purchase for your next bottle.
1. Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon
Four Roses have a long history, dating back to 1888, and managed to survive the Prohibition era before disappearing from the market for 40 years. Today, it is a beloved brand among bourbon enthusiasts who appreciate it served neat or on the rocks for the ultimate experience. In recent years, Four Roses have won numerous taste competitions and have become a versatile spirit that can be enjoyed in many ways.
With notes of caramel, vanilla, raisins, and a hint of charred oak, this premium Single Barrel offers a complex taste that you’ll want to savor again and again. It boasts a floral, spicy, woody, and fruity aroma and a lingering finish. The whisky has a rich, surprisingly smooth flavor and a delicate, protracted finish that is remarkably mellow.
2. Knob Creek 9-Year-Old
Knob Creek’s 9-Year-Old bourbon is a perfectly balanced blend of spiciness and sweetness that delivers a solid punch in every sip. Distilled in a traditional style and named after the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in Kentucky, this nine-year-aged bourbon is a popular choice for its friendly price point.
With its nutty undertones, swirling caramel notes, and a respectable 100-proof, Knob Creek’s 9-Year-Old bourbon is simple yet thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a popular choice for both novice and expert bourbon drinkers.
3. Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-Year Family Reserve:
Pappy Van Winkle’s Bourbons are widely popular as the world’s finest, with their rarity and popularity earning them the nickname “Pappy Hunting.” Many consider the sweetness and finish of Pappy Van Winkle’s Bourbons to be unparalleled in the market. Although it comes with an average price tag of around $2,500 per bottle, the range of rich, mostly dark flavors and aromas is worth savoring.
It’s hard to go wrong with any Pappy Van Winkle, but if you can’t get your hands on the elusive 23 Year bottle, the 15 Year and 20 Year options are also exceptional choices.
4. Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
Elijah Craig is a legendary name in the world of bourbon, and their Small Batch bottle continues to impress connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. With its award-winning quality, this bourbon brand boasts one of the smoothest tastes on the market.
Savor the layered and soft notes of fruit, subtle smokiness, and a hint of spice in every sip. This bottle leans towards a sweeter flavor profile but still caters to a variety of palates. Whether for yourself or for guests at your next dinner party, Elijah Craig Small Batch is sure to impress and elevate your bourbon experience.
5. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
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Wild Turkey, a premium bourbon brand with over 100 years of experience in whiskey distillation, has a master distiller, Jimmy Russell, who holds the record for the world’s longest-tenured active distiller. Wild Turkey 101 prides itself on maintaining standards of excellence.
Aged for a minimum of five years in American White Oak barrels with a level 4 char, known as the Alligator Char, the bourbon has a deep color and a spicy flavor profile. Tasting notes include cherry pie, raisins, nuts, and an intense finish of tropical fruit and has a subtle aftertaste of spice and finishes smoothly.
6. Old Forester Classic 86 Proof Bourbon
With a legacy spanning over 150 years, the Old Forester brand has honed its expertise, and its classic 86 Bourbon is a testament to this. A go-to choice for bartenders, this Bourbon offers a rich and complex flavor profile that exceeds expectations for its price. Fresh and bright, Old Forester’s 86-proof expression is perfect for sipping neat, on the rocks, or mixed in a classic cocktail with a splash of water.
7. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford Reserve offers an extensive range of bourbons at different price points, but their Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon is definitely worth the splurge for an unparalleled taste experience. With a smooth and woody quality, this bourbon is infused with a delightful mellow spice flavor.
The double oaking process brings out the notes of vanilla and caramel, resulting in a smooth beginning and a slightly sweet finish. Woodford Reserve distills its bourbon in small batches in Woodford County, Kentucky, for the ultimate taste. It is a sophisticated brand that has won numerous international awards and accolades.
This innovative approach to whiskey aging produces a rich and robust flavor profile from start to finish. The bourbon is mostly sweet and aromatic, with hints of chocolate, marzipan, honey, and brown sugar. Expect a long, full-bodied finish with a lingering hint of apple.
8. 1792 Single Barrel Reserve
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The 1792 brand, formerly known as “Ridgewood Reserve 1792” and “1792 Ridgemont Reserve,” provides a great taste for a reasonable price. This small-batch Single Barrel Bourbon follows an old-school Kentucky recipe with a high rye content, using hand-selected barrels for the aging process.
Despite its relatively affordable price point, the 1792 Single Barrel Reserve is a superior Bourbon that has won numerous international awards. It features, rich butterscotch and caramel flavors, with subtle hints of fruit and toffee that make for a complex and satisfying drinking experience.
9. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea
Crossing the seas during the aging process is a unique way of imparting flavor to whiskey, and Jefferson’s Ocean Aged has certainly delivered on that promise. With each voyage crossing the equator four times, this Bourbon boasts a distinct taste that can only come from a journey across the seas.
The result is a thick, dark, and complex Bourbon that stands out from the rest. Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon is a testament to the belief that temperature fluctuations, salt air, and the gentle rocking of the ship all contribute to the creation of a truly exceptional Bourbon.
This rich amber Bourbon has a red apple aroma and a dried fruit flavor, complemented by a sea air saltiness and notes of milky coffee, strong dark chocolate, and a hint of bitterness. Sip it slowly and enjoy the unique journey that each bottle has taken before it reaches your glass.
10. Blanton’s Single Barrel
Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee’s Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, first released in 1984, revitalized the Bourbon industry with its higher-rye mash bill. This small-batch Bourbon has only improved with time, maintaining its position as a ‘super premium’ Bourbon with a taste to match.
Blanton’s claims to be the original single-barrel Bourbon whiskey and boasts a unique bottle shape to match its exceptional flavor profile. Experience a satisfying whiskey with powerful vanilla notes, hints of honey, and a nose of spices and nutmeg.
11. Maker’s Mark
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Maker’s Mark Bourbon is not as spicy as rye whiskeys, making it an excellent choice for a cocktail. And don’t let the “whisky” spelling fool you – while it uses a similar process to Scotch, the flavors are distinct. Maker’s Mark is a rising star in the Bourbon market, known for its smooth, subtle taste with fruity undertones, and it avoids any harsh bitterness.
12. Old Grand Dad 114 Proof
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Old Grand Dad is a Bourbon with a loyal following, known for its high rye content that packs a punch of spicy flavor. While many enjoy sipping it straight, it’s also a versatile option for those looking to explore whiskey-based cocktails.
This Bourbon has a complex nose and a velvety smoothness that gives way to a burst of bold flavors on the palate. Whether you prefer a classic Old Fashioned or want to experiment with a Bourbon Sour or Manhattan, Old Grand Dad 114 Proof will surely add a kick to your cocktail game.
13. Jim Beam Black Extra Aged
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For nearly two centuries, Jim Beam has been crafting top-notch Bourbon and mastering the art of whiskey-making. The Jim Beam Black Extra Aged is an exceptional choice for those looking for a perfect blend of whiskey and beer.
With a rich, full-bodied flavor and a smooth finish, Jim Beam Black Extra Aged is a classic. It boasts a heavy caramel flavor and a strong aroma of oak, cinnamon, and vanilla. This Bourbon pairs perfectly with beer, making it a favorite among whiskey and beer lovers. Whether you’re enjoying a cold one with friends or creating a unique cocktail, Jim Beam Black Extra Aged is a reliable choice.
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Bulleit Bourbon, with its high rye content, has a distinct sharpness that sets it apart from other bourbons. Its bold flavor profile boasts contrasting notes that make it a standout whiskey. With caramel being the dominant flavor, you’ll also experience a subtle yet expertly balanced mix of cinnamon and ginger.
This award-winning bourbon is seriously smooth and complex, making it a great choice for evening sipping. It’s peppery depth and creamy texture are hard to resist, and its flavor lingers on the palate even after the final sip.
15. Woodford Reserve Baccarat
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Woodford Reserve’s Baccarat is a bourbon that will forever be a topic of conversation in the bourbon community, blending sophistication and intricacy with a stunning light copper hue. What sets Baccarat apart from Woodford’s other offerings are the final touches: an extra aging period in XO Cognac barrels, the handcrafted crystal decanters, and its incredibly smooth, fruity, sweet, and citrusy taste.
A blend of crisp American and French oak notes come together in a bottle that you’ll save for only the most extraordinary occasions. Even if you wouldn’t typically buy it (one can dream), it’s unquestionably a top-shelf bourbon to experience at least once.
What’s the difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?
Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain mash, usually containing wheat, rye, barley, or corn, and then aged in wooden barrels. However, for it to be labeled as Bourbon, it must be produced in the United States and consist of at least 51% corn. The liquid cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof, and it must enter the barrel at 125 proof. Bourbon must not have any added flavorings, coloring, or other additives, and it must be aged in new, oak-charred barrels.
Although Bourbon can be accompanied by a complex vocabulary and technicalities, it is crucial to focus on its key aspects, such as determining which Bourbon is ideal for each occasion. Below, you will find a list of commonly used Bourbon terminology to help navigate the world of Bourbon with greater ease.
Terminology: The terms to know when talking about Bourbon
Bourbon is available in different types based on its production method. Familiarizing yourself with the terminology and distillery processes can assist you in selecting the ideal bottle to suit your preferences. Below are some essential terms to be aware of:
- Age: While not mandatory, many distilleries indicate the number of years their whiskey has aged in barrels. Generally, the longer the aging process, the better the flavor, although some exceptions exist.
- Barrel: Oak barrels or casks are used to distill whiskey, as they provide the most flavor to the liquid. These barrels are charred on the inside to impart a smoky flavor.
- Blend: Many distilleries use blended whiskey that combines multiple whiskeys with neutral grains, flavorings, and colorings. While some experts dismiss blended whiskey, others consider it an art.
- Bottled-In-Bond: The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 defines a category of spirits that must meet specific criteria. The whiskey must be distilled by a single distiller. Then, it must age four years in a state-owned warehouse and be bottled at 100 proof/50 ABV.
- Distillation: Distillation is the process of heating and cooling a liquid to purify it. In the case of whiskey production, distillation involves separating any alcohol created during fermentation from the rest of the mixture.
- Mash/Mash Bill: The mash bill refers to the ratio and blend of grains utilized in whiskey production. Each distillery has its own distinct mash bill, allowing them to create unique and individual offerings.
- Proof: A measure of alcoholic content, double the ABV measurement.
- Small-Batch: There are no legally-defined parameters for “small-batch,” but it refers to whiskey produced in limited numbers on a select basis.
- Sour Mash: The most common mixture of crushed malt and grain meal, “sour mash” involves adding used mash to a fresh batch for fermentation.
In conclusion, Bourbon is a truly unique spirit with a rich history and a complex flavor profile. Its production process is rigorous, ensuring consistent quality and taste every time. The aging process in oak barrels, along with other techniques, contributes to the distinct flavors and aromas that set Bourbon apart from other spirits.
While there are many options available on the market, our curated list of the best Bourbons will help you make an informed choice and find the perfect bottle to enjoy on any occasion. Whether you’re a seasoned Bourbon connoisseur or just starting to explore this fascinating spirit, there’s a Bourbon out there for everyone to enjoy.